QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — An Ecuadorean diplomatic employee issued a safe conduct pass for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to travel to Ecuador to seek political asylum, but the action was unauthorized and the pass has no validity, government officials said Thursday.
Ecuador's scramble to explain the document, revealed by the Univision television network, came as President Obama was seeking to downplay the international chase for "a 29-year-old hacker" and lower the temperature of an issue that has already raised tensions between the U.S. and uneasy partners Russia and China.
Obama said in Senegal that the damage to U.S. national security has already been done and his top focus now is making sure it can't happen again.
Ecuadorean officials have repeatedly expressed sympathy for Snowden for revealing secret global U.S. surveillance programs, but have insisted they have taken no decision on granting him asylum, and they rushed to distance themselves from the unsigned letter shown by Univision.
Secretary of Political Management Betty Tola told a news conference that "any document of this type has no validity and is the exclusive responsibility of the person who issued it."
Another government official said that while the document is authentic, it was issued without approval from the Foreign Ministry or other officials in the capital and thus has no legal power. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Tola told reporters that Snowden's asylum application hadn't been processed because he was not in Ecuador as required by law. She also threatened legal action against whoever had leaked the document. She and other officials offered no further details about his case.
The back-and-forth over the document appears to be part of broader debate within Ecuador's leftist government about whether to offer asylum to Snowden, who is believed to remain in limbo in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after flying in from Hong Kong.
Snowden's American passport has been revoked by U.S. authorities. Ecuadoran officials have defended Snowden in public, saying his revelations of U.S. spying benefited the world, but also seem taken aback by the intensity of global attention and U.S. criticism focused on Ecuador for considering his asylum request.
Communications Minister Fernando Alvarado reacted defiantly on Thursday, saying the country rejects economic "blackmail" to force its hand. He said "Ecuador unilaterally and irrevocably renounces" tariff benefits on hundreds of millions of dollars in trade that are up for renewal by the U.S. Congress. Nearly half of Ecuador's foreign trade depends on the U.S.
The program, initially meant to help Andean countries aiding in the fight against drugs, was facing an uphill fight for renewal. Alvarado did not explicitly mention a separate effort to win trade benefits under a presidential order.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised to lead an effort to block extension of the tariff benefits aid if Ecuador grants asylum to Snowden.
In Senegal, President Barack Obama said Thursday that The United States won't be scrambling military jets or engaging in high-level diplomatic bartering to get Snowden extradited to the U.S.
"I'm not going to have one case with a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system," Obama said at a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall.
Snowden's intercontinental efforts to evade U.S. authorities — taking him from a hotel hideout in Hong Kong to an airport transit zone in Moscow, where he's believed to be holed up — has already undercut Obama's efforts to strengthen ties with China and threatened to worsen tensions with Russia just as Obama is seeking Moscow's cooperation on Syria. At the same time, Snowden's attempts to seek asylum from Ecuador and other nations have underscored Obama's limited sway in a number of foreign capitals.
Obama's comment came on the first full day of a weeklong, 3-country trip to Africa, his first major tour of sub-Saharan Africa since he took office more than four years ago.
Pace reported from Dakar, Senegal.