Ecuador leader says spoke to US vice president about Snowden
The United States has asked Ecuador to reject intelligence leaker Edward Snowden's asylum request, the South American country's leader said Saturday amid a report Washington bugged European Union offices.
Rafael Correa said he told US Vice President Joe Biden that Quito would consult with Washington before making a decision but that, ultimately, it was up to Ecuador whether to take in the fugitive who made bombshell revelations about covert US surveillance of phone records and Web traffic.
Quito held the United States in high regard and "did not seek out" being in this situation, Correa said he told Biden during Friday's call between the two men.
"Do not get the idea that we are anti-American, as some ill-spirited media outlets are doing," he said he told the vice president.
In his weekly address to the nation, Correa said he also told Biden that Ecuador could not process Snowden's asylum request because he was not physically in the country.
"When he comes to Ecuadoran soil, if in fact he ever does, and we have to process the request, the first people whose opinion we will seek is that of the United States," Correa said.
Snowden, currently holed up in the transit area of a Moscow airport after fleeing Hong Kong in the wake of his first disclosures to select media, asked for asylum last weekend.
Ecuador has already granted refuge to Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website. Wanted for questioning in Sweden, the Australian has been hold up at Quito's embassy in London for the past year.
The activist fears that if he is handed over to Sweden, he will be passed onto the United States over controversial diplomatic memo leaks and could face the death penalty there.
Correa said Saturday Ecuador would follow the same procedure it did then.
"Just as we did in the Assange case with England, we are going to listen to everyone but the decision would be ours as a sovereign nation," he said.
"But of course, with fondness and respect for the United States, we are going to keep very much in mind what that country has to say."
Correa described his conversation with Biden as "quite courteous, and I would even say cordial."
The Internet and phone surveillance programs that the 30-year-old former National Security Agency subcontractor revealed amount to the biggest espionage case in history, he said.
The United States should explain the secret programs, he said, rather than focus on catching Snowden and "tearing apart a president, government or country that dares to say it will process an asylum request if it receives one."
Separately Saturday, Correa said Ecuador planned to punish one of its diplomat who made a decision beyond his rank when he gave Snowden a temporary travel document.
Correa said London consul Fidel Narvaez gave the document to Snowden "exceeding his authority in doing so" and due to the consul's apparently "desperate" concern that Snowden could be arrested.
"He will be punished," Correa said of Narvaez.
Meanwhile, German weekly Der Spiegel reported that the European Union was one of the "targets" of Washington's huge Internet spy program, with bugs hidden in EU offices in Brussels and the United States.
The magazine said the claims were based on confidential documents it was partly able to consult through Snowden, who this month revealed the existence of the so-called PRISM program operated by the NSA.
A document dated September 2010 and classed as "strictly confidential" describes how the NSA kept tabs on the EU's diplomatic mission in Washington, the magazine said.
The EU representation at the United Nations was subject to similar surveillance, Der Spiegel said, adding that the leaked documents explicitly referred to the Europeans as "targets."
The spying extended to the 27-member bloc's Brussels headquarters, Der Spiegel said, referring to an incident "more than five years ago" when EU security experts discovered telephone and online bugging devices at the Justus Lipsius building.