Ecuador Hints at Slow Process on Snowden Asylum

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MOSCOW -- Ecuador signaled on Wednesday that it may deliberate slowly on the asylum application from Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former security contractor wanted in the United States, raising the possibility that he could spend weeks in legal limbo as he plots his next steps inside a Moscow airport transit area.

The signals from Ecuador, conveyed in statements by its foreign minister and embassy in Washington, came as the Obama administration sought to further lower the cold war atmospherics over Mr. Snowden with Russia, which said on Tuesday that it would not extradite him in defiance of American demands.

Mr. Snowden, 30, whose revelations of American surveillance activities abroad have angered the Obama administration and raised a debate about the government's invasion of privacy, remained out of sight on Wednesday. It was his fourth day in a restricted international transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, as speculation intensified over when he would leave and where he would go.

Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, suggested to reporters at a news conference in Malaysia that his government could take months to decide whether to grant Mr. Snowden's asylum request, and that his country's relations with the United States would be one of the factors considered.

Mr. Patiño compared Mr. Snowden's case to that of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

"It took us two months to make a decision in the case of Assange, so do not expect us to make a decision sooner this time," Mr. Patiño said, according to an Associated Press account of his remarks.

Mr. Patiño later accused the media in a series of Twitter messages of rendering his comments inaccurately, saying: "In Kuala Lumpur, I said that the decision about asylum could be settled in a day, a week, or, as with Assange, it could take 2 months. Some media outlet took off the first part of the statement and left only the second. They are seeking to confuse, we've seen it before."

It was unclear whether Ecuador's deliberations could affect Mr. Snowden's odyssey to stay ahead of his American pursuers, who had revoked his passport and sought to have him arrested in Hong Kong on charges of violating espionage laws before he fled there on Sunday on a flight to Moscow. WikiLeaks, which is assisting Mr. Snowden, has said that Ecuador has issued him special travel papers and that it is his ultimate destination.

Ecuador also said on Wednesday that the United States must "submit its position" regarding Mr. Snowden to the Ecuadorean government in writing. In a statement on the Web site of its embassy in Washington, Ecuador said its decision would take "human rights obligations into consideration as well."

On Tuesday, in his first public comments on the case, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that Mr. Snowden had committed no crime on Russian soil and was "a free man" who could choose his own destination. "We can only extradite some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition," he added. "With the United States, we have no such agreement."

But while American officials remained angry at China for letting Mr. Snowden fly to Moscow, they and their Russian counterparts toned down the red-hot language that had threatened a deeper rupture in relations. Mr. Putin said he saw little to gain in the conflict. "It's like shearing a piglet," he said. "There's a lot of squealing and very little wool." Some American officials interpreted the comment as a positive signal and speculated that Mr. Snowden would be sent to another country that could turn him over.

Discussions between American and Russian officials continued on Wednesday and the White House further softened the rhetoric in hopes of an outcome that does not further damage ties between the two countries.

"We agree with President Putin that we don't want the situation to harm our relations," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One as President Obama left for a weeklong trip to Africa.

He expressed empathy with Russia's predicament as it decides how to handle the situation, given that it has no extradition treaty with the United States. "We certainly understand the fact that Mr. Snowden chose to travel to Moscow, chose to travel to Russia, creates issues that the Russian government has to consider," Mr. Carney said.

He added that the United States still wanted Moscow to expel Mr. Snowden and that "we believe there is a clear, legal basis to do so, based on his travel documents and the indictment against him."

Yet the Russian president's remarks also underscored what may be the lasting damage the case has caused for American relations with Moscow and Beijing. In noting that Mr. Snowden viewed himself as a "human rights activist" who "struggles for freedom of information," Mr. Putin made clear that it would be harder for Mr. Obama to claim the moral high ground when he presses foreign leaders to stop repressing dissenters and halt cyberattacks.

In the days since Mr. Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow, the Russians and the Chinese have seized both on his revelations about surveillance and the fact that the United States is seeking his arrest to make the case for a you-do-it-too argument. Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, wrote that the case exposed an American "policy of double standards." Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, editorialized that "the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyberattacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age."

American officials said such arguments were false equivalences, saying that there was no comparison between Congressionally sanctioned and court-monitored surveillance programs, or the prosecution of Mr. Snowden, and the actions taken by the governments in Moscow and Beijing. But it is an argument that Washington may find difficult to sell in some parts of the world, even among some American allies, and it is fueling criticism inside the United States.

"The Russians for the better part of a decade have always tried to argue that the U.S. has double standards," said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton and now vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In the Russian domestic context and international context they never get tired of looking for those kinds of axes."

The arguments could complicate American initiatives with both countries. Chinese officials are now ramping up the critique ahead of the United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which starts in Washington in early July with the arrival of an array of Chinese leaders. On the top of the agenda, at Mr. Obama's insistence, is talk about how to work out rules of the road for behavior involving computers and online.

Until lately, the United States seemed to have Beijing on the defensive, with evidence that Chinese military units were behind recent computer attacks. Then Mr. Snowden told a Hong Kong newspaper that the United States had been engaged in a vigorous hacking campaign in China.

Mr. Obama has insisted that there is a difference between common espionage and China's behavior. "Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering," he told Charlie Rose in an interview on PBS. But intelligence gathering is different from "a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple's software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product," he said.

"That's theft," the president added, "and we can't tolerate that."

China does not acknowledge the theft, or buy Mr. Obama's argument. "The timing couldn't be worse for Obama," one senior Asian diplomat said. "I know he draws distinctions between stealing intellectual property and spying, but for most people that difference is not significant."

The timing is also bad with Russia, which Mr. Obama is depending on to help resolve the war in Syria. When Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Monday as a repressive country, he personally offended Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. On Tuesday, Mr. Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying, "There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us."

Within hours, though, the two sides appeared to pull back. Mr. Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that the United States was "not looking for a confrontation." And American and Russian officials meeting in Geneva on Tuesday scheduled a session next week between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov to discuss Syria.

Mr. Putin, who is scheduled to host Mr. Obama in St. Petersburg and Moscow in September, said he hoped the Snowden case would "not affect in any way the businesslike character of our relations with the United States."

But the case may be drawing Russia and China closer together, and Beijing's action may influence Moscow's decision. The two governments have consulted on the case, with the Chinese explaining why it allowed Mr. Snowden to leave Hong Kong even though the United States had revoked his passport and requested his arrest, said Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a policy research group in Washington.

"These conversations clearly make it more difficult for Russia to appear weak by making a concession while Beijing stood its ground," Mr. Simes said.

Aleksei K. Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in a Twitter post early Wednesday, "The U.S. threats toward Russia and China over the Snowden affair will not give results, but only bring Moscow and Beijing together even more strongly. Unreasoned pressure."

The Obama administration was relying on Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, a low-key, respected former ambassador to Russia, to negotiate with Moscow. The administration argued Tuesday that even though the United States and Russia did not have an extradition treaty, Washington had regularly sent back Russians sought by Moscow. Over the last five years, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday, the United States has returned 1,700 Russian citizens, with more than 500 of them being "criminal deportations."

But in Moscow, Mr. Snowden was being compared to cold war dissidents. "I have never heard of any case when the United States would extradite someone's fugitive spy," said Vlacheslav Nikonov, a member of Parliament. "It just never happened. Why would they expect that would happen?"

David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry and Andrew Roth from Moscow; Peter Baker, David E. Sanger, Steven Lee Myers and Charlie Savage from Washington; Michael R. Gordon from Jidda, Saudi Arabia; and William Neuman from Quito, Ecuador.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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