Edward Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor now living in exile in Russia, is defending his appearance on a televised call-in program with President Vladimir Putin, saying he asked a question about mass surveillance programs not to pander to the Russian leader but to get him on the record so that his claims can be challenged.
In a commentary published Friday by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Snowden, who was granted temporary political asylum by Russia last year, expressed incredulity at Putin’s denial Thursday that the Russian government conducts large-scale spying on its own citizens.
Snowden said his question — which he summarized in his piece as “Does [your country] intercept, analyze or store millions of individuals’ communications?” — was meant to mirror an “infamous exchange” in a U.S. Senate hearing in which the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., denied that the NSA collected data on millions of Americans. He said that “Clapper’s lie . . . was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public” with evidence of massive NSA programs to collect bulk telephone, Internet and other communications data.
Snowden went on to ask Putin whether a mass surveillance program, even if “effective and technically legal,” could ever be morally justified.
The questions were intended “to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion” from Putin, Snowden wrote.
In his response, the former KGB officer, who initially greeted Snowden as a fellow spy, “denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter,” Snowden said, adding that there were “serious inconsistencies in his denial.”
But instead of focusing on “Putin’s evasive response,” Snowden wrote, many critics are questioning his own motives in appearing on the call-in program by video link. For example, he has been accused of playing a set piece in Kremlin propaganda.
In the Guardian, Snowden said Putin’s response to his question “was remarkably similar to Barack Obama’s initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible.”
He said he hoped journalists would ask Putin “more questions on surveillance programs and other controversial policies,” including whether social media companies are telling the truth when they report having received “bulk collection requests from the Russian government.”
Snowden said he did not blow the whistle on NSA mass surveillance practices “because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault,” but because such programs constitute “a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.”
Saying that he was “no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today” than he was last year when he began his leaks and fled the United States to avoid prosecution, Snowden denied critics’ charges that his call-in appearance Thursday served to “defend the kind of policies I sacrificed a comfortable life to challenge.”
Instead, he said, “if we are to test the truth of officials’ claims, we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims.”