Edward Snowden has defended his decision to appear on live Russian television, insisting his question to Vladimir Putin on mass surveillance was designed to hold the Russian president accountable and not, as critics have suggested, an act of compliant propaganda.
Writing for the Guardian, the whistleblower behind the National Security Agency leaks suggests he carefully framed the question to Putin, which he asked via video link in an annual televised call-in with the president on Thursday. Putin, Snowden writes, “denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter”.
In the phone-in, Snowden asked Putin: "Does Russia intercept, store or analyse, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?"
Putin replied: "Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law... We don't have a mass system of such interception and – according with our law –it cannot exist."Snowden quizzes Putin on Russian TV
The wording was deliberately modelled, Snowden says, on the query of US senator Ron Wyden to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in March last year – almost three months before the NSA disclosures began – to which Clapper blatantly and inaccurately denied that the US government collected data on millions on Americans.
“The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange between Senator Ron Wyden and DNI James Clapper… and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion” from Putin, Snowden writes.
Snowden’s decision to take part in Putin’s annual live session, which traditionally features softball questions, prompted an outpouring of criticism against the former NSA contractor. He is in exile in Russia having been charged with three felonies by the US government in relation to the leak, including one count under the Espionage Act.
Stewart Baker, the NSA’s former general counsel, attacked Snowden in a post for Volokh Conspiracy blog on the Washington Post headlined “Snowden self-incriminates”. Baker wrote: “It sure looks as though Snowden is playing the Kremlin’s game here, serving up a pre-arranged softball on demand.”
Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist who has attacked the leaker in an e-book called The Snowden Operation, told the Wall Street Journal the appearance had made him “look like a propaganda patsy of the Kremlin”. Lucas added that given how careful Snowden had been on this question, “it seems almost reckless. This raises all sorts of questions about the real conditions of his stay in Russia and his relationship with the Kremlin.”
Even some Snowden supporters voiced unease at his participation in the event. Jillian York, the director of international free expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has previously given numerous public talks in support of Snowden and the NSA revelations, tweeted: “Snowden's question WAS softball. If he knows as much as he claims, he would've known that the wording gave Putin an easy out.”
But in his article, which was given to the Guardian via the Freedom of the Press Foundation, on whose board Snowden sits, Snowden says such criticism was a simple misinterpretation of what he had been trying to do. He emphasises that he has sworn no allegiance to Russia and has no ulterior motive.
“I expected that some would object to my participation in an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged. But to me, the rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media outweighed that risk.”
Snowden says that before state officials in any country can be held accountable, “we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims”. He said he was motivated by a belief that mass surveillance was a threat to people everywhere, not just in the US.
“Last year, I risked family, life, and freedom to help initiate a global debate that even [Barack] Obama himself conceded 'will make our nation stronger'. I am no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today than I was then.”