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Snowden Case Puts U.S. In Difficult Position


Russia's decision to allow Edward Snowden into the country as part of his around the world search for asylum has sparked outrage in Washington, D.C. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, appearing yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union," accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of aiding and abetting Snowden's escape.


MONTAGNE: That's just some of the diplomatic fall out of Snowden's travels. To find out more about the legal aspect of all this, we've got NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson in our studio. Good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee. Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, catch us up on the precise charges that the U.S. justice department has brought against Edward Snowden.

JOHNSON: So there are three charges in this criminal complaint, Renee. Two have to do with the espionage act and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. And the third has to do with theft of government property. These charges were filed secretly June 14th but they were only unsealed late Friday night.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, he was in Hong Kong. Have the authorities there given any legal reasons for why they allowed him to leave?

JOHNSON: Renee, this is such a strange and interesting back and forth. The authorities in Hong Kong said that they did not have sufficient information to hold Edward Snowden and prevent his departure to Russia. But the U.S. government and in particular, the U.S. Justice Department, which I cover, could not disagree more with that assessment.

The Justice Department late yesterday put out an extraordinary timeline of its contacts with authorities in Hong Kong, including days of back and forth, phone call between Attorney General Eric Holder and his counterpart in Hong Kong and the Justice Department felt that that things were proceeding smoothly. Late Friday night, Renee, the Hong Kong authorities asked for more information from the Justice Department.

U.S. prosecutors were in the process of compiling that information when they found out a couple of days later that Edward Snowden was already out of the country. The U.S. government says they're extremely disappointed and troubled by this relationship and the way this all went down.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. reportedly has revoked his passport. So how has he been able to travel? What, as a stateless person?

JOHNSON: Well, the State Department has apparently revoked Edward Snowden's passport. They will not comment specifically on the record about him because of some Privacy Act concerns. But other sources have indicated the passport was revoked on Saturday. It appears he was able to travel with the help of Wikileaks again because Wikileaks was able to get Edward Snowden some kind of uncertain, unspecified travel documents that allowed him to board the plane.

The revocation of the passport does not mean Edward Snowden's no longer a U.S. citizen. It's just supposed to make it more difficult for him to move around. Clearly, in that case, that didn't happen.

MONTAGNE: Well, and also, this has to be involving countries that are willing to look the other way on that.

JOHNSON: Yeah. That's exactly right. And there's a lot of signals at this point that Hong Kong and mainland China didn't want to deal with the Edward Snowden political problem anymore.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, exactly. So we've heard, although Ecuador appears to be willing to take those problems on. He's requested asylum in their country. What can the White House and federal prosecutors do if he actually makes it to Ecuador?

JOHNSON: So the Ecuador foreign minister, Renee, says he is considering a request for asylum from Edward Snowden, but no formal word on that yet. There is a longstanding U.S. extradition treaty with Ecuador but it has one of the same complications that the one with Hong Kong did, which is that there's an exception for political offenses and some people believe this whistleblowing or violations of the espionage act could be considered a political offense.

Finally, the U.S. Justice Department and even the White House have been trying very hard to lean on all of these countries where Snowden might go to indicate relations would be frayed if they were to accept him. And Renee, last but not least, there's always the possibility of rendition, but that, obviously, would inflame the diplomatic situation even more.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR Justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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