WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The father of Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor, predicted on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin will stand up to pressure from Washington as the two nations spar over Moscow’s decision to grant his son asylum.
Lon Snowden’s comments came on the day that President Barack Obama canceled a summit meeting with Putin planned for next month in retaliation for Russia giving refuge to Edward Snowden.
Snowden’s father told Reuters in an extensive, and at times emotional, interview he was confident Putin would not change his mind and send his son back to the United States to face espionage charges.
“President Vladimir Putin has stood firm. I respect strength and I respect courage,” Snowden said. “He has stood firm against the face of intense pressure from our government and I have to believe that he will continue to stand firm.”
“These games of ‘Well, I’m not going to go to this meeting,’ or ‘I’m not going to go to that meeting,’ ... I do not believe that President Vladimir Putin will cave to that,” he said.
Snowden sharply criticized the Obama administration’s handling of his son’s case, which he said led to Edward having no choice but to seek asylum abroad. He hoped the diplomatic spat would not distract the American public from the larger debate about the government’s secret surveillance tactics.
“This isn’t about Russia. The fight isn’t in Russia,” he said. “The fight is right here. The fight is about these programs that undermine, infringe upon, violate our constitutional rights.”
The younger Snowden was stuck at a Moscow airport for more than five weeks before Russia granted him a year’s asylum on August 1. His father hopes to visit Russia this month.
He has not spoken to his son since the former National Security Agency contractor left the United States for Hong Kong before news broke in June of the disclosures he made about U.S. surveillance programs.
“That’s really by design. I would prefer not to speak to him until I’m able to travel and see him face to face. And I look forward to that opportunity,” Lon Snowden said.
When he visits Russia, he will not take items with him or do anything that would be considered illegally aiding and abetting his son and said he did not know how Edward was surviving financially.
“I hope to better assess that situation. I certainly have to be careful because I understand that he’s a fugitive and I’m not going to do anything that could be construed as aid and abet.”
The older Snowden, who was in the Coast Guard for about 30 years before he retired in January 2009, said he does not take the unauthorized release of classified information lightly, but he has learned more about the issues that motivated his son.
“I am absolutely convinced that my son faced a moral hazard,” Snowden said.
“I believe that my son revealed real abuses by the government and I believe that we have many politicians, up to the highest levels, many politicians who are threatened and embarrassed by that,” he said.
Documents disclosed by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of Internet data from large companies such as Facebook and Google, under a government program known as Prism. They also showed that the government had worked through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to gather so-called metadata - such as the time, duration and telephone numbers on calls carried by service providers such as Verizon.
The father describes his son as a “humble” man who would be uncomfortable in the media spotlight. So, Lon Snowden has become an active defender of his son, who has been charged with crimes under the U.S. Espionage Act and whose actions some critics liken to treason.
Lon Snowden, who was just a couple of courses shy of earning a Master of Business Administration degree when his world was turned upside down, said he is now on a “mission” and hopes to start a non-profit organization partly to educate the public about their rights.
“I’m going to fight and I’m going to push forward on this issue and there’s not a politician up to the president of the United States who is going to intimidate me,” Lon Snowden said.
Asked whether he believed his son would ever return to the United States, Snowden replied: “Yes, I do. I absolutely do. I can’t tell you when but I believe that my son wants to come back ... What he’s doing at this point is what he’s having to do to survive.”
One of the issues that Snowden will discuss with his son when they meet in Russia is potentially obtaining an American attorney to represent him against the charges in the United States.
“Right now my primary concern is assessing my son’s condition, making sure he has access to an attorney, and this (the United States) is where I want to be. Not in Moscow,” Snowden said.
“My son and I are not going to have an extended hug and then we’re going to live together in Russia. That’s not going to happen.”
Editing by Alistair Bell and Jackie Frank