WASHINGTON â" United States Vice President Joe Biden has asked Ecuador to turn down an asylum request from National Security Agency leaker E dward Snowden, the country's president said Saturday.
Rafael Correa, in a weekly television address, offered little sympathy for the Obama administration's view that Snowden is a criminal who should be swiftly returned to the U.S. At the same time, he vowed to seek American input on any asylum request and suggested Snowden will have to answer for his actions.
The Friday phone call between Correa and Biden â" it's the highest-level conversation between the U.S. and Ecuador to be disclosed since Snowden began seeking asylum â" added to the confusion about Snowden's status. Facing espionage charges in the U.S., Snowden is believed to be holed up in a Moscow airport's
transit zone and seeking safe passage to Ecuador, the country seen as likeliest to shelter America's most wanted fugitive.
Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, has been given asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London.
Correa said h e had a "friendly and very cordial" conversation with Biden, and told the vice president that Ecuador hadn't sought to be put in the situation of deciding whether to harbor an American justice-dodger. He said Ecuador can't consider the asylum request until Snowden is on Ecuadorean soil.
"The moment that he arrives, if he arrives, the first thing is we'll ask the opinion of the United States, as we did in the Assange case with England," Correa said. "But the decision is ours to make."
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan confirmed that the two leaders spoke by phone Friday and discussed Snowden, but she wouldn't disclose any details about the conversation.
A staunch critic of the U.S., Correa rebuked the Obama administration for hypocrisy, invoking the case of brothers Roberto and William Isaias, bankers whose extradition from the U.S. Correa said Ecuador has been seeking. "Let's be consistent. Have rules for everyone, because that is a c lear double-standard here," he said.
The leftist leader sought to direct attention away from Snowden's actions and back to the U.S. spying secrets he exposed, summoning a theme he's invoked to the delight of his strongest backers since Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed the agency's massive Internet and phone surveillance to two newspapers, fleeing all the while from Hong Kong to Moscow in evasion of U.S. authorities.
"The really grave thing is what Snowden has reported," Correa said. "He will have to assume his responsibilities, but the grave thing is his reporting of the biggest massive spy operation in the history of humanity, inside and outside the United States."
Ecuadorean officials have acknowledged its embassy in London issued Snowden a letter of safe passage that calls on other countries to allow him to travel to asylum in Ecuador. But Ecuador's secretary of political management, Betty Tola, said the letter was invalid because it was issued without central government approval in Quito, the capital.
Obama and his aides have tempered their rhetoric about Snowden in recent days after more heated attempts to pressure China and Russia over his extradition raised tensions with those nations, threatening to undercut cooperation with the two major powers on other issues.
But Ecuador has seemed to delight in tweaking the U.S. over the issue, accusing America of human rights violations and blowing off warnings about how the U.S. might respond if Ecuador doesn't cooperate.
After the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on Wednesday threatened an effort to block renewal of Ecuador's tariff benefits on hundreds of millions of dollars in trade, Ecuador preemptively renounced the benefits themselves, claiming the trade deal had become "a new instrument of blackmail."
As for Biden, Correa suggested it wasn't personal. He praised the vice president for being more courteous than "those badly behaved and confused ones in the Senate who threaten our country."