WASHINGTON - President Obama's declaration Thursday that he wouldn't be "scrambling jets" to capture Edward Snowden provided the clearest public signal of how much the administration wants to shield key diplomatic relationships from damage over the case of the fugitive national security leaker.
The administration's efforts at downplaying may also stem, in part, from a desire to manage expectations, since Snowden may continue to elude U.S. custody. But it's clear that in the last several days, the administration has sought to de-escalate confrontations over his flight.
Snowden fled Hong Kong on Sunday to avoid a U.S. extradition request and landed in Russia. Since then, he has apparently been in a transit lounge at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport while seeking asylum in Ecuador.
The U.S. move to shift the issue to a legal track and further away from big-power politics is consistent with the way Washington tries to handle spy cases, with minimal publicity and private diplomacy, experts noted.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, made disclosures about large-scale surveillance programs directed at foreigners and American citizens that have embarrassed the administration. The surveillance of telephone records and the Internet have drawn condemnations from governments, including China's and Russia's, that Washington frequently criticizes for authoritarian tactics and human rights abuses.
Obama said he would like to see Snowden, who faces three felony counts in the United States, in custody. But at a news conference in Senegal, he sought to portray the pursuit of the fugitive as a routine law enforcement issue.
Obama said he had not sought to contact the Russian or Chinese presidents personally on the issue because "I shouldn't have to."
"We've got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia," he said. "I'm not going to have one case of a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly being 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."
He waved off a question about whether he intended to try to block Snowden's departure from Moscow, saying, "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker."
Obama also suggested the United States has little to fear from further disclosures.
"In terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks," he said. "We don't yet know what other documents he may try to dribble out there," but "on the other hand, what I'm also confident about is that the way we run these programs abides by the laws."