WASHINGTON — Frustrated Obama administration officials pressed Russia on Monday to turn over Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor who disclosed surveillance programs, while warning China of “consequences” for letting him flee to Moscow.
As Snowden remained out of sight, apparently holed up in Moscow awaiting word of his fate, what started as a dramatic escape story involving a self-described whistle-blower evolved into a diplomatic incident in which the United States faces an open rift with one major power and a tense standoff with another. Hopes for a quick resolution had faded by nightfall.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said China’s decision to allow Snowden to leave Hong Kong despite an arrest request from the United States would have “without any question some effect, an impact on the relationship, and consequences.” He called on Russia to expel Snowden.
“I would urge them to live by the standards of the law, because that’s in the interest of everybody,” Kerry said.
He pointed out that the United States in the past two years had transferred seven prisoners Russia had sought, although the parallel is not exact, since Snowden is not being held by the Russian government.
At the White House, President Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, reinforced what he called “our frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China,” calling their refusal to detain Snowden a “serious setback” in relations. He said Hong Kong authorities had been notified that Snowden’s passport had been revoked, and he dismissed their explanation that they had no legal basis to stop Snowden.
“We do not buy the suggestion that China could not have taken action,” Carney said.
US officials also openly mocked China and Russia as states that repress free speech and transparency and therefore are hardly apt refuges for someone fighting government secrecy in the United States.
“I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they’re such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry said sarcastically during a stop in New Delhi.
Carney said Snowden’s chosen destinations indicated “his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States.”
The strong words went beyond typical diplomatic language and underscored the growing ramifications of the case for the United States. The Obama administration’s inability, at least for now, to influence China, Russia and countries in Latin America that may accept Snowden for asylum, like Ecuador, brought home the limits of US power around the world.
A range of US officials, including the deputy secretary of state and the FBI director, spent the day reaching out to their Russian counterparts seeking cooperation without any apparent result. Snowden, who spent Sunday night in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, did not board the flight for Havana he was said to have booked, and he made no public appearance or statement.
US officials said they believed he was still in Moscow, but it was unclear whether his failure to continue on to Cuba, Ecuador, or elsewhere was a sign that Russia was considering handing him over to the United States, sheltering him itself, planning to allow him to leave later, or trying to extract information from him before making a decision. The United States and Russia do not have an extradition treaty.
Nikolay N. Zakharov, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service declined to say whether intelligence officials had met with Snowden, nor would he say whether they had sought to examine any secret files he was said to be carrying.
“On this question, we will not comment,” Zakharov said.
US intelligence officials remained concerned that Snowden could make public more documents disclosing details of the National Security Agency’s collection system or that his documents could be obtained by foreign intelligence services, with or without his cooperation.
Technical experts have been carrying out a forensic analysis of the trail he left in NSA computer systems, trying to determine what he had access to as a systems administrator and what he may have downloaded, officials said.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, has said that Snowden gave him thousands of documents, only a tiny fraction of which have been published. Many may be of limited public interest, but they could be of great value to a foreign intelligence service, which could get a more complete idea of the security agency’s technical abilities and how to evade its net, officials said.
Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday put the United States at odds with onetime cold war rivals just as Obama was trying to ease tensions over a variety of other friction points.
In the past few weeks, he hosted President Xi Jinping of China on a visit to California and met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Northern Ireland.