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?
What did anyone expect President Barack Obama to say when he was asked about Snowden’s disclosures initially in June? That the surveillance state, which had grown more entrenched during his presidency, needed to be dismantled?
How many times has Putin been asked about the capabilities and operations of the surveillance state? In January, ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, George Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC News’ “This Week,” did a lengthy interview with the Russian president and asked zero questions about surveillance in Russia. (Snowden had been living in the country for nearly six months.)
And isn’t this question from Snowden something that creates an opportunity for Russians to push for more attention to be given to Russian government surveillance in the country?
Snowden’s question would seem to be what critics wanted from him all along. As The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel articulated in January after an online Q&A:
…Whatever Snowden’s original motivations, it’s clear that he has been silent about Russia’s own massive and repressive surveillance program and that he is in close contact with people who have strong ties to the Russian intelligence services. Snowden’s lawyer and spokesman, Anatoly Kucherena, serves on an oversight body for the FSB, Russia’s state security agency, and according to some reports Snowden is constantly surrounded by FSB handlers and his entire life is “dictated by Russian intelligence.” For a self-described whistleblower who used his platform yesterday to advocate for a global reform of surveillance apparatuses, the silence on Russia can’t be just an oversight…
The silence has been broken, perhaps because of the pressure from commentators like Siegel and government officials fabricating propaganda about how he under the influence of Russian intelligence like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers. But this is somehow not good enough.
Truthfully, nothing will ever be good enough for those who can generally be referred to as critics. They never have genuinely wanted Snowden to use his asylum to confront Putin. They do not sympathize or empathize with what he did. They strain to come up with what they consider positive so they can appear to balance that with their strident condemnations.
They do not pause to recognize how it is the fault of the Obama administration that he became stranded in a Moscow airport in a country that many consider a key adversary of America. And nobody takes any time to consider how the failure to respect whistleblowers and grant protections and instead prosecute leakers to a greater extent than any previous president in history may have played a role in creating the climate that inspired Snowden to leave Hawaii for Hong Kong before going public.
His critics want him to come home and face “justice” in America. They don’t understand what it would mean for someone like Snowden to face “justice,” such as whether he would be able to defend himself in court or be silenced by the process. They just parrot this refrain that he is running from taking responsibility for what he did and should return home. If he really considers himself a whistleblower, he should be willing to go to jail and face punishment (or, as they might put it, he should be held “accountable”).
As Justin Miller of The Daily Beast suggested, President Obama has sounded similar to how Putin sounded in his answer to Snowden.
When Obama appeared on “The Tonight Show” and Jay Leno was still the host, Obama said, “We don’t have a domestic spying program.”
Obama gave a major speech on January 17 where he stated, “What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale — not only because I felt that they made us more secure; but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.”
“The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails. When mistakes are made — which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise — they correct those mistakes,” the president also claimed.
So far as one can tell, this is acceptable to journalists, politicians and many citizens because they do not think their government is capable of the kind of abuse of power and authority that a regime in Russia is capable of committing. There is this national ignorance that the system of checks and balances remains in tact and immune to the kind of instances of tyranny that obviously can manifest itself in Russia on any given day.
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, speaking from experience, has said of whistleblowers that often when they come forward the focus is no longer what they revealed. “The focus becomes the person. The focus becomes the messenger.”
Anything that can be found to put a whistleblower in a “negative light” will be amplified because the interest is to keep questioning that whistleblower’s integrity. The goal is question motives and intentions. It’s actually designed to question fundamentally who that whistleblower happens to be and, if there’s any reason to suspect that whistleblower might be unstable or that whistleblower might be susceptible to some nefarious influence or that somehow they do not fit into what is “normal” in society.
This applies to Snowden and will apply at least until the historians can discuss Snowden dispassionately in the way they might discuss what Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers dispassionately today.