DAKAR (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday he would not start “wheeling and dealing” with China and Russia over a U.S. request to extradite former American spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama, who appeared concerned that the case would overshadow his three-country tour of Africa begun in Senegal, also dismissed suggestions that the United States might try to intercept Snowden if he were allowed to leave Moscow by air.
“No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he told a news conference in Dakar, a note of disdain in his voice. Snowden turned 30 last week.
Obama said regular legal channels should suffice to handle the U.S. request that Snowden, who left Hong Kong for Moscow, be returned to the United States.
He said he had not yet spoken to China’s President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue.
“I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is ... number one, I shouldn’t have to,” Obama said sharply.
“Number two, we’ve got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues.”
Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong in May, a few weeks before publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of details he provided about secret U.S. government surveillance of Internet and phone traffic.
The American, who faces espionage charges in the United States and has requested political asylum in Ecuador, has not been seen since his arrival in Moscow on Sunday. Russian officials said he was in a transit area at Sheremetyevo airport.
A Russian immigration source close to the matter said Snowden had not sought a Russian visa and there was no order from the Russian Foreign Ministry or Putin to grant him one.
Snowden’s case has raised tensions between the United States and both China and Russia. On Thursday, Beijing accused Washington of hypocrisy over cyber security.
Obama’s remarks in Senegal seemed calibrated to exert pressure without leading to lasting damage in ties with either country.
“The more the administration can play it down, the more latitude they’ll have in the diplomatic arena to work out a deal for him (Snowden),” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Obama indicated that damage to U.S. interests was largely limited to revelations from Snowden’s initial leak.
“I continue to be concerned about the other documents that he may have,” Obama said. “That’s part of the reason why we’d like to have Mr. Snowden in custody.”
Still, Snowden’s disclosures of widespread eavesdropping by the U.S. National Security Agency in China and Hong Kong have given Beijing considerable ammunition in an area that has been a major irritant between the countries.
China’s defense ministry called the U.S. government surveillance program, known as Prism, “hypocritical behavior.”
“This ‘double standard’ approach is not conducive to peace and security in cyber space,” the state news agency Xinhua reported, quoting ministry spokesman Yang Yujun.
In Washington, the top U.S. military officer dismissed comparisons of Chinese and American snooping in cyber space.
“All nations on the face of the planet always conduct intelligence operations in all domains,” Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience at the Brookings Institution.
“China’s particular niche in cyber has been theft and intellectual property.” Dempsey said. “Their view is that there are no rules of the road in cyber, there’s nothing, there’s no laws they are breaking, there’s no standards of behavior.”
In Ecuador, the leftist government of President Rafael Correa said it was waiving preferential rights under a U.S. trade agreement to demonstrate what it saw as its principled stand on Snowden’s asylum request.
Correa told reporters Snowden’s situation was “complicated” because he has not been able to reach Ecuadorean territory to begin processing the asylum request.
“In order to do so, he must have permission of another country, which has not yet happened,” Correa said.
In a deliberately provocative touch, Correa’s government also offered a multimillion dollar donation for human rights training in the United States.
The U.S. State Department warned of “grave difficulties” for U.S.-Ecuador relations if the Andean country were to grant Snowden asylum, but gave no specifics.
Obama said the United States expected all countries that were considering asylum requests for the former contractor to follow international law.
The White House said last week that Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave would hurt U.S.-China relations. Its rhetoric on Russia has been somewhat less harsh.
Putin has rejected U.S. calls to expel Snowden to the United States and said the American should choose his destination and leave the Moscow airport as soon as possible.
Obama acknowledged that the United States did not have an extradition treaty with Russia, but said such a treaty was not necessary to resolve all of the issues involved.
He characterized conversations between Washington and Moscow as “useful.”
Washington is focused on how Snowden, a former systems administrator for the contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, gained access to National Security Agency secrets while working at a facility in Hawaii.
NSA Director Keith Alexander on Thursday offered a more detailed breakdown of 54 schemes by militants that he said were disrupted by phone and internet surveillance, even as the Guardian newspaper reported evidence of more extensive spying.
In a speech in Baltimore, Alexander said a list of cases turned over recently to the U.S. Congress included 42 that involved disrupted plots and 12 in which surveillance targets provided material support to terrorism.
The Guardian reported that the NSA for years collected masses of raw data on the email and Internet traffic of U.S. citizens and residents, citing a top-secret draft report on the program prepared by NSA’s inspector general.
Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Lidia Kelly and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, Deborah Charles in Baltimore and Steve Holland, Laura MacInnis and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Jeff Mason and Christopher Wilson; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Tim Dobbyn