NSA leaker Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. An aide to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to grant Snowden political asylum. (The Guardian via Getty Images)
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says that National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden will have to stop leaking U.S. secrets if he wants to get asylum in Russia from espionage charges in the United States.
“There is one condition if he wants to remain here: He must stop his work aimed at damaging our American partners. As odd as it may sound from me,” Putin told a news conference in Moscow, reported RT television network.
Interfax news agency quoted consular desk official Kim Shevchenko as saying that British citizen Sarah Harrison — an aide to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange — asked the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday to grant Snowden political asylum.
However, Interfax also cited the head of Russia’s Migration Service Konstantin Romodanovsky as saying his agency had not received such a request.
The reported request comes after Ecuador hedged on whether it would grant Snowden protection as it has Assange, who is hiding out in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape charges. Ecuador said it had no authority to move him.
Snowden still appears to be holed up in an area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport where he has been since arriving from Hong Kong to escape the U.S. extradition request. Putin insisted Russia on Monday that is not going to extradite Snowden to the USA, refusing a demand from President Obama.
“Russia has never extradited anyone and is not going to do so,” Putin said, adding that Snowden, “should choose his final destination and go there.”
Putin hinted that Snowden could remain in Russia.
“If he wants to go somewhere [another country] and is accepted, he can. If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our U.S. partners,” Putin was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.
On Monday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was to arrive in Russia for a scheduled visit following statements that Snowden was “almost sure” to get political asylum in his country if he files a formal request. There was no word on whether Snowden was considering the offer.
Meanwhile, Germany’s federal prosecutor says it is launching a preliminary inquiry into allegations from Snowden that U.S. intelligence agencies tapped European communication channels.
German news weekly Der Spiegel set off a diplomatic row when it reported Sunday that the NSA had bugged EU offices in Washington, New York and Brussels. The report cited secret U.S. documents allegedly obtained by the Snowden before he fled the United States.
Germany said it planned to call in the U.S. ambassador for an explanation over the “breach in trust.”
“We’re no longer in the Cold War,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told USA Today. “Eavesdropping on friends is unacceptable.”
Seibert said the government will assess the facts to determine whether there had been a breach of national security.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he did know all the particulars about allegations that the U.S. bugged EU offices. But he says many nations engaged in international affairs undertake lots of different kinds of activities to protect their national interests.
Der Spiegel said documents from Snowden it had reviewed characterized Germany as not being in the inner circle of close partners of the USA and was the most spied on country in Europe.
“The (German) foreign ministry must be shocked and horrified that it was put in with that company,” said Ben Tonra, a professor at the University College Dublin who specializes on European security issues.
Tonra said European leaders are well aware that all governments including their own spy on each other, but the revelations if accurate could force European governments to react publicly in ways that harm relations.
“This opens up potentially a long running sore in U.S., German relations and broader U.S., European relations,” Tonra said. “ U.S. President Obama was in Germany only recently and part of the rational of that was ... to bring U.S, German relations to a higher plain ... and this blows a hole under the water.”
French President Francois Hollande has requested that the U.S. “immediately stop” spying, Agence France-Presse reported Monday
Other European officials reacted angrily to Der Spiegel reports that the NSA was spying on the European Union including the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels – home to the European Council.
“If it’s true, it’s a huge scandal,” said Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament. “It means a huge strain on relations between the EU and the U.S. and we now demand a comprehensive explanation.”
Contributing: Louise Osborne from Berlin; Tilton reported from Berlin; Hjelmgaard in London