Edward Snowden, who leaked secret U.S. documents that revealed mass surveillance, asked ex-KGB agent and current Russian President Vladimir Putin on live TV today about spying on civilians:
“Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”
Putin was at an annual ask-Vladimir TV event with a live audience, and Snowden’s question was shown on TV screens in the studio. Reuters news service said it was not evident if the question was asked live or via a recorded videoclip.
Snowden also asked: “And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their [individual] subjects, under surveillance?”
The question was in English, and Putin, who speaks some English, requested translation assistance from the moderator. Snowden is currently living in Russia, which accepted his request for asylum after he leaked the National Security Agency (NSA) documents that exposed massive surveillance by that agency. The U.S. government has charged him with espionage and theft of government property.
“You are an ex-agent and spy,” Putin told Snowden, who actually was a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, not an agent. “I used to work for an intelligence service,” Putin added, which generated some laughs in the audience.
The Russian leader then said that his government employs bugging to fight crime and terrorism for specific targets but that, “on a massive scale, on an uncontrolled scale we certainly do not allow this, and I hope we will never allow it.”
He added that the Russian government requires court approval for surveillance of an individual and that this is the reason there is no spying “of a mass character here and cannot be in accordance with the law.” He noted that “we do not have the money that they have in the States or the technical means.”
According to the translation provided in a video of the event by Russia Today, a Russian government-funded international news service, the question presented to Putin actually asked if Russia had “ever been involved in intercepting the calls of millions of ordinary citizens.” Russia was, of course, the largest part of the Soviet Union during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras, when public surveillance and the use of secret police were rampant.
Both political celebrities used the exchange to expand their anti-surveillance bona fides: Snowden to show that he wasn’t just picking on the U.S. when he exposed and criticized the NSA’s mass surveillance program, and Putin to show he is Mr. Legal.
At the same TV event, the leader who wouldn’t dream of doing anything illegal refused to rule out sending Russian troops to take over Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are currently sitting on the Ukraine border. Armed, pro-Russian militants have taken control of several cities in the east, a coordinated campaign for which Putin has denied involvement.
Earlier this week, Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to The Guardian for its coverage of NSA documents made available by Snowden, and to the Washington Post for its revelations about NSA activities.