By Isabel Gorst and Joby Warrick The Washington Post
MOSCOW -- Russia's decision Thursday to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden opened a fresh wound in Moscow's battered relations with the United States, even as it ended the bizarre two-month odyssey that began when the former National Security Agency contractor publicly leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance operations.
Mr. Snowden slipped away in a taxi from the Moscow airport that had been his home since June 23, bearing a Russian refugee certificate granting him permission to stay in the country for one year. It was a forceful rebuff to U.S. officials' private and public appeals to have Mr. Snowden returned to the United States, where he faces espionage charges.
Obama administration officials denounced the decision to protect Mr. Snowden and hinted at repercussions, perhaps including cancellation of a planned summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reaction from Congress was harsher, with key lawmakers from both sides calling for a fundamental rethinking of relations with Moscow.
"Russia has stabbed us in the back," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife."
For Mr. Snowden, 30, the asylum decision was a reprieve from extradition and the prospect of a U.S. trial. But his refugee status opens the potential for direct meetings with U.S. officials to discuss treatment he could face if he returned home voluntarily.
The former technical contractor and admitted leaker of NSA documents has signaled that he intends to stay. One of his attorneys said Mr. Snowden has discussed taking language classes and perhaps finding work in Russia, a country that has a history of harshly repressing its government critics as well as a record of mistreating other U.S. citizens who have sought asylum there.
Indeed, one of the few bright spots for U.S. officials was that Mr. Snowden's behavior -- including his ability to release more secrets -- is certain to be tightly controlled by his new hosts, in contrast with the freedoms he may have had in one of the Latin American countries that offered him asylum, former U.S. officials and Russia experts said.
The day's developments began with an announcement by Anatoly Kucherena, an attorney for Mr. Snowden, that Russian authorities had granted a request for temporary refugee status. The approval allows the former Maryland resident to live and work in Russia while his application for permanent political asylum is considered. Until Thursday, Mr. Snowden had been in limbo in the transit area of Moscow's sprawling Sheremetyevo International Airport, with his exact whereabouts known only to his attorneys and a handful of Russian officials.
Mr. Kucherena told the state broadcaster Russia 24 that Mr. Snowden got in an airport taxi "for a secure location" about 3:30 p.m. local time, eluding reporters who have camped at the airport since he arrived June 23 on a flight from Hong Kong.
Mr. Snowden issued a brief statement through the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which has provided him with legal and logistical support since he identified himself as the person behind a series of news leaks about the NSA's widespread and highly secretive surveillance efforts. "Over the past eight weeks, we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning," Mr. Snowden was quoted as saying. "I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations."
In Washington, the White House reaction was severe. In a news briefing dominated by questions about Mr. Snowden, press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is "extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step" despite "ample legal justification" for returning Mr. Snowden to the United States. "This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation" that had "recently been on the upswing" since the Boston Marathon bombings in April, he said.
Mr. Carney insisted that Mr. Snowden "is not a dissident," or a whistleblower, but a suspect in a criminal case with serious national security implications.
He noted that Mr. Snowden "has been .... in possession of classified information in China and in Russia," which is "both a huge risk and a violation" of U.S. law.
Asked whether Mr. Obama would attend the September summit in Moscow, Mr. Carney said, "Obviously, this is not a positive development, ... and we are evaluating the utility of the summit."