Russia granted American fugitive Edward Snowden a year's asylum on Thursday, allowing the NSA secrets-leaker to slip quietly out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after more than five weeks in limbo, but angering the United States.
The White House, which wants Snowden sent home to face trial for leaking details of government surveillance programs, signaled that President Barack Obama might boycott a summit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in September, and one official said high-level talks next week were "up in the air."
"We see this as an unfortunate development and we are extremely disappointed by it," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We are evaluating the utility of the summit."
Latest: Is Snowden a Hero or Traitor? Vote in Urgent Poll
Snowden has avoided the hordes of reporters trying to find him since he landed in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23, and gave them the slip again as he left the transit area where he had been holed up. Almost unnoticed, he was driven away from the airport by car.
"Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning," Snowden, whose first leaks were published two months ago, was quoted as saying by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group which has assisted him.
"I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations," he said.
Grainy images on state television showed the 30-year-old's document, which is similar to a Russian passport, and revealed that he had been granted asylum for one year from July 31.
A Russian lawyer assisting Snowden said he had gone to a safe location which would remain secret, and that he could now work and travel freely in the country of 142 million people.
State television also showed a picture of Snowden, wearing a backpack and a blue button-up shirt, at the airport getting into a gray car driven by a young man in a baseball cap.
"He is the most wanted man on planet Earth," Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden's Russian lawyer, who has links to the authorities, told Reuters. "He has to think about his personal security. I cannot tell you where he is going."
"He can live wherever he wants in Russia. It's his personal choice," he said.
Snowden, who had his U.S. passport revoked by Washington, had stayed at a hotel at the airport, Kucherena said, but was "psychologically exhausted."
"Imagine yourself daily [having to listen to] 'Dear passengers, the flight to New York, the flight to Washington, the flight from Rome,'" the lawyer said.
Snowden, whose revelations have fueled a debate in the United States about civil liberties and national security needs, was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks legal researcher.
"We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden. We have won the battle — now the war," WikiLeaks said on Twitter.
WikiLeaks issued its statement as Army Private Bradley Manning, who leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks, was acquitted Tuesday of aiding the enemy — the most serious charge against him — but found guilty of espionage, theft and a host of other charges. The sentencing phase of his trial began Wednesday.
Snowden hopes to avoid a similar fate. Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela have offered him refuge, but there are no direct commercial flights to Latin America from Moscow and he was concerned the United States would intercept any flight he took.
He was forced to bide his time in the transit area between the runway and passport control, which Russia considers neutral territory. Kucherena had given Snowden Russian books to help pass the time and says he has started learning Russian in preparation for his stay, which could be extended after a year.
"I am so thankful to the Russian nation and President Vladimir Putin," the American's father, Lonnie Snowden, told Russian state television. He is expected to visit Russia shortly to see his son.
It is not clear what Snowden plans to do in Russia, although he is said to want to travel around the country. VKontakte, Russia's answer to social networking site Facebook, has already offered him a job.
He has also received a marriage proposal by Twitter from Anna Chapman, the glamorous former agent who was deported to Russia from the United States in a Cold War-style spy swap in 2010.
Russia's decision to harbor Snowden steps up the level of support he is receiving from Moscow, but Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov played down concerns about the impact on relations with the United States.
"Our president has ... expressed hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations" he said.
But talks next week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and their Russian counterparts are now under threat, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It is not clear whether Obama might also consider a boycott of a G20 summit in Russia in September, immediately after the planned summit with Putin, or of the Winter Olympics which Russia will host in the city of Sochi next February.
Putin says he wants to improve relations with the United States that are strained by issues such as the Syrian conflict, his treatment of political opponents, and foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. But he would have risked looking weak if he had handed Snowden over to the United States.
More than half of Russians have a positive opinion of Snowden and 43 percent wanted him to be granted asylum, a poll released by independent research group Levada said this week.
Putin has said Snowden must stop anti-U.S. activities, but it was not clear whether the American had agreed to do so. Snowden has said that he does not regard his activities as hostile to the United States.
There has already been diplomatic fallout from Snowden's leaks, which included information that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, even though the EU is an ally.
China, Brazil, and France have voiced concern over the spying program and U.S. ties with Latin American states have been clouded.
Latest: Is Snowden a Hero or Traitor? Vote in Urgent Poll
© 2022 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.