Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on Russia on Wednesday to ship professed National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the U.S., saying his alleged disclosures had done "damage ... to this country."
In his first public remarks on Snowden since The Guardian and The Washington Post published documents describing widespread government gathering of the telephone records of millions of Americans two weeks ago, Hagel said Snowden "has broken laws" that have protected Americans from "constant threats."
"There was damage done to this country by the Snowden leaks," Hagel said at a briefing for reporters at the Defense Department. "We are assessing that now, but make no mistake: This violation of our laws was a serious security breach."
Snowden, who is charged with espionage, flew to Russia from Hong Kong over the weekend. Since then, he's remained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, trying to arrange asylum in Ecuador, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
Hagel said that hoped "that the Russians do the right thing here and turn Snowden over to the United States." But Putin said Tuesday that he would "prefer not to deal with these issues."
"Mr. Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for us and for him," Putin said. "I hope it will not affect the business-like character of our relations with the U.S., and I hope that our partners will understand that."
Ecuador also helped WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange take asylum in their London embassy. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Wednesday sharply criticized U.S. officials for shifting the focus of attention to Snowden from the secret surveillance program he is alleged to have revealed, The Associated Press reported from Quito.
But Hagel insisted that Snowden was simply a criminal who'd put Americans in danger.
"The threats are constant," said Hagel, who noted that he represented Nebraska in the Senate "when we passed most of these laws that set up the systems that we are working with today."
"They are legal, and they do protect the United States," he said.
Courtney Kube of NBC News contributed to this report.