WASHINGTON: US officials and lawmakers have made it clear they’re furious at the governments that have played a role in enabling fugitive security contractor Edward Snowden’s globe-trotting, but the United States is expected to take a restrained approach to any retribution.
President Barack Obama’s administration has been trying to track Snowden since he slipped out of Hong Kong and flew to Moscow on Sunday, but his whereabouts remained a mystery amid a blizzard of speculative reports that he could be headed to Cuba, Ecuador, or Iceland.
American officials and legislators angered and dismayed by the cat-and-mouse game have directed unspecified threats at Hong Kong, China and Russia, as well as Ecuador, where Snowden has requested asylum.
Washington has a range of options, which include making it difficult for citizens of these countries to get US visas. Or it could impose sanctions on some imports, delay foreign investment deals and curtail cooperation on extradition requests from the other capitals.
Tit-for-tat expulsions of accused spies were a staple of US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. More recently, both the United States and Venezuela have sent diplomats packing. The latest example was March when the Washington and Caracas each expelled envoys around the time of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s death.
Still, Washington must be careful not to damage international relationships that are critical to other percolating issues, despite its frustration over Snowden.
The decision by Hong Kong, a region of China, to let Snowden leave amid discussions with Washington over a US extradition request was “a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“And that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship,” he said. He later declined to discuss possible repercussions for China or for Hong Kong.
Snowden, a former contractor at a National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, has been charged by the US government with disclosing secret surveillance programs that the Obama administration considers vital for national security.
A handful of US lawmakers lashed out at China and Russia and demanded action.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wrote to the Russian embassy demanding that Snowden be sent back to the United States, calling the case a test of the “reset” in relations between the two countries.
Republican Representative Peter King, a senior member of the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees, called for “diplomatic consequences, trade consequences, economic consequences” for Russia on CNN on Sunday.
Some analysts said that despite the heated rhetoric, the United States might be better served by providing incentives for cooperation in apprehending Snowden. That could include approving more visas, providing special treatment during a US visit by a president or foreign secretary, or providing additional support on trade agreements.
Ecuador, for example, is facing the expiration on July 31 of a program that provides it with duty-free access to the US market for many of its goods.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington should avoid punitive measures that could threaten important alliances.
“Compared to all of the key issues between the United States, Russia and China, Snowden doesn’t matter,” he said.
Democratic Representative Rick Larsen does not favor dramatic steps such as sanctions but said Hong Kong and China needed to be told “clearly and in their face” how their handling of Snowden could hurt cooperation on law enforcement, security issues and a cybersecurity panel to be launched in two weeks.
Diplomacy should be high level and involve “pretty serious hard-core conversations that take place privately until our point gets across,” Larsen said in an interview.
Larsen is a co-founder of the US-China Working Group of lawmakers who follow Chinese affairs closely.
Some lawmakers also expressed caution against allowing the Snowden saga to impact on other negotiations, such as the U.S. review of the acquisition of Smithfields Foods Inc by Chinese meat company Shuanghai International.
Republican Representative Randy Forbes, whose Virginia district includes Smithfield’s headquarters, has argued against “rubber stamping” the $4.7 billion deal before questions are asked about the impact on food safety, employment and antitrust issues.
However, asked in an interview if he favored holding up the deal over Snowden, Forbes said: “Absolutely not. It would be bad policy for us to get into retaliation and blending apples and oranges in these situations.”
The United States also have to be careful to not inflame other countries as it seeks more cooperation on pressing international issues, from Syria’s civil war to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution who was an Asia adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, said sanctioning Beijing was “inconceivable” and linking Snowden to other issues would undo careful policy aimed at handling issues in separate lanes to avoid big ruptures in ties.
“Over the years, we’ve sought to prevent any serious disagreement in one issue area from spilling over and degrading the entire relationship,” he said.
Other lawmakers said it was too early to leap into any high-profile international action.
“It’s likely that this is going to be pretty long and drawn out, just because of the way these kinds of issues are handled by other countries,” Senator Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, told reporters on Monday. “And I think we all need to be patient.”