Edward Snowden Asks Putin About Mass Surveillance in Russia

The NSA leaker showed up in the Russian president’s annual televised Q&A session Thursday.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a 'hero' is seen during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Matt Berman
April 17, 2014, 4:21 a.m.

No mat­ter where you come down in the over­wrought “Is Ed­ward Snowden a hero or vil­lain” de­bate, this surely looks bizarre.

Dur­ing Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s an­nu­al tele­vised Q&A ses­sion on Thursday, Snowden, the NSA leak­er who’s cur­rently liv­ing in Rus­sia after be­ing gran­ted asylum in the coun­try, made a video ap­pear­ance to ask the pres­id­ent about sur­veil­lance in Rus­sia.

“I’ve seen little pub­lic dis­cus­sion of Rus­sia’s own in­volve­ment in the policies of mass sur­veil­lance,” he said. “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?”

Putin’s an­swer in short: Nah.

Here’s the full re­sponse, trans­lated by RT (my em­phas­is ad­ded):

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 a spe­cial ser­vices have to use tech­nic­al means to re­spond to their crimes, in­clud­ing those of ter­ror­ist nature. 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 are, thank god, strictly con­trolled by the so­ci­ety and by the law and reg­u­lated by the law.

You can watch video of the full ex­change be­low.

Thursday’s event was Putin’s 12th an­nu­al Q&A, where he takes (largely) ques­tions from Rus­si­an cit­izens. They can be in­cred­ibly long af­fairs: Last year’s went on for over four hours.

As you might ex­pect from a coun­try that tightly con­trols its me­dia, the Q&A ses­sion isn’t ex­actly un­friendly. In a pre­view of Thursday’s event, Krem­lin spokes­man Dmitry Peskov gave IT­AR-TASS a sense of where the ques­tions would lean, par­tic­u­lar in re­gard to Rus­sia’s ac­tions in Ukraine.

“That’s what people say: Thank you for Crimea! Many also ask how they could help, ex­press their in­ten­tion to par­ti­cip­ate in rais­ing funds for the con­struc­tion of a bridge across the Kerch Strait. And this en­thu­si­asm is mani­fest in the over­all amount of ap­peals, which can­not but glad­den,” Peskov told the news ser­vice.

Putin did ad­dress what’s cur­rently hap­pen­ing in east­ern Ukraine in re­sponse to a ques­tion, say­ing that the idea that Rus­si­an troops are cur­rently in the area is “all non­sense; there are no spe­cial units, spe­cial forces or in­struct­ors there.”

Peskov also pretty bluntly stated the pur­pose of the Q&A: “Un­der the bur­den of a pos­sible ef­fect from the call-in show and un­der the bur­den of pos­sible de­cisions the head of state makes after it, things mi­ra­cu­lously be­gin look­ing bet­ter in many re­gions.”

All of this begs an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: Why would Ed­ward Snowden in­volve him­self in an event that is, at best, a heav­ily con­trolled broad­cast from the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment? Es­pe­cially in this par­tic­u­lar in­stance, where the Q&A is be­ing used to rally and dis­play sup­port for Rus­sia’s ac­tions in Crimea?

Snowden’s Thursday ap­pear­ance may’ve helped Putin po­s­i­tion his gov­ern­ment as be­ing mor­ally su­per­i­or to that of the United States, but it cer­tainly doesn’t help Snowden’s de­fend­ers in the U.S.

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