MOSCOW — President Barack Obama sought on Thursday to minimize the significance of a fugitive former national security contractor wanted for leaking government secrets, calling him a “29-year-old hacker” and suggesting that US frustration with China and Russia for apparently helping him evade extradition was not worth damaging relations with those countries.
Obama’s remarks — his most extensive comments on the fugitive, Edward J. Snowden — came as new confusion swirled over Snowden’s ultimate destination, with Ecuador’s government issuing conflicting information on whether it had given him an authorized document of safe passage to travel to that country, where he is seeking asylum.
Snowden, who turned 30 last week, has been ensconced out of sight at a Moscow airport international transit lounge since Sunday, when he arrived from Hong Kong despite a US effort to extradite him on criminal charges. There had been speculation that he would board a Havana-bound flight on Thursday but he did not, raising the possibility that his legal limbo could stretch into weeks in his odyssey to reach a third country.
Obama, speaking to reporters in Dakar, Senegal, at the start of a trip to Africa, said he had not called the presidents of China or Russia on the Snowden case, because he did not want to elevate its importance. He said other nations should simply be willing to return Snowden to the United States as a matter of law enforcement.
“This is something that routinely is dealt with,” Obama said. “This is not exceptional from a legal perspective. I’m not going to have one case suddenly being elevated to the point where I have to do wheeling and dealing and trading.”
He rejected the suggestion that he might order the military to intercept any plane that might be carrying Snowden.
“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Obama said.
Snowden’s disclosures of US surveillance abroad have embarrassed the administration and raised debate about the government’s invasion of privacy. Snowden and his supporters, including the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks have called him a whistle-blower and a hero. Federal prosecutors have charged him with violating espionage laws, and some US legislators have said he is a traitor.
Ecuador, which is protecting the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, at its London embassy, has confirmed that Snowden has requested asylum and has suggested that he is a victim of human rights abuses by the United States. But Ecuador also has said the application process could take months.
Adding to the legal questions of Snowden’s asylum request, government officials in Quito said Thursday that Ecuador had not authorized any travel documents that could be given to Snowden, whose passport has been revoked by the United States. Their assertions appeared to contradict Assange’s statements this week that Assange had been given a passage of safe travel.
“The government of Ecuador has not authorized the issuance of any safe-conduct or refugee document that would permit Mr. Snowden to travel to our country,” Betty Tola, the secretary of political affairs, said.
Officials in Ecuador also announced they were unilaterally renouncing US preferential trade privileges given to the country. Those privileges, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were to expire at the end of July, and some doubted Congress would renewed them due to the countries’ strained relationship. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman warned Ecuador on Wednesday its “trade preferences could be revoked” if it granted Snowden’s asylum request.