WASHINGTON — The White House criticized Russia on Friday for allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to meet with human rights activists, calling it a "propaganda platform" for the man who seeks to avoid prosecution for leaking classified information about secret U.S. electronic surveillance programs.
A Russian lawmaker who was among the officials who met privately with Snowden in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport on Friday said Snowden wants asylum in Russia and is willing to stop sharing the secrets in his possession in exchange for such a deal.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Russia should instead send Snowden back to the U.S. to face the felony charges that are pending against him.
"Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government's previous declarations of Russia's neutrality and that they have no control over his presence in the airport," Carney said. "It's also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage U.S. interests."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki used similar language to express disappointment over the meeting.
"We are disappointed that Russian officials and agencies facilitated this meeting today by allowing these activists and representatives into the Moscow airport's transit zone to meet with Mr. Snowden despite the government's declarations of Russia's neutrality with respect to Mr. Snowden," Psaki said. "Our concern here is that he's been provided this opportunity to speak in a propaganda platform."
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Snowden, among other issues, during a telephone call on Friday, the White House said in a terse statement that provided no specifics of their conversation about the NSA leaker. Carney said the call was planned several days ago, suggesting that it was unrelated to Snowden's meeting with the activists.
Carney said Snowden is not a human rights activist or a dissident. "He is accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three felony counts and should be returned to the United States," the spokesman said.
Carney also urged the Russian government to "afford human rights organizations the ability to do their work in Russia throughout Russia, not just at the Moscow transit lounge."
Snowden is believed to have been staying at the airport transit zone since June 23, when he arrived by air from Hong Kong. He fled to Hong Kong from the U.S. before his revelations were made public. Snowden had been expected to transfer in Moscow to a Cuba-bound flight, but he did not get on the plane.
He made an initial bid for asylum in Russia, but Putin said Snowden would have to agree to stop leaking the classified information in his possession before asylum would be considered. Snowden then withdrew his bid.
It was not immediately clear whether Russia would take Snowden up on his latest request for asylum. The Kremlin has signaled that it wants him out of the country. Granting asylum could further test U.S.-Russia relations.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua recently offered Snowden asylum.
At the State Department, Psaki denied that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, had telephoned a representative from Human Rights Watch. The anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which has been assisting Snowden, said in a statement that McFaul called the Human Rights Watch representative on her way to the airport and asked her to relay a message to Snowden that he is not considered a whistle-blower and was wanted in the United States.
Psaki said a U.S. Embassy officer placed the call.
"Ambassador McFaul did not call any representative from Human Rights Watch," she said. "An embassy officer did call to explain our position ... but at no point did this official or any official from the U.S. government ask anyone to convey a message to Mr. Snowden."
Psaki confirmed, however, that U.S. officials have been in touch with individuals who attended the meeting.