President Obama said he should not have to speak personally with the leaders of Russia and China regarding self-professed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and said he was “not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker” during a press conference in Senegal on Thursday.
The president was on the first leg of a trip to Africa when he struck the seemingly dismissive tone regarding the former defense contractor who claimed to have leaked details of two top-secret government data-gathering programs before initiating an international manhunt that has grown to involve the governments of China, Ecuador, and Russia.
Obama said that the revelations first published in British newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post – and the ensuing search for Snowden, who has been charged with theft of government property and two offenses of espionage statutes – have the makings of a big-screen spy caper, but that he would not engage in “wheeling and dealing and trading and a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system here in the United States.”
Snowden, 30, is believed to still be hiding at a Moscow airport awaiting a ruling on his request for asylum from the government of Ecuador. Snowden flew to Russia from Hong Kong over the weekend but has not been seen since his arrival. Russian officials told Reuters that he remains in a transit area at Sheremetyevo airport.
He was not aboard an Aeroflot flight that departed Moscow to Havana on Thursday, the first stop on an anticipated escape route to the South American country.
“Now I get why it’s a fascinating story from a press perspective and I’m sure there will be a made-for-TV movie somewhere down the line,” Obama said, adding that “in terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks.”
Snowden’s case resolved “some pretty significant vulnerabilities” at the National Security Agency, Obama said. Snowden worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton before being fired, and said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that he took the job to gain access to sensitive information. NBC News could not independently verify the report.
“There have been some useful conversations that have taken place between the United States government and the Russian government,” Obama said. “And my continued expectation is that Russia – there are other countries that have talked about potentially providing Mr. Snowden asylum – recognize that they are part of an international community and that they should be abiding by international law.”
The U.S. is worried that Snowden might have other documents in his possession that he may “dribble out,” Obama said.
“I continue to be concerned about the other documents that he may have. That’s part of the reason why we’d like to have Mr. Snowden in custody,” Obama said. “But what I think we’re going to continue to do is make sure that we are following the various channels that are well established and the rules that are well established to get this thing done.”
Ecuador’s communications minister said on Thursday that his country renounced hundreds of millions of dollars in trade tariff benefits, the Associated Press reported. Communications Minister Fernando Alvarez said the trade benefits being considered for renewal by U.S. lawmakers had become an “instrument of blackmail” as the country considered granting asylum to Snowden.
Ecuador “does not accept threats from anybody, and does not trade in principles, or submit to mercantile interests, as important as they may be,” Alvarez said, according to the AP.
In Washington, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has threatened to lead the effort to remove preferential trade treatment for Ecuadorian goods if the country decides to offer asylum to Snowden.
"Edward Snowden is a fugitive who has endangered the national security of the United States," Sen. Robert Menendez said in a statement released late on Wednesday. "Trade preferences are a privilege granted to nations, not a right. I urge [Ecuadorean] President Correa to do the right thing by the United States and Ecuador, and deny Snowden's request for asylum."
Hours later, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told reporters the administration had accepted an industry petition to consider revoking Ecuador's benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences program. That petition actually pre-dates current tension between the two countries over Snowden.
In 2012, Ecuador exported some $5.4 billion worth of oil, $166 million of cut flowers, $122 million of fruits and vegetables and $80 million of tuna to the United States.
Menendez said he would lead efforts to stop the renewal of Ecuador's duty-free access to America markets under the Generalized System of Preferences program, which expires on July 31. He also said he'd try and block renewal of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which also expires at the end of July.
The ongoing incident has also heightened tensions with China, as the country’s defense minister said that the U.S. Internet monitoring program revealed in documents leaked by Snowden “has revealed the concerned country’s true face and hypocritical behavior.” Defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun did not explicitly name the United States in his comments, Reuters reported.
Also on Thursday, a government official in Switzerland said the country still has questions about Snowden's time working in Geneva as a CIA operative, Reuters reported. Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said they received a "diplomatic" response from the U.S. to questions about Snowden's time in the country from 2007 and 2009, but "have decided to discuss these points further in the future with the Americans."
NBC News' Ghazi Balkiz and Reuters contributed to this report.