Thumbing its nose at the United States, Russia has offered “temporary asylum” to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the U.S. Justice Department for leaking national security secrets. Snowden’s attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, told reporters Thursday his client had finally left the international transit zone of the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, where he has been holed up since June 23. Snowden spent his spare time learning the Russian language and reading Russian books, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the attorney said. He would not reveal where Snowden’s taxi was taking him.
The temporary asylum will allow Snowden to travel freely within Russia for a year. That gives him refuge from the U.S. government, which has revoked Snowden’s passport and was seeking to apprehend and prosecute him for espionage. In June, Snowden revealed himself as the security contractor responsible for unveiling the existence of secret domestic and international surveillance programs at the National Security Agency.
“Snowden stays in the land of transparency and human rights. Time to hit that reset button again,” tweeted a sarcastic Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday.
By granting Snowden asylum, Russian president Vladimir Putin is signaling he doesn’t feel compelled to oblige the White House. His move likely will further strain relations between Moscow and Washington. Last month, U.S. officials suggested President Barack Obama might cancel a planned September summit with Putin in Moscow because of the Snowden situation. Obama Spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that threat today during a meeting with reporters. He said the White House was "extremely disappointed" in Russia's decision.
The confirmation of asylum came just a day after the Senate Judiciary Committee met to debate the utility of the National Security Agency’s logging of U.S. phone calls—one of the surveillance activities revealed by the Snowden leaks. “If this program is not effective it has to end,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman. “So far, I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
While the hearing took place, The Guardian, a London newspaper, published online more information obtained from its batch of Snowden files. The new disclosure reveals the existence of yet another NSA surveillance program, named XKeyscore. Through the XKeyscore program, The Guardian said, NSA employees can search without a court order “through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.” The leaked documents boast the program is the NSA’s “widest-reaching” system for internet data collection, including “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet.” The documents claim the program assisted in the capture of 300 terrorists by 2008.
Putin had said he would not give Snowden asylum unless he agreed to stop revealing U.S. security secrets. Snowden’s attorney has clarified that the XKeyscore documents were given over to The Guardian before Snowden agreed to stop leaking.