Fugitive national security contractor Edward Snowden has filed the paperwork to extend his refuge in Russia as the July 31 expiration of his asylum grant approaches, his lawyer told Russian media on Wednesday.
Snowden has indicated in interviews during his yearlong stay in Russia that he would like to move on elsewhere or even come home to the United States if he could be assured of getting a fair trial on the espionage charges the U.S. Justice Department has filed against him.
But with little indication from Washington that any deal to repatriate him is in the offing, the 31-year-old fired by the National Security Agency last year after leaking reams of classified information has apparently hedged his bets and gotten a jump on the bureaucratic process of extending his Russian visa.
“We have filed documents to extend his stay on the territory of Russia,” attorney Anatoly Kucherena told the Interfax news agency.
Snowden was granted temporary asylum on Aug. 1 last year after being marooned for more than a month in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. He had arrived without a visa for Russia en route to a self-imposed exile in Cuba but was unable to travel on because his U.S. passport had been revoked.
Felony charges were filed against the NSA contractor after he revealed classified program files that showed massive surveillance of private citizens’ emails, phone calls and texts in pursuit of terrorists’ communications.
Snowden has said he violated his security clearance conditions to draw attention to the domestic snooping he believes is in violation of U.S. law. The practices he exposed through collaboration with a journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian included clandestine surveillance of millions of foreign citizens’ communications as well as Americans’. He took the stolen data files first to Hong Kong and then to Russia in his thwarted bid to escape to Latin America, raising concerns that Beijing and Moscow now have access to national security secrets.
Snowden’s revelations damaged U.S. relations with an array of foreign governments and sparked national debate on whether the pursuit of terror suspects has led to excessive intrusion into the personal lives of millions of people around the world. His grant of asylum in Russia has also added to the volume of irritations between Washington and Moscow, which are already divided over the war in Syria, human rights and more recently Russian aggression against Ukraine.
In a May interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Snowden said he missed the United States but worried that he would have little chance of getting a fair trial if he returned to face the three felony charges that have been filed against him, each carrying a 10-year prison term on conviction. He compared his situation with that of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who secretly photocopied and distributed the 7,000-page study that revealed the U.S. government had knowledge that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won.
But U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry retorted after the NBC interview that Snowden, unlike Ellsberg, has refused to take responsibility for his willful disclosure of U.S. intelligence.
“If this man is a patriot, he should stay in the United States and make his case,” Kerry said. “Edward Snowden is a coward, he is a traitor, and he has betrayed his country. And if he wants to come home tomorrow to face the music, he can do so.”
Snowden’s situation came into the news on Tuesday when it was disclosed that U.S. Secret Service agents had arrested a Russian computer hacker in the Maldives and transferred him to the U.S. territory of Guam, nearly 5,000 miles away, to face charges associated with the theft of retailers’ computer databases containing 600,000 consumers’ credit card information. Roman Seleznev, 30, was described by the Secret Service as “one of the world’s most prolific traffickers of stolen financial information.”
The suspect’s father, Russian lawmaker Valery Seleznev, told Russian media he suspected his son had been arrested on bogus charges to give the U.S. government someone to offer in trade for the extradition of Snowden.