NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has appeared on Russian state television to ask President Vladimir Putin a “surprise” question as part of an annual live Q&A program titled “the Vladimir Putin Hotline.”
None of the words in the previous sentence is a joke. The English translation from Russia Today can be watched here.
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden 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?”
After posing the question, the Snowden video feed disappeared from the screen, as Putin waited patiently for RT’s newscasters to translate the totally unprepared question. Then he began his response with a spontaneous joke. “You are a former agent or spy, and I used to work for an intelligence agency, we are going to talk one professional language,” he said, to applause.
Putin went on to reassure Snowden that although Russia does target terrorists and individuals suspected of crimes with sophisticated special operations technology, it is restricted by law from gathering information on citizens without a court order. Moreover, he said that Russia never would conduct such operations, not least because “We don’t have as much money to spend as they do in the States” on developing the necessary technology, and because “our intelligence operations are strictly regulated by law.”
Last year Snowden told the Guardian he couldn’t “in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” Hopefully Putin’s assurances that Russia doesn’t spy on its own citizens was good enough to soothe any qualms Snowden might have had with appearing on Russian state television, tossing softball questions to a former KGB officer who has overseen press freedom crackdowns, jailed political opposition, criminalized “gay propaganda” and equated political activism with terrorism.
As for Snowden’s claim that he has “seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” it’s possible the problem lies with his media choices. Perhaps it’s time he stop relying on Pierre Omidyar’s The Intercept for his news about Russia. While the Intercept has been silent on Putin’s treatment of his own people, we’ve been discussing Russia’s domestic spying programs here on Pando, and back at NSFWCORP since long before Snowden touched down in Moscow.