12-04-2016  12:23 pm      •     

(CNN) -- While saying he is enormously concerned about what secrets self-avowed NSA leaker Edward Snowden may yet spill, President Barack Obama said Thursday he's not going to take extraordinary measures to capture him.

"I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," he told reporters during a news conference in Senegal, his first stop on a tour of several African nations.

Obama also said he hadn't talked to the leaders of China and Russia about Snowden, in part because he didn't want to amp the issue into one in which he would have to start "wheeling and dealing" with foreign leaders on other issues in an effort to get Snowden behind bars.

Meanwhile, leaders in Ecuador, where Snowden is seeking asylum, defiantly -- and probably symbolically -- renounced free-trade benefits with the United States Thursday amid a growing spat over the fugitive.

Snowden, whose acknowledged disclosure of secret surveillance programs angered U.S. officials and netted him espionage charges, is seeking asylum in the Latin American country, which has already agreed to shelter WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said he would move to block Ecuador from two U.S. free-trade programs should the country provide harbor to Snowden.

"Our government will not reward countries for bad behavior," he said.

Ecuadorian presidential spokesman Fernando Alvarado said Thursday the nation would spare Menendez and his Senate colleagues the trouble.

"We will not accept any threats or pressure from anyone," he said at a news conference. "We will not deal or trade in our principles. No matter how important the trade advantage may be."

The programs in question aren't free-trade agreements but rather U.S. laws that don't require Ecuadorian consent, and it wasn't immediately clear how Thursday's declaration would have anything more than symbolic effect.

Despite the political rhetoric, Ecuadorian business leaders say giving Snowden asylum could be problematic for the national economy, which sent $9.6 billion of goods to the United States in 2011, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

"I would say so," said Roberto Aspiazu, head of the Ecuadorian Business Committee. "It's a risk to give asylum to Snowden because the United States, they could consider some economic sanction, including commercial sanctions. And obviously our commerce with the United States is very important."

Still in Moscow

Snowden apparently remained in limbo Thursday at Moscow's international airport, a free man according to Russian officials but with apparently limited travel options.

He didn't appear to board Thursday's flight from Moscow to Havana, where he had been rumored to be heading on his way to Ecuador or some other safe haven.

While he has applied to Ecuador for asylum, that request has not yet been "dealt with" because Snowden is not in the country, Ecuadorian Political Affairs Secretary Betty Tola told reporters. She also denied the country granted Snowden refugee travel papers, as Assange told reporters this week.

Assange said Snowden traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday using documents provided by Ecuador.

Ecuador denies providing any documents, and officials of other governments have not confirmed what documents the former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor used in leaving the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, where he had gone to leak details of secret U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance programs.

Hong Kong's decision to allow Snowden to leave despite the charges against him, as well as Russia's refusal to detain Snowden for U.S. authorities, have resulted in a diplomatic row between the United States and the two nations.

U.S. officials have accused China of deliberately allowing Snowden to leave, while they have expressed frustration with Russia's refusal to detain a man they have portrayed almost as a common criminal -- on par with the seven Russian fugitives U.S. officials have repeatedly said they handed over to Russia in the past two years despite the lack of an extradition treaty.

Snowden, 30, has acknowledged leaking sensitive details of U.S. surveillance programs out of concern the programs violate privacy rights and put too much power into the hands of government officials acting in secret.

U.S. officials say the revelations endanger their ability to prevent terrorist attacks and could cost American lives.

Possible Snowden posts

On Wednesday, the technology website Ars Technica published portions of chat logs that it said showed comments made in 2009 by someone posting under a forum name Snowden was known to have used. The comments were critical of people leaking national security information.

Commenting on New York Times reporting based on leaks related to confidential surveillance programs involving Iran, the poster compared the newspaper to WikiLeaks -- which enraged U.S. officials by disclosing thousands of confidential diplomatic cables.

"Are they TRYING to start a war?" the poster wrote. "you don't put that s*** in the NEWSPAPER."

Ars Techica said it could not be certain the poster was Snowden, but information revealed in the posts matches biographical information he has since publicly revealed. CNN could not verify the authenticity of the posts.

If they were written by Snowden, however, they offer insight into his thinking at a time when he apparently was more accepting of government surveillance programs.

According to Ars Technica, the poster said of the New York Times and its reporting on secret surveillance programs, "these are the same people who blew the whole 'we could listen to osama's cell phone' thingthe same people who screwed us on wiretappingover and over and over againThank god they're going out of business."

Four years later, Snowden would provide news organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom with classified information he acknowledged copying and taking from his job as a computer contractor for the NSA in Hawaii.

CNN's Carol Cratty, Elise Labott, Vivian Kam, Adam Levine, Catherine E. Shoichet and Joseph Netto contributed to this report.

 

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