US President Barack Obama insisted on Thursday he would not let the fate of fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden ruin ties with Russia and China, but Washington warned Ecuador not to give him asylum.
Snowden is wanted by the US authorities for leaking sensational details of vast US surveillance programs.
The Kremlin says he has been in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport since he arrived on a flight from Hong Kong on Sunday.
Ecuador, seen as his most likely eventual destination, on Thursday denied claims by WikiLeaks that it had given Snowden a “safe passage” document.
And in Quito, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa told reporters that the government had not yet considered his case.
“We would probably examine it, but for now he is in Russia,” he added.
However, the affair has already triggered a war of words between the US and Ecuador. It also risks further aggravating tensions between Washington and Moscow, as well as Beijing, already strained over the Syria conflict.
Obama nevertheless made it clear there were limits to what the US would do to catch Snowden.
“I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he said on Thursday during a visit to Senegal, giving the wrong age for the former National Security Agency (NSA) technician, who recently turned 30.
Obama indicated he did not want to ruin ties with Moscow and Beijing for the sake of Snowden, but also rejected any “wheeling and dealing” over the intelligence specialist.
However, Ecuador’s leftist government thumbed its nose at Washington on Thursday by renouncing US trade benefits, claiming it had become an instrument of “blackmail,” and offering to pay for human rights training in the US in response to pressure over asylum for Snowden.
“Ecuador will not accept pressures or threats from anyone, and it does not traffic in its values or allow them to be subjugated to mercantile interests,” government spokesman Fernando Alvarado said at a news conference.
In a cheeky jab at the US spying program that Snowden unveiled through leaks to the media, the South American nation offered US$23 million per year to finance human rights training in the US.
The funding would be destined to help “avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity,” Alvarado said.
He said the amount was the equivalent of what Ecuador gained each year from the trade benefits.
In response, Washington told Quito it wanted to maintain good economic relations but warned that granting asylum to Snowden would cause “grave difficulties” for bilateral ties.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meanwhile said Caracas would “almost certainly” grant political asylum to Snowden if he applied.
Maduro, who like Correa is a leftist anti-US populist, is expected in Moscow next week for an energy summit.
Meanwhile, a former high-ranking US military officer is being probed for allegedly leaking details about a US cyberattack on Iran, a US media report said on Thursday.
Citing unnamed legal sources, NBC News said retired US Marine General James Cartwright has been told he is under investigation for allegedly disclosing details about the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Cartwright, 63, is the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The four-star general retired from the military in August 2011.
Stuxnet, tailored specifically to target Iran’s uranium enrichment operation, struck Iran in 2010 and reportedly dealt a serious blow to its disputed nuclear program.
In its report, NBC referenced a New York Times story published last year that mentioned Cartwright.
The story also said the NSA had developed Stuxnet in tandem with the Israelis.
NBC News, again citing unnamed legal sources, said an original FBI investigation into the Stuxnet leak had focused on a possible White House source. By last year however, agents were honing on on Cartwright, it added.
The US Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.