The Obama administration has made a point of prosecuting leakers to the fullest extent of the law. But one leaker it's having a hard time getting its hands on, let alone prosecuting, is the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, whom the government has accused of espionage.
Citing frustration with Russia's harboring Snowden, the White House announced Wednesday that it had canceled a one-on-one meeting in Moscow between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. “Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia summit in early September,” the White House said in a statement. “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
The canceled summit is evidence that getting Snowden back will be very difficult, amid a general deterioration in relations between the two countries. Still, the administration’s best hope for bringing home former the National Security Agency contractor is through diplomacy. After spending weeks in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, Snowden was granted one year of asylum in Russia. And he might end up staying longer.
Given the current state of relations, “I think the chances are very strong that Mr. Snowden will be residing in Russia for the foreseeable future,” said Joseph Dresen, a program associate at the Kennan Institute, which focuses on Russia and its neighbors.
In the press, Snowden has been cited as the reason the September talks were canceled. But Dresen believes the Snowden question was probably “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” with a host of unresolved issues making negotiation over Snowden difficult. Moreover, for Putin, Snowden “represents a chance to sort of cast American human rights record in a bad light,” Dresen said, making the Russian leader less likely to hand him over to the U.S.
Canceling the summit signifies that the administration doesn’t have “any leverage” with Putin right now, said Anthony Clark Arend, who heads the Foreign Service graduate program at Georgetown University.
Barring improved relations with Russia, the administration has run out of legal options to get Snowden back. Going an extralegal route by essentially kidnapping Snowden and taking him to the U.S., Arend says, would not be wise and is very unlikely to happen. Instead, Arend says he believes that the U.S. will continue to press for Snowden’s return through diplomatic channels.
“My sense is, negotiations will continue behind the scenes, but I don’t think the president should make a big deal out of it” publicly, Arend says. When Snowden’s temporary asylum expires in a year, it’s possible that the U.S. will be able to get him back, but “it will largely depend on the general state of U.S.-Russian relations.”
Canceling the summit, Arend says, could actually make it harder for the U.S. to retrieve Snowden since Putin could decide to retaliate by, for example, extending Snowden’s asylum beyond the one year now in place.