WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House pressed Russia on Monday to exercise all options to expel Edward Snowden and slammed China for allowing the former U.S. spy agency contractor who disclosed government surveillance secrets to leave Hong Kong.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters it was the U.S. assumption that Snowden was still in Russia and he dismissed suggestions that the decision to allow Snowden to depart Hong Kong was a technical one.
“We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” Carney said.
“This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,” he said.
Snowden, who had worked at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, had been hiding in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to news media.
He was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday for Moscow. Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks which is assisting Snowden, said the 30-year-old en route to Ecuador, where he hoped to gain asylum.
Carney said that U.S. officials had been in contact with Hong Kong authorities since June 10, urging them to honor Washington’s request that he be arrested. Hong Kong acknowledged receipt of the U.S. request on June 17 and requested additional information about the U.S. charges and evidence on June 21, Carney said.
“The U.S. had been in communication about these inquiries and we were in the process of responding to the request when we learned that Hong Kong authorities have allowed the fugitive to leave,” he said.
President Barack Obama referred detailed questions on the issue to the Justice Department.
“What we know is that we’re following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure the rule of law is observed,” Obama told reporters at an unrelated event on immigration reform.
Carney noted that individuals with felony arrest warrants were subject to having their passports revoked.
He said he could not comment specifically on Snowden’s passport for privacy reasons but said Hong Kong officials were advised of Snowden’s travel document status in plenty of time to have prohibited his departure.
Carney, who in recent weeks has studiously avoided mentioning Snowden by name, let loose from the White House podium on Monday, criticizing the former contractor for the countries he had potentially chosen for refuge.
“Mr. Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen - China, Russia, Ecuador, as we’ve seen,” Carney said.
“His failures to criticize these regimes suggests that his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States, not to advance Internet freedom and free speech.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman