Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who leaked secret material on US surveillance programmes, has been awarded temporary asylum in Russia in spite of intense pressure from the US government.
The decision was immediately criticised by the White House and US lawmakers, and will provide a new source of tension in the already difficult relations between the US and Russia.
The one-year visa allows Mr Snowden to live and work in Russia while he evades efforts by US prosecutors to extradite him to face charges for leaking documents about National Security Agency surveillance programmes.
Mr Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Interfax, the Russian newswire, that he left the territory of Sheremetyevo airport for an undisclosed location after receiving the visa. According to a copy shown on RT, the Russian state TV channel, the visa was issued on Wednesday. The 30-year-old has been living in a transit zone at the airport since he arrived in late June on a flight from Hong Kong.
Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin official, told reporters on Thursday that he did not believe the decision to grant Mr Snowden asylum would hurt US-Russia relations. He called the whistleblower “an insignificant character”.
But leading US senators predicted much more substantial damage in diplomatic ties. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said it was “a game changer in our relationship with Russia” and “a sign of Vladimir Putin’s clear lack of respect for President Obama”. He urged the administration to issue a “firm response”.
Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said the decision was “a setback to US-Russia relations”.
Barack Obama had been due to visit Moscow in September ahead of a G20 meeting in St Petersburg for a meeting with President Putin. However, White House officials have suggested the president could cancel his trip because of Mr Snowden.
Jay Carney, White House spokesman, said the US was “extremely disappointed” by the decision and that it was “evaluating the utility” of a summit with Mr Putin.
The US had repeatedly warned Russia not to offer Mr Snowden asylum. Last week Eric Holder, attorney-general, issued a public letter to Russia’s justice minister assuring Moscow that the US had no plans to torture Mr Snowden and would not seek the death penalty for the former contractor.
Mr Kucherena told the FT that safety would be Mr Snowden’s utmost priority but declined to disclose what security measures he would be taking, where he would be living, and who would be paying for his protection. “It is a matter of his personal safety,” he said.
The lawyer said Mr Snowden already had some “American friends” in Russia who would help with his security at the beginning, but he refused to say who these friends were. Mr Snowden, the lawyer said, “was in a good mood, more or less”. “He can’t believe that he has received all the documents and left the airport,” he said.
Mr Snowden arrived in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23 with a ticket to travel onward to Havana. He never boarded the second flight and his plans to continue on to South America grew increasingly unrealistic because of his lack of proper travel documents and fears that the US would block his flight path.
The furore over Mr Snowden’s presence first in Hong Kong and then Russia initially distracted attention from the NSA surveillance activities that he exposed. However, over the past two weeks the tide of criticism in Congress about the collection of phone records of millions of Americans has been rising.
“This bulk-collection programme has massive privacy implications,” Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, said on Wednesday. “The phone records of all of us in this room reside in an NSA database . . . If this programme is not effective, it has to end. So far, I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
Mr Obama met a group of lawmakers on Thursday to try to bolster support for the NSA.