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NSA Leaker Case Causes Rift Between U.S. And Russia


Edward Snowden may have intended to stir things up about secret American surveillance programs. It turns out, he's also shaking up diplomatic relations between the U.S. and three countries where those relations are already edgy. The former intelligence contractor who leaked classified documents is believed to be still at a Moscow airport.

He arrived there from Hong Kong on Sunday. NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us to talk about the countries drawn into Snowden's travels. Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. wants Russia to send Edward Snowden back. And yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said no. But he didn't sound entirely happy to have this guest, did he?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, on the one hand, it's really PR heaven for Putin. The U.S. often accuses Russia, as it does China, of cybercrimes. So here's a guy who's been leaking documents about massive U.S. government surveillance programs. So this really offers Russia a chance to point out what it sees as American double standards.

Now, Putin says that Snowden has been in the transit area of the airport all this time and never formally crossed into Russian territory. He calls Snowden a free man and says the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it will be for him and for Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry, who's been spending a lot of time trying to improve relations with Moscow, has been toning down U.S. rhetoric.

He says he's not looking for a confrontation, just making a simple legal request. But Putin, using some particularly colorful language to show that he doesn't think it's worth expelling Snowden, said, quote, "It's like shearing a pig. There's a lot of squealing, but very little fur."

MONTAGNE: Well, the U.S. has revoked Edward Snowden's passport. Ecuador now has provided Snowden with travel documents. What is Ecuador - which is presumed to be his final destination - what is that country getting out of this?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been living in Ecuador's embassy in London for over a year, and he's the one who says he's been really helping Snowden try to find asylum there, or possibly elsewhere. Ecuador's president Rafael Correa is someone who's been trying to pick up the mantle from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in standing up to the U.S., and that plays well for him at home.

But the problem for Correa is that U.S. trade preferences are coming up for renewal this summer and, you know, if Ecuador offers asylum to Edward Snowden, you can bet members of Congress will retaliate by letting those trade preferences lapse.

MONTAGNE: And then back to Hong Kong, which allowed him to leave. What has that done to relations between the U.S. and China?

KELEMEN: Well, the U.S. was really angry about this. It said that they didn't buy the story that Hong Kong authorities didn't have enough information to prevent Snowden from leaving. The U.S. saw it as a deliberate decision in Beijing to let a fugitive flee. The U.S. said there are going to be consequences but, you know, I have to say, officials are having a hard time spelling those out.

And China has been hitting back, saying that this whole case has shown America's double standards on hacking. China's People's Daily is praising Snowden for, quote, "tearing off Washington's sanctimonious mask."

There does seem to be a lot of concern in the U.S. that the Chinese and the Russians may now have had access to more U.S. intelligence, since Snowden has been traveling with laptops full of U.S. government secrets. So that is going to be an ongoing problem for all these countries and for the U.S.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.