NEW DELHI: Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden sought by America was in the transit area of a Moscow airport but ruled out handing him to Washington.
In his first public comments since Edward Snowden flew in, Putin appeared to make light of the diplomatic uproar over the fugitive, whose flight from US authorities is becoming a growing embarrassment for President Barack Obama. Asked by a journalist about the affair, he smiled fleetingly.
"I myself would prefer not to deal with these issues. It's like shearing a piglet: there's a lot of squealing, but there's little wool," Putin told a news conference in Finland.
Putin's refusal to hand back Snowden risked deepening a rift with the United States that has also drawn in China and threatens relations between countries that may be essential in settling global conflicts including the Syrian war.
Russian law requires travellers who spend more than 24 hours in the airport's transit area - as Snowden has done - to get a transit visa. It was unclear whether Snowden had sought or received a transit visa.
Why Edward Snowden is wanted by the US
Edward Snowden dropped out of high school, tried Army Reserve training but quit after four months, and then became a security guard.
Now at age 29, Snowden has become known worldwide as the man responsible for exposing vast surveillance programs by the National Security Agency, one of the most secretive government agencies in the United States.
Snowden stepped from the shadows and admitted that he had exposed the US government's top-secret surveillance programs to Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post after working in Hawaii for a company under contract to the NSA.
Snowden saw his role more clearly, saying the US government's powers of surveillance have grown so immense and intrusive that he felt compelled to denounce them, even at great personal cost. He could have remained anonymous but said his message would resonate more powerfully if he revealed his identity.
"The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong," Snowden told the Guardian in the 12-minute video introducing him to the world on Sunday.
Abandoning his life in Hawaii last month, Snowden went into hiding in Hong Kong, saying he feared he could be captured by the CIA, another foreign government or Asian organized crime gangs.
"That's a fear I'll live under for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be," he said in the video.
Snowden, who worked as a systems administrator at a US National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, is facing espionage charges from the United States after leaking details about secret US surveillance programs to the media.
Edward Snowden said he had thought long and hard before publicizing details of an NSA program code-named PRISM, saying he had done so because he felt the United States was building an unaccountable and secret espionage machine that spied on every American.
Snowden, a former technical assistant at the CIA, said he had been working at the super-secret NSA as an employee of contractor Booz Allen. He said he decided to leak information after becoming disenchanted with President Barack Obama, who he said had continued the policies of predecessor George W Bush.
"I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things ... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under," he told the Guardian newspaper, which published a video interview with him on its website.
"The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything," Snowden said in explaining his actions.
"With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards," he said.
Snowden had been working at the NSA for four years as a contractor for outside companies.
Three weeks ago, he copied the secret documents at the NSA office in Hawaii and told his supervisor he needed "a couple of weeks" off for treatment for epilepsy, the paper said. On May 20 he flew to Hong Kong.
Snowden's decision to reveal his identity and whereabouts lifts the lid on one of the biggest security leaks in US history and escalates a story that has placed a bright light on Obama's extensive use of secret surveillance.
Little from Snowden's childhood could portend his future place alongside Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the so-called Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private on military trial for providing WikiLeaks with documents, as one of the most important leakers of U.S. secrets.
As a youth in the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, Snowden attended local schools, but dropped out of Arundel High School about halfway through his sophomore year, said school spokesman Bob Mosier.
Snowden's parents divorced when he was 18 and they lived in Crofton, Maryland, a planned community where many NSA employees and their families live.
The exposure of the secret programs has triggered widespread debate within the United States and abroad about the vast reach of the NSA, which has expanded its surveillance dramatically in since the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York in 2001.
How much damage caused
Intelligence analysts around the world are working to determine the operational impact of Snowden's exposure of methods used by the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters agency to tap into telephone and Internet traffic.
Among the potential damage to Western intelligence is that foreign governments like Russia and China may have found out technical details of how Western agencies intercept communications and what specific links they monitor or tap into.
US officials fear that if Snowden, now allied with the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, releases more of the large cache of classified information he is believed to possess, there could be further fallout for Western counterterrorism operations.
US agencies are already operating on a "worst case" assumption that all of the classified material in Snowden's possession has somehow made its way to one or more adversary intelligence services, several sources said.
How much of a long-term impact Snowden's actions have at home may depend largely on whether a backlash in the United States ultimately restricts how the NSA can use its tools.
Previous dire warnings of leaks causing huge damage to US national security interests have proved overplayed. The leaking of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks in 2010 appears to have had far less impact than Washington initially warned. (Agencies)