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Obama: Pay no attention to that man we can't capture

Story highlights

  • President Obama downplays the pursuit of leaker Edward Snowden
  • His strategy mimics President Bush saying he's "not that concerned" about bin Laden
  • Conservative analyst: "No drama Obama" wants the Snowden story to go away
  • Gen. Clark: Snowden "will disappear from the pages of history"

If you can't nab him, then ignore him.

President Barack Obama appears to be borrowing a strategy from his predecessor in downplaying the significance of self-avowed National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who is believed to still be in the international transit lounge at the Moscow airport.

With Russia and other countries offering no apparent help to get Snowden into U.S. custody, Obama made clear on a trip to Africa this week that he has bigger priorities.

"In terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks," Obama told reporters during a news conference in Senegal, his first stop on a three-nation visit. "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker."

Asked if he called Chinese or Russian leaders to ask for their assistance in arresting Snowden, who was in Hong Kong when the first leaked documents got published, Obama said it was a law enforcement issue rather than a diplomatic concern.

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"I have not called (Chinese) President Xi personally or (Russian) President Putin personally and the reason is because, number one, I shouldn't have to," he said. "This is something that routinely is dealt with between law enforcement officials in various countries."

The president's approach evoked memories of March 2002, six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when then-President George W. Bush downgraded his public concern about Osama bin Laden.

With U.S.-led coalition forces unable to kill or capture bin Laden in Afghanistan, Bush sought to shift attention away from any perception that success in fighting terrorists depended on taking out the al Qaeda leader.

"I truly am not that concerned about him," Bush told a news conference. "I know he is on the run."

Snowden, whose acknowledged disclosure of secret surveillance programs brought espionage charges, is seeking asylum in Ecuador, which previously agreed to shelter WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Obama's message on the Snowden case differed in tone from others in his administration who warned of detrimental consequences for U.S. relations with any country that offers asylum to the former NSA analyst.

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"We are making a consistent point to any government that might take him as a final destination that this is somebody wanted on serious felony charges and we would like him returned to the United States," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Friday.

The president's more detached stance reflected what analyst Peter Brookes of the conservative Heritage Foundation called a desire to avoid doing anything provocative.

"He's been dissed by both Russia and China, and I think he wants that to stop," Brookes, a former deputy assistant defense secretary, told CNN, later adding: "This is 'no drama Obama.' He doesn't want it to become a big story."

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said Obama certainly was angered by Snowden's classified leaks that disclosed the extent of secret U.S. programs to collect phone records and details of foreign computer use as resources to help track terrorist plots.

However, Clark told CNN that the U.S. programs were similar to surveillance programs elsewhere, and the leaks were unlikely to provide an advantage for anyone.

"I don't think people are going to stop using the Internet or stop making cell phone calls because of Snowden," Clark said, adding that "most people know it's been going on all along."

In the end, he said, "Edward Snowden is going to disappear from the pages of history."

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