Edward Snowden asks Vladimir Putin about Russian spying on its citizens

NSA leaker Edward Snowden questioned Russian President Vladimir Putin about domestic spying on Thursday. Putin wasn't exactly truthful in his response. (Fact-checking source: Andrei Soldatov) (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

American fugitive Edward Snowden made a surprise appearance during Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s annual call-in meeting with the nation on Thursday, submitting what critics considered a softball question about domestic surveillance in the country where Snowden has taken refuge.

The Russian leader took full advantage — denying that his government engages in large-scale monitoring and deflating Snowden’s effort to cast himself as a spokesman for civil liberties.

“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy,” Putin said in greeting him. “I used to work for an intelligence service. We can talk one professional language.”

Snowden, posing his question in English, asked whether Russia collected the communications of millions of its citizens in a manner similar to the U.S. surveillance. Putin responded by saying that such surveillance is conducted under the law. “You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person,” he said.

“Thank God, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society, and their activity is regulated by law,” Putin said. Besides, he added, “We don’t have as much money as they have in the States, and we don’t have the technical devices that they have.”

The response was quickly dismissed by Russia experts, who noted that Russian security services collect data from domestic telecommunications companies and Internet providers as a matter of course.

In a tweet in Russian, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow offered the former National Security Agency contractor its own answer: “Snowden would probably be interested to know that Russian laws allow the control, storage and study of all data in the communication networks of the Russian Federation.”

Snowden’s question, submitted to Putin by video link, seemed to be aimed at putting Putin in the same rhetorical corner that caught U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. before the avalanche of National Security Agency leaks began.

When Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Clapper during a congressional hearing whether the United States gathered data on millions of Americans, Clapper denied that it did so, an answer that was proved false by documents Snowden supplied to news organizations including The Washington Post.

Snowden has faced allegations that he was working on Russia’s behalf when he absconded with a massive trove of classified documents — a charge that he has consistently denied. He has also been painted by some as a hypocrite for fleeing to a country known for all-encompassing surveillance of its citizens.

After the exchange with Putin, Snowden’s critics scoffed at the episode.

“Snowden celebrates Pulitzer by turning into Putin’s propaganda tool,” former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker said in a comment posted on Twitter, referring to the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to The Post and the Guardian US this week for their Snowden coverage.

Miller reported from Washington.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
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