DAKAR, Senegal » The United States won’t be scrambling military jets or engaging in high-level diplomatic bartering to get National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden extradited to the U.S., President Barack Obama said today.
Dismissing him as "a 29-year-old hacker," Obama sought to downplay the international chase for Snowden, lowering the temperature of an issue that has already raised tensions between the U.S. and uneasy partners Russia and China.
Obama said 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.
Snowden turned 30 last week. He was working as a government contractor with security clearance when he seized the NSA documents.
Snowden’s intercontinental efforts to shirk 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 said he hadn’t personally called either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping to request their cooperation.
"I shouldn’t have to," he declared.
Obama said such matters are routinely dealt with at a law-enforcement level, calling Snowden’s extradition "not exceptional from a legal perspective." He said the U.S. has a wide-ranging economic relationship with China that shouldn’t be dwarfed by the hunt for one fugitive, and that the U.S. has had "useful conversations" with Moscow over efforts to return Snowden to the U.S. Putin has called Snowden a "free man" and refused to turn him over to Washington.
"My continued expectation is that Russia or other countries that have talked about potentially providing Mr. Snowden asylum recognize that they are a part of an international community and they should be abiding by international law," Obama said, noting that the U.S. doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with Russia.
Snowden has acknowledged seizing highly classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of U.S. phone and Internet records. He shared the information with The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers. He also told the South China Morning Post that the NSA hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal text message data. The Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has said Snowden still has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents.
"I get why it’s a fascinating story," Obama said. "I’m sure there will be a made-for-TV movie somewhere down the line."
The White House has said Hong Kong’s refusal to detain Snowden has "unquestionably" hurt U.S. relations with China. After Hong Kong’s government claimed it had to allow Snowden to flee because the U.S. got Snowden’s middle name wrong in documents requesting his arrest, Obama’s Justice Department said the U.S. didn’t buy that excuse, calling it "a pretext for not acting."
The Hong Kong government had also previously mentioned that it asked the U.S. for more information on NSA’s hacking of targets in Hong Kong, suggesting the issue played some role in its decision.
Obama said the fact Snowden walked off with so many secret documents shows significant vulnerabilities at the NSA that must be solved. But Obama said he’s also focused on fostering a "healthy effective debate" about the balance between security and privacy in America.
"In terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks," Obama said.
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.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.