It was not long ago that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum to remain in Russia, was routinely criticized for not speaking out on Russian surveillance by President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was accused of being some kind of traitor, who was now aligned with the Kremlin. And, after choosing to submit a question to Putin as part of an annual question-and-answer call-in program on Russian state television, Snowden has now been accused of being some kind of propaganda tool for Putin.
The exchange (as transcribed by Slate) is as follows:
SNOWDEN: I’d like to ask about mass surveillance of online communications and the bulk collection of private records by intelligence and law enforcement services. Recently in the United States two independent White House investigations as well as a federal court all concluded that these programs are ineffective in stopping terrorism. They also found that they unreasonably intrude into the private lives of ordinary citizens—individuals who have never been suspected of any wrongdoing or criminal activity. And that these kinds of programs are not the least intrusive means available to such agencies for these investigative purposes. Now, I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals, and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance? Thank you.
PUTIN: Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to be working for an intelligence service. We are going to talk one professional language. First of all, our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law—so, how special forces can use this kind of special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online. And you have to get a court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law it cannot exist. Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts and of course special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes, including those of terrorist nature. And of course we do some efforts like that, but we do not have a mass scale uncontrollable efforts like that. I hope we won’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thanks god, are strictly controlled by the society and by the law and are regulated by the law.
Watch the video of this. If this really was a part of some propaganda effort, wouldn’t the program have moved seamlessly from Snowden’s question to Putin’s answer? Instead, the moderator had to help Putin understand the question and it seemed like, between the two, they might have had trouble understanding Snowden’s American English.
The main criticism is that Snowden should have expected Putin to deny the fact that a surveillance state exists in Russia. His decision to question Putin was a poor one because it set Putin up to make him look like he does not do what the United States does (or something like that).
For example, here’s a reporter with ABC News:
Snowden asks if Russia intercepts personal data of ordinary citizens. Really, Snowden? Do you really expect a straight answer?
— Terry Moran (@TerryMoran) April 17, 2014
This assumes that Snowden accepted the denial. Nobody knows at the moment. The question was a video submitted. It is not like he could have immediately responded to Putin on air to say he doubted what Putin had claimed in his answer.
Also, why is it wrong to ask a question of a person that you know that person may answer in a certain way? Getting a leader on record isn’t important?