Russian President Vladimir Putin called the massive U.S. surveillance programs, revealed last week by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, "generally practicable" and "the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism." His comments, made in a far-ranging interview to the state-backed news network RT, seemed to defend programs that have been deeply controversial in the United States and much of Europe, offering an endorsement that the Obama administration is probably not thrilled to receive.
He said of the New York city police response to Occupy Wall Street, in a comment that seemed consistent with much of his sympathy toward controversial U.S. programs, "Thatâ€™s the way itâ€™s done in the U.S., and thatâ€™s the way itâ€™s done in Russia." That's not really true, of course â€“ the United States doesn't sentence people who sing anti-Obama songs to labor camps â€“ but it is unlikely to convince many U.S. critics of NSA or drone programs.
"He told us nothing we didnâ€™t know before," Putin said of Snowden, apparently declining the opportunity to criticize the United States, a surprising move given his government's sometimes stringent attacks on U.S. policy, for example during the recent controversy over American adoptions of Russian children.
Putin explained that government "surveillance of individuals and organizations," like that revealed by Snowden, "is becoming a global phenomenon in the context of combating international terrorism, and such methods are generally practicable." He allowed that "security agencies" must be "controlled by the public" and that tapping phones should require court approval (the NSA is required to ask a court's permission for each case, although that court has never actually said no). With such oversight, Putin said, "Thatâ€™s more or less the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism with modern-day technology. As long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the law that regulates intelligence activities, itâ€™s alright."
Putin's only disagreement with the United States seemed to be President Obama's argument, in explaining the programs, that "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." Putin responded, "Yes you can." He argued that requiring intelligence agencies to "obtain a warrant for specific policing activities domestically" would satisfy both security and privacy. This sort of thinking might make sense to the Kremlin, but is probably not what either Obama or U.S. civil libertarians have in mind when they talk about preserving privacy in the fight against terrorism.
Later in the interview, when asked about the U.S. use of drones, Putin declined another opportunity to criticize the United States. Although I've seen a number of RT segments strongly criticizing the Obama administration's use of drones and particularly its civilian causalities, Putin seemed to wave off the charge. "Iâ€™m sure the United States does not target civilians on purpose," he said. "And the drone operators youâ€™ve mentioned are people, too, and I think they understand all those things. But you still need to combat terrorism."
Putin did argue that, when it comes to drones, "you need to put drones under control, you need to lay out certain rules of engagement in order to prevent or minimize collateral casualties. It is extremely important."
He also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, comparing it to the Russian political opposition and apparently drawing parallels between the New York city police who cleared "Occupy" protesters from Zucotti Park and Russia's own crackdown on the opposition. "At a certain point we saw the police cracking down on the Occupy Wall Street activists. I wonâ€™t call the actions of police appropriate or inappropriate," he said. "If there are people who act outside the law, then the state must use legal means to impose law in the interests of majority. Thatâ€™s the way itâ€™s done in the U.S., and thatâ€™s the way itâ€™s done in Russia."
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