Official: U.S. not surprised Snowden got asylum

By Evan Perez and Barbara Starr

U.S. law enforcement officials said Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden wasn’t a surprise, since Russian authorities had signaled their plans in previous public statements.

The FBI and its counterparts at Russia’s FSB security agency have held talks in recent weeks on the former National Security Agency contractor, who left the main Moscow airport on Thursday after a month in diplomatic limbo.

But U.S. law enforcement officials said they never expected the lower-level talks would decide Snowden’s status in Russia or lead to his return to the United States to face espionage charges.

Snowden has admitted leaking secret documents to media outlets that detailed NSA anti-terror telephone and e-mail surveillance. Some people view him as a patriot who exposed government over-reach while others say he should be prosecuted.

“We were under no illusions that the discussions would be the final word. This was always going to be something that people higher-up in both governments will have to decide,” a senior U.S. law enforcement official said.

U.S. officials said that while they expected the possibility for Russia to grant some form of asylum to Snowden, they were not given any advance notice from Russian officials before the announcement.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration and Russian officials appeared to prepare for the expected asylum decision, removing it from the context of a personal standoff between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Russian officials tried to portray Snowden’s fate as something better left to law enforcement.

The Obama administration released a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Russian officials promising that Snowden wouldn’t face a death sentence, if convicted, and wouldn’t be tortured if he were turned over to face U.S. criminal charges.

Other parts of the two governments are still working to limit any damage to broader relations.

The United States and Russia are still on track to hold a top-level meeting in Washington next week in preparation for the upcoming G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September, according to a U.S. official.

But the White House said on Thursday that it was reconsidering a planned summit between Obama and Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20.

"We are evaluating the utility of a summit," presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.

Key topics on the overall U.S.-Russian agenda include missile defense, nuclear arms reductions and the crisis in Syria, the official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified, said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said there are times when “we strongly disagree” but the two sides have a “broad agenda that we do talk to the Russian government about.”

Separately, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that “we obviously want to maintain our relationship with the Russian military.” But he also emphasized that he had no “announcement” on any upcoming meetings with the Russians.