QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador's diplomatic mission in London issued a safe-conduct pass so National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden could travel to Ecuador to seek political asylum, but the action was unauthorized and the pass is invalid, government officials said Thursday.
President Obama sought to downplay the international chase for the man he called "a 29-year-old hacker" and lower the temperature of an issue that has raised tensions between the U.S. and uneasy partners Russia and China. Obama said in Senegal that the damage to U.S. national security has already been done and his top focus now is making sure it can't happen again.
In contrast, Ecuadorean officials took a defiant tone as they scrambled to explain a single-page, unsigned letter dated June 22 that says Snowden has the right to travel to Ecuador for purposes of political asylum, and asks other countries to allow him safe passage. The letter was published by the Univision television network Wednesday night.
Ecuadorean officials have repeatedly expressed sympathy for Snowden for revealing secret global U.S. surveillance programs, but have insisted they have taken no decision on granting him asylum.
But they reacted strongly to threats from U.S. lawmakers that amnesty for Snowden would cost Ecuador valuable trade preferences. Officials announced they were "renouncing" the benefits and said they were being used as blackmail.
Secretary of Political Management Betty Tola told a news conference the safe-conduct pass "has no validity and is the exclusive responsibility of the person who issued it."
Another government official said that while the document is authentic, it was issued without approval from the Foreign Ministry or other officials in the capital and thus has no legal power. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Tola told reporters that Snowden's asylum application hadn't been processed because he was not in Ecuador as required by law. She also threatened legal action against whoever had leaked the document. She and other officials offered no further details about his case.
The back-and-forth over the document is part of a series of varying messages from Ecuador's leftist government about whether to offer asylum to Snowden, who is believed to remain in limbo in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after flying in from Hong Kong. Officials have appeared to signal a preference for asylum, once describing it as a choice between the interests of global elites and ordinary people, but also have said such a decision could take days, weeks or months.
The embarrassment for the Obama administration over the surveillance revelations continued as the British newspaper The Guardian reported that it allowed the National Security Agency for more than two years to collect records detailing email and Internet use by Americans. The story cited documents showing that under the program a federal judge could approve a bulk collection order for Internet metadata every 90 days.
A senior Obama administration confirmed the program and said it ended in 2011, according to The Guardian. The records were first collected during the Bush administration and the agency collected "bulk Internet metadata" that involved "communications with at least one communicant outside the United States or for which no communicant was known to be a citizen of the United States."
The report said that eventually, the NSA was allowed to "analyze communications metadata associated with United States persons and persons believed to be in the United States," according to a 2007 Justice Department memo marked secret.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised to lead an effort to block extension of U.S. tariff benefits if Ecuador grants asylum to Snowden.
Nearly half of Ecuador's foreign trade depends on the United States and hundreds of millions of dollars in trade are at risk.
Communications Minister Fernando Alvarado reacted by saying his country rejects economic "blackmail."
The program, initially meant to help Andean countries aiding in the fight against drugs, was facing an uphill fight for renewal. Alvarado did not explicitly mention a separate effort to win trade benefits under a presidential order.
"The preferences were authorized for Andean countries as compensation for the fight against drugs, but soon became a new instrument of pressure," he said. "As a result, Ecuador unilaterally and irrevocably renounces these preferences."
In Senegal, President Barack Obama said Thursday that The United States won't be scrambling military jets or engaging in high-level diplomatic bartering to get Snowden extradited to the U.S.
"I'm not going to have one case with a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system," Obama said at a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall.
Snowden's intercontinental efforts to evade U.S. authorities — taking him from a hotel hideout in Hong Kong to an airport transit zone in Moscow, where he's believed to be holed up — has already undercut Obama's efforts to strengthen ties with China and threatened to worsen tensions with Russia just as Obama is seeking Moscow's cooperation on Syria. At the same time, Snowden's attempts to seek asylum from Ecuador and other nations have underscored Obama's limited sway in a number of foreign capitals.
Obama's comment came on the first full day of a weeklong, 3-country trip to Africa, his first major tour of sub-Saharan Africa since he took office more than four years ago.
Pace reported from Dakar, Senegal.