- By S.A. MILLER Post Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday told President Obama to take a flying leap by refusing to turn over spy-secrets leaker Edward Snowden — who for a third day remained lounging in a Moscow airport.
“Snowden is a free person,” Putin proclaimed during a news conference in Turku, Finland, where he feigned annoyance at getting dragged into the closely watched incident.
“I’d prefer not to deal with this issue at all,” he said. “It’s like shearing a piglet — too much squealing, too little wool.
“The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia.”
Russian officials had danced around Snowden’s whereabouts since Sunday, when he fled from Hong Kong.
In another humiliating slap, Putin defended Snowden and even Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, who has aided Snowden’s quest for asylum.
“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human-rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information. Ask yourself this: Should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?” the former Soviet KGB colonel mused.
Snowden has requested political asylum in Ecuador, but apparently hasn’t yet settled on where exactly to run next.
Before flying to Moscow, Snowden spent his birthday munching pizza and fried chicken in his Hong Kong hotel room.
Now he’s kicking back in an airport lounge mulling his next move, with Russian police just a few feet away but not posing a threat to his on-the-run freedom.
Putin claimed there was nothing Russian authorities could do to nab the 30-year-old fugitive or expel him, despite US espionage charges against Snowden and White House demands for his immediate return.
“I hope this won’t affect the cordial nature of our relations with the US,” said the Russian president, who just last week met with Obama on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.
Putin said Russia and the United States lack a relevant extradition treaty and called US accusations that the Kremlin failed to nab Snowden or that it provided him refuge “ravings and rubbish.”
He also claimed that Snowden’s arrival from Hong Kong “came as a surprise” to Russian officials.
“He arrived as a transit passenger, and didn’t need a [Russian] visa or any other documents,” Putin said. “As a transit passenger he is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants.”
The White House responded by repeating its demand for Snowden to be kicked out of Russia and sent back to America “without delay.”
“We agree with President Putin that we do not want this issue to negatively impact our bilateral relations,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
“While we do not have an extradition treaty with Russia, there is nonetheless a clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden, based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him,” she added.
The Russian snub was only the latest roadblock for Obama’s pursuit of Snowden.
The former National Security Agency contract worker has been in hiding or on the lam since June 2, when he began revealing top-secret spy programs, including massive snooping on Americans’ phone and Internet records.
The Obama administration had requested his extradition from Hong Kong, which has an extradition treaty with the United States, but officials there found a bureaucratic excuse to deny the US request.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called on Obama to get tough with Putin and blamed the Snowden embarrassment on Obama’s weak leadership.
“When you withdraw to fortress America, when you believe in light footprints, when you show the world you’re leading from behind, these are the consequences of American leadership,” McCain said on CNN.
McCain colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agreed.
“Who would you pick in a stare-down contest between Putin and Obama?” Graham said on Fox News.
“This administration’s foreign policy is a failure. Our enemies have absolutely no respect for us,” he said. “If you wanted to understand how relationships are between Russia, the United States and China, Snowden tells you all you need to know.”
Graham said that Obama and his foreign-policy team, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have “failed in securing our national security, in securing us as a nation.
“They have failed to earn respect,” he said.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell disagreed with Putin’s claim that his hands were tied.
“We’d like to see him expelled, and we do think there’s a legal basis to do so, and that we’ve cooperated on a number of these cases previously,” the State staffer said.
But Secretary of State John Kerry backed off from an embarrassing confrontation with Putin, appealing for “calm” and trying to stop the dispute with Russia from boiling over.
“I would simply appeal for calm and reasonableness in a moment where we don’t need to raise the level of confrontation over something as, frankly, basic and normal as this,” Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re not looking for a confrontation” he said. “We’re not ordering anybody. We’re simply requesting, under a very normal procedure, for the transfer of somebody.”
The United States has reached out through diplomatic and law-enforcement channels to countries that Snowden is reportedly considering as a next destination, alerting them that the secrets-spiller is fleeing criminal charges in the United States and should be returned to the United States to face justice, according to officials.
Those countries include Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador, all of which have extradition agreements with the United States.
However, extradition treaties do not guarantee that a country will comply. Any nation could grant Snowden political asylum regardless of treaties held with the United States.