WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republican lawmakers criticized the Obama administration's handling of the Edward Snowden case on Tuesday, calling President Barack Obama weak for failing to persuade Russia and China to return the fugitive intelligence contractor to the United States.
Snowden's weekend departure from Hong Kong to Moscow angered and frustrated members of Congress, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday that Snowden was at a Moscow airport. He ruled out handing him over, dismissing U.S. criticism as "ravings and rubbish."
"I'm one who likes the president, but they know that he's weak," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told reporters at the Capitol. "They know that he's so fearful about getting involved in balance of power foreign affairs and they're playing on it and they're enjoying it very, very much, Putin in particular. And it really irritates the heck out of me."
Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of Obama's foreign and military policy, also criticized him as weak and said the administration must reassess its relationship with Moscow.
"It should cause a profound reevaluation on our relationship with Russia and with Vladimir Putin, something that a lot of us have been saying for a long time," McCain said, calling Putin a "KGB colonel that has no interest in the same values and principles that we hold dear."
The critical comments marked a shift from the initial reaction to the disclosure of the secret U.S. surveillance programs. Even many of Obama's toughest critics had focused their anger only on Snowden, labeling the former employee at intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton a traitor and calling for stiff punishment.
PUSHING FOR CONTRACTING CHANGES
The State Department said on Tuesday it put the thorny task of persuading Russia to hand over Snowden in the hands of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a decorated diplomat with deep contacts in Moscow, and the White House urged Russia to expel Snowden "without delay.
After criticism that the administration had waited too long to revoke Snowden's passport, Obama on Monday had referred detailed questions about the case to the Justice Department.
Democrats reserved their criticism for Moscow. "I am very disappointed by the actions of the Russian government," Democratic Senator Mark Warner said.
On a related matter, Republicans and Obama's fellow Democrats both called for an uncompromising look at the use of outside contractors by intelligence agencies.
"There should be congressional oversight," said Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Congressional oversight can be very effective, and it's essential."
But Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a likely 2016 presidential contender, blamed the Obama administration as he questioned how a low-level private National Security Agency contractor like Snowden was allowed access to vast amounts of top-secret U.S. intelligence.
"It just reveals an administration that seems more and more incompetent by the day," Ryan, who ran for vice president in 2012 on the Republican ticket defeated by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, told CBS's "This Morning" program.
"Once we've discovered that this person has stolen our secrets, has leaked them, you think we'd do a better job of following up with them in China and these other countries," Ryan said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Haldane and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott, Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)
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