Nearly six weeks after he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia Thursday. Snowden’s lawyer confirmed to NBC News that Snowden has left the airport and has been granted refugee status in the country for up to a year. He would not disclose a location for Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities for espionage.
In June, information Snowden gave to reporters showed that the NSA was obtaining millions of Americans’ phone records. Another program exposed the government's ability to gather information about the online activities of foreigners abroad. The U.S. government has revoked Snowden’s passport after the leaks and is trying to extradite the 30-year-old, former CIA employee back to the United States.
So does this mean Snowden’s has officially evaded the U.S. justice system? Not necessarily.
Robert Anello, a New York lawyer who deals with extradition cases, said in the short term, Snowden has bought himself some time, but history has proven that political and asylum situations often change. He pointed to Robert Lee Vesco, the fugitive United States financier who was charged with securities fraud in the 1970s. He eventually flew to Costa Rica with the help of President Jose Figueres, who passed a law so Vesco couldn’t be extradited. However, Figueres’ term came to an end in 1974, and Vesco found himself on the run again. He eventually landed in a Cuban jail.
“At some point the countries may decide better relations with the U.S. is more important than whatever benefits they think they get from having Mr. Snowden in their country,” said Anello, noting Russia did not grant him permanent political asylum.
“Russia doesn’t want to look like it’s caving to the U.S. On the other hand, Snowden is not worth the long term detriment he brings to U.S.-Russia relations,” said Anello.
U.S. officials have been pressuring Russia to extradite Snowden back into the U.S., with Obama calling Russian President Putin directly. Few details have come out of that conversation, but Snowden was among the topics the two leaders discussed. Russia and the U.S. do not have a relevant extradition treaty.
Snowden may also run into a hurdle if he attempts to fly to Latin America, as U.S. allies may deny him key airspace he needs to get there. The North Carolina native has been offered permanent asylum by Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
Douglas McNabb, an international criminal defense lawyer who specializes in extradition cases, argued, however, that Snowden has found himself in a favorable situation. He noted that temporary asylum in Russia can be renewed. “Theoretically, he could stay in Russia as long as he wanted...I think absent of Mr. Snowden attempting to travel to Latin American, as long as he stays in Russia, he’s apparently safe.”
One of Snowden’s legal reps, Anatoly Kucherena, told Rossiya 24 television, that Snowden has no plans to leave Russia and that he’s been learning the language.
Meanwhile, Russia’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum has infuriated U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. It comes as Obama has plans to travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow in early September for the G-20 meeting and to meet one-on-one with Putin. At a press briefing on Thursday, President Obama spokesman Jay Carney said the White House is “extremely disappointed” that Russia granted Snowden asylum, adding the president is “weighing the utility” of the upcoming summit with Putin.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—who had previously called on the U.S. to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia granted asylum to Snowden –issued a statement on Thursday saying “Americans in Washington should consider this a game changer in our relationship with Russia.”
He added, “"Today's action by the Russian government could not be more provocative and is a sign of Vladimir Putin's clear lack of respect for President Obama. It is now time for Congress, hopefully in conjunction with the Administration, to make it clear to the Russian government that this provocative step in granting Snowden asylum will be met with a firm response."
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on Russia to return Snowden back to the U.S., arguing the information he’s leaking could help terrorists who want to do harm to the U.S.
“Edward Snowden is a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia. Regardless of the fact that Russia is granting asylum for one year, this action is a setback to U.S.-Russia relations,” said Menendez.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Russia’s actions a “disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States,” adding the country needs to face “serious repercussions.”
“Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is not the Russia we might wish for,” McCain said.
But the bulk of Americans however, think positively of Snowden, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday. The survey—taken before Snowden accepted asylum in Russia—showed says the majority of American voters, by a 55%-34% margin, consider Snowden a whistle-blower rather than a traitor.