(Recasts, adds Justice Dept. on Snowden extradition)
* Senator Schumer questions Beijing’s role in Snowden departure
* Justice Department says extradition request was in order
* Uncertain where Snowden headed next, what secrets he holds
By Paul Eckert and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Sunday said former national security contractor Edward Snowden’s reported flight to Russia with a plan to flee onward to Cuba or Venezuela undermined his whistle blower claims and they slammed Moscow for helping a fugitive.
An aircraft thought to be carrying Snowden landed in Moscow on Sunday after Hong Kong let the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor leave the territory, despite Washington’s efforts to extradite him to face espionage charges.
According to a source at Russia’s Aeroflot airline, Snowden was traveling to Moscow and was planning to go to Venezuela via Cuba.
Democratic U.S. Senator Charles Schumer charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely knew and approved of Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Russia. He said that will “have serious consequences” for a U.S.-Russian relationship already strained over Syria and human rights.
“Putin always seems almost eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States - whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden,” Schumer told CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding that China may have had a role as well.
“It remains to be seen how much influence Beijing had on Hong Kong,” Schumer said. “As you know, they coordinate their foreign policies and I have a feeling that the hand of Beijing was involved here.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said Snowden’s reported choice to fly later to Cuba and Venezuela undermines his claim to be a fighter for freedom of information.
“Everyone of those nations is hostile to the United States. I mean, if he could go to North Korea and Iran, he could round out his government oppression tour,” the Michigan Republican said on Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
Rogers urged the Obama administration to exhaust all legal options to get Snowden back to the United States. “If he really believes he did something good, he should get on a plane, come back and face the consequences of his actions,” he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Snowden needed to be caught and brought back for trial as secrets he was carrying could do a lot of damage to U.S. interests.
“I think we need to know exactly what he has,” she told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “He could have a lot, lot more that may really put people in jeopardy.”
Schumer aimed most of his fire at Putin, saying “it is almost certain he know, and likely approved” the flight by Snowden, who had been hiding in Hong Kong since leaking details about U.S. surveillance activities to news media.
“What is infuriating here is,” Schumer said, was Putin “aiding and abetting Snowden’s escape.” The New York lawmaker is the No. 3 Senate Democrat.
The United States has been told by Hong Kong that Snowden has left Hong Kong for “a third country” and Washington will seek cooperation with countries Snowden may try to go to, a Justice Department official said on Sunday.
“We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel,” Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in a statement.
The United States contacted Hong Kong on Saturday seeking Snowden’s extradition, Chitre said.
But a second Justice Department official told Reuters “They came back to us late Friday with additional questions and we were in the process of responding.”
The U.S. request to Hong Kong authorities “met the requirements of the agreement,” the official said.
While many blasted Snowden, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and one of the chamber’s most conservative members, said, “it’s going to be an open question how this young man is judged.”
“If he goes to an independent third country like Iceland and if he refuses to talk to any sort of formal government about this, I think there’s a chance that he’ll be seen as an advocate of privacy.”
“If he cozies up to either the Russian government, the Chinese government, or any of these governments that are perceived still as enemies of ours, I think that that will be a real problem for him in history.” Paul said in a separate appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” (Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jackie Frank)