U.S. President Barack Obama tried to cool the international frenzy over Edward Snowden on Thursday as Ecuador stepped up its defiance and said it was preemptively rejecting millions in trade benefits that it could lose by taking in the fugitive from his limbo in a Moscow airport.
The country seen as likeliest to shelter the National Security Agency leaker seemed determined to prove it could handle any repercussions, with three of its highest officials calling an early-morning news conference to "unilaterally and irrevocably renounce" $23 million US a year in lowered tariffs on products such as roses, shrimp and frozen vegetables.
Fernando Alvarado, the secretary of communications for leftist President Rafael Correa, sarcastically suggested the U.S. use the money to train government employees to respect human rights.
Obama, meanwhile, 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.
"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.
While the Ecuadorean government appeared angry over U.S. threats of punishment if it accepts Snowden, there were also mixed signals about how eager it was to grant asylum. For days, officials here have been blasting the U.S. and praising Snowden's leaks of NSA eavesdropping secrets as a blow for global human rights.
But they also have repeatedly insisted that they are nowhere close to making a decision on whether Snowden can leave Moscow, where he is believed to be holed up in an airport transit zone, for refuge in this oil-rich South American nation.
"It's a complex situation, we don't know how it'll be resolved," Correa told a news conference Thursday in his first public comments on the case aside from a handful of postings on Twitter.
The Ecuadorean leader said that in order for Snowden's asylum application to be processed, he would have to be in Ecuador or inside an Ecuadorean Embassy, "and he isn't." Another country would have to permit Snowden to transit its territory for that requirement to be met, Correa said.
WikiLeaks, which has been aiding Snowden, announced earlier he was en route to Ecuador and had received a travel document. On Wednesday, the Univision television network displayed an unsigned letter of safe passage for him.
Officials on Thursday acknowledged that the Ecuadorean Embassy in London had issued a June 22 letter of safe passage for Snowden that calls on other countries to allow him to travel to asylum in Ecuador. But Ecuador's secretary of political management, Betty Tola, said the letter was invalid because it was issued without the approval of the government in the capital, Quito.
She also threatened legal action against whoever leaked the document, which she said "has no validity and is the exclusive responsibility of the person who issued it."
"This demonstrates a total lack of coordination in the department of foreign affairs," said Santiago Basabe, a professor of political science at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Quito. "It's no small question to issue a document of safe passage or a diplomatic document for someone like Snowden without this decision being taken directly by the foreign minister or president."
The renunciation of trade benefits was a dramatic but mostly symbolic threat. The U.S Congress was widely expected to let the benefits lapse in coming weeks, for reasons unrelated to the Snowden case. And if they continued, it appeared highly unlikely that the Ecuadorean government would be able to unilaterally cancel tariff benefits that went directly to their country's exporters.
Behind Ecuador's mixed messages, some analysts saw not confusion but internal divisions in the Ecuadorean government.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on Latin America, said many in Washington believed that Correa, a leftist elected to a third term in February, had been telegraphing a desire to moderate and take a softer tack toward the United States and private business.
Harder-core leftists led by Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino may be seeking to maintain a tough line, he said, a division expressing itself in confusing messages.
"I think there really are different factions within the government on this," Shifter said. "Correa wants to become more moderate. That has been the signal that has been communicated in Washington."
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 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.
The U.S. administration was expected to decide by Monday what export privileges to grant Ecuador under the Generalized System of Preferences, a program meant to spur development and growth in poorer countries.
Although the deadline was set long before the Snowden affair, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said Thursday that Ecuador's application to add a handful of products such as artichokes and cut flowers — the latter a major industry here — would not be decided immediately but would remain pending. That gives the U.S. additional leverage over Ecuador while Snowden's fate remains uncertain.
More broadly, a larger trade pact allowing reduced tariffs on more than $5 billion in annual exports to the U.S. is up for congressional renewal before July 21. While approval of the Andean Trade Preference Act has long been seen as doubtful in Washington, Ecuador has been lobbying strongly for its renewal.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pledged to lead an effort to block extension of U.S. tariff benefits if Ecuador grants asylum to Snowden, who turned 30 last week. Nearly half of Ecuador's billions a year in foreign trade depends on the United States.
The Obama administration said Thursday that accepting Snowden would damage the overall relationship between the two countries and analysts said it was almost certain that granting the leaker asylum would lead the U.S. to cut roughly $30 million a year in military and law enforcement assistance.
Granting asylum to Snowden would cause "great difficulties in our bilateral relationship," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. "If they take that step, that would have very negative repercussions."
Alvarado, the communications minister, said his country rejects economic "blackmail" in the form of threats against the trade measures.
"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."
Alvarado did not explicitly mention the separate effort to win trade benefits under the presidential order.
He did suggest, however, how the U.S. could use the money saved from Ecuadorean tariffs to train government employees to respect citizens' rights.
"Ecuador offers the United States $23 million a year in economic aid, an amount similar to what we were receiving under the tariff benefits, with the purpose of providing human rights training that will contribute to avoid violations of people's privacy, that degrade humanity," he said.
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