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7 Aug, 2013 09:05

Obama ‘disappointed’ with Snowden asylum, says no domestic spying program in US

Obama ‘disappointed’ with Snowden asylum, says no domestic spying program in US

Barack Obama made his first comments on Snowden asylum, saying he was "disappointed" that Moscow had given the leaker temporary refuge. The US President also touched on ‘gay propaganda’ laws in Russia during The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Obama said Russia’s recent decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum reflected the "underlying challenges" he now faces in dealing with Moscow.

"There have been times where they slip back into Cold-War thinking and a Cold-War mentality," Obama remarked. 

Snowden, whose US passport has been revoked, was granted one year’s asylum in Russia last Thursday, finally leaving the confines of the Moscow airport where he had been holed up since June 23. His new residence permit allows the former CIA employee to work and freely travel all across Russia.

The whistleblower is wanted in the US on espionage charges after revealing secret NSA surveillance programs to the public.

What domestic spying program?

Obama told The Tonight Show that the US has no domestic spying program and that the intelligence the country has been gathering is a “critical component to counter terrorism.”

“We don’t have a domestic spying program,” Obama stated. “What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. That information is useful.”

President Obama: "We don’t have a domestic spying program." What about NSA's surveillance of phone calls & email metadata? Look: Puppies!

— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) August 7, 2013

Obama complained that with Snowden and the disclosure of classified information has raised “a lot of questions for people.” However, he added that a lot of “these programs” were put in place before he came in.

“I had the programs reviewed, we put in some additional safeguards to make sure that there’s federal court oversight as well as congressional oversight that there is no spying on Americans,” the US president reassured.

According to Snowden’s lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, “he is wanted just for telling the truth.”

Extradition not an option

Russia repeatedly said it cannot extradite Snowden because there is no legal basis for such action.

“Russia has never extradited anyone, and will not extradite,” Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in late July.

The US government has described Russia’s move to grant Snowden asylum as “an unfortunate step” for bilateral relations.

The decision to grant Snowden asylum has pushed the White House to reconsider Obama's plans to pay a visit to Russia in September, when he was expected to attend an international summit in St. Petersburg. It’s not clear yet whether the president is planning to attend any separate meetings with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The White House says it’s currently evaluating the "utility" of such meetings.

Obama slams debated Russia gay laws

During The Tonight Show, Obama also voiced his attitude towards the new Russian law cracking down on gay rights activism.

The US president mentioned that he has "no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."

The law ‘prohibiting propaganda of homosexuality to minors’ was enacted on June 30, when it was signed by President Putin. It has introduced fines for ‘propaganda’ of non-traditional sex relations to minors, including in the media, on the internet and via viral adverts. Under the amended law holding LGBT rallies is now prohibited as well as distribution of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual concepts in children, describing such ties as attractive.  

LGBT activist holds a placard: "This is propaganda of tolerance" during the celebration of Airborne Forces Day on Palace Square in St. Petersburg (RIA Novosti / Inna Shpigel)

Supporters of the law insist it’s not about punishing people for being homosexual, as was notoriously the case in the USSR, but to keep young people from being dragged into same-sex relationships. Critics argue that young people don’t become gay merely from hearing or reading about homosexuality.

Many complain that the law does not specify which exact activities constitute ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, leaving the loose legal interpretation open to abuse.

Last week a top Russian lawmaker promised, however, that the Russian law against ‘gay propaganda’ is not going to apply to the participants and guests of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

“The Olympics is a major international event. Our task is to be as politically correct and tolerant as we can be. That’s why we made the decision not to raise this issue during the Games,” Igor Ananskikh, the head of the Russian Duma Committee on physical training, sports and youth, said.

Asked whether he thinks the law would in any way affect the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Obama replied he believes Putin and Russia have "a big stake in making sure the Olympics work."

"I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They’re athletes, they’re there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it," he noted.