"We… understand from press reports that Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty," Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter to his Russian counterparts today. "These claims are entirely without merit."
As for the death penalty, Holder wrote that the espionage-related charges Snowden faces "do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional death penalty-eligible crimes." Holder also wrote that torture is "unlawful in the United States."
Holder said that Snowden would be provided all the protections the law provides, should he return to face the charges against him.
"We believe that these assurances eliminate these asserted grounds for Mr. Snowden's claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise," Holder said.
Snowden is believed to still be holed up in the transit area of a Moscow airport, despite early indications Russian officials were prepared to grant him temporary asylum. A local lawyer who is advising Snowden told reporters Wednesday that immigration officials were still deliberating about his request and said Snowden "intends to stay in Russia, study Russian culture."
Snowden, who fled the U.S. for Hong Kong with a trove of NSA documents on vast secret surveillance programs, was believed to have originally intended to go through Moscow on his way to sympathetic countries in South America. But there are no direct commercial flights from Moscow to the nations in question and the U.S. has demanded that any country in which Snowden lands should hand him over.
Russian President Vladimir Putin previously said that Snowden has committed no crimes in Russia and would be permitted to stay, so long as he stops leaking information that damages America. Snowden publicly argued that he never intended to damage America and that he's already given all the information he has to give to various journalists – essentially, he has nothing left to leak. The reports based on his information, however, are not expected to stop, according to The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who told ABC News he's not even half done writing about what he's learned from Snowden.
Still, today a spokesperson for Putin's office said he has "no doubt" Snowden will stop leaking information if he is given temporary asylum.
"I have no doubt this is how it will be, no matter how the situation develops," the spokesperson said, according to Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti.