Facing criticism over his appearance at a propaganda event organized by Russian President Vladimir Putin, NSA leaker/whistleblower Edward Snowden penned an op ed today in the British newspaper, the Guardian, defending his actions, and claiming that they were part of a larger strategy to begin a public discussion in Russia of the country’s domestic eavesdropping
First, Snowden claimed that he hit Putin hard in his questioning:
On Thursday, I questioned Russia’s involvement in mass surveillance on live television. I asked Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?”
I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified.
Not quite. Snowden didn’t “question Russia’s involvement” and he didn’t “challenge” anyone. Both of those sentence constructions suggest that you put your interlocutor on the spot – Snowden simply did not do that. He asked Putin a softball question, Putin lied in response, and Snowden had zero follow-up, which was to be expected all around.
Here is Snowden’s question:
“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 their subjects, under surveillance?”
Snowden didn’t “question Russia’s involvement,” he asked a question about Russia’s involvement. There’s a difference. And he didn’t “challenge” whether it’s ever morally justified to spy on your own population en masse, he simply asked nicely. This was not speaking truth to power. This was being power’s bitch.
Snowden goes on to suggest that his real intent in appearing with Putin at the staged propaganda event was to start a national dialogue about domestic spying in Russia. More from Snowden’s Guardian piece:
The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus (and someone who has repeatedly criticised me in the past year), described my question as “extremely important for Russia”. According to the Daily Beast, Soldatov said it could lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping.
Others have pointed out that Putin’s response appears to be the strongest denial of involvement in mass surveillance ever given by a Russian leader – a denial that is, generously speaking, likely to be revisited by journalists.
In fact, Putin’s response 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….
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. Moreover, I hoped that Putin’s answer – whatever it was – would provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further.
What “serious Russian journalists” and what “Russian civil society” is Snowden expecting to pick up the ball in a dictatorship where the media is controlled by the man he claims he now intended to put on the spot?
If Snowden is suggesting that the American media will now cover Russian spying, they already do. There is no “taboo” in the west about covering Russia’s misdeeds. Snowden is clearly referring to the taboo in Russia against criticizing the state, or as Kremlinologists like to call it, committing suicide. Vladimir Putin owns, funds, and controls the major media in Russia. How exactly is this national conversation supposed to ignite in autocratic Russia the same way it ignited in democratic America?
Fortunately, I was able to find raw video of Snowden “challenging” Putin, in the original Russian. The “questioning” starts about 18:50 into the video. Below is a rough translation:
PUTIN: I agree with you and if I’m elected governor, I will lower taxes whether those bureaucrats in the state capital like it or not! Ahem, Edward do you have a question you would like to ask your uncle Vlad?
SNOWDEN: Yes, sir, a very inane one. Mr. Putin, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?
PUTIN: Ooh, a tough question but a fair one. Edward, there’s no single answer. Some voters respond to my integrity, others are more impressed with my incorruptibility. (Edward leaves the table) Still others buy my determination to lower taxes. And the bureaucrats in the state capital can put that in their pipes and smoke it!
[Edward is in the kitchen.]
SNOWDEN: Oh Mom, that felt awful.
THE GUARDIAN: Mmm… I’m sorry dear. It will all be over soon.
SNOWDEN: But Mom, we’ve become the tools of evil.
Yes, the cartoon-American ended up realizing she had become a tool of evil. The real American, not so much.