QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador announced Thursday it was withdrawing from a 2-decade-old trade pact with the United States, saying the agreement left the South American nation vulnerable to "blackmail" as U.S. officials seek the return of fugitive Edward Snowden.
The trade agreement was already at risk of nonrenewal by Congress before Ecuador began weighing whether to grant asylum to Snowden, the former contract worker for the National Security Agency who this month revealed extensive U.S. tracking of telephone communications and then fled to Hong Kong.
Snowden faces felony espionage charges at home. The United States has demanded his extradition, first from Hong Kong, where he hid for several weeks, and now from Russia, where he arrived Sunday. He is thought to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport while seeking a route to Ecuador or somewhere else that might grant him shelter.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, sought to downplay the international chase for the man he called "a 29-year-old hacker" and lower the temperature of an issue that has raised tensions between the United States and uneasy partners Russia and China.
At an early-morning news conference, Ecuadorean Communications Secretary Fernando Alvarado said the decision to quit the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act accord was "irreversible" and was made to avoid Ecuador becoming vulnerable to pressure from the United States over Snowden.
Alvarado added that his government instead was offering the United States a subsidy of $23 million, which he said was the value of the benefits Ecuadorean traders received from the deal, to fund human rights training.
Alvarado also denied reports Wednesday that his government had already given Snowden temporary travel documents permitting him to travel to Ecuador.
Internet records were gathered: The Obama administration gathered U.S. citizens' Internet data until 2011, continuing a spying program started under President George W. Bush that revealed whom Americans exchanged emails with and the Internet Protocol address of their computer, according to documents disclosed Thursday in the Guardian of Britain and also recently in the Washington Post.
The National Security Agency ended the program that collected email logs and timing, but not content, in 2011 because it decided it didn't effectively stop terrorist plots, according to the NSA's director, Gen. Keith Alexander. He said all data was purged in 2011.
Information from Associated Press was used in this report.