Snowden to Putin: Principle or Propaganda?
Policy + Politics

Snowden to Putin: Principle or Propaganda?

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, currently living in Russia, defended himself on Friday against charges that participation in a staged interview with President Vladimir Putin proved that he is simply a tool of the Russian state. In an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper, Snowden, who gained notoriety by leaking an untold amount of classified information about U.S. intelligence activities to the media, said that the questions he asked Putin were intentionally crafted to get the Russian president on the record denying that the country spies on its own citizens.

The controversy arose after Snowden made a brief appearance on an annual television show in which Putin answers questions from ordinary Russians. Snowden asked Putin, “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?”

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Putin said that Russia’s collection of communications data is limited in scope and is closely monitored by the court system.

“So, the mass character is something we do not have and cannot have," Putin said. “On such a mass scale ... we do not allow ourselves to do this, and we will never allow this. We do not have the money or the means to do that.”


Snowden was pilloried by commentators for offering up a “softball” question to Putin that allowed the Russian leader to suggest that his country’s treatment of its citizens is less intrusive than the United States’. 

Many were quick to point out that Putin’s statements were manifestly untrue (including  TFT’s correspondent, David Francis), citing the existence of multiple versions of its System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) which monitor mobile and landline phone traffic, internet traffic, and social media. Russian Internet service providers are required to install a device on their systems allowing the government direct access to network traffic at any time, without notifying the ISP.

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Foreign policy analysts said that because of his access to secret government documents, Snowden surely knew the answer to his question already.

It was strange,” said James Andrew Lewis, Director and Senior Fellow, Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “What would be the benefit of Putin saying something on the record that we all know is false? I don’t understand it.”

In his Guardian op-ed, Snowden explained himself this way:

“The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in U.S. Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion,” he wrote, referring to a Senate hearing in which Clapper, as he would later admit, misled lawmakers about the extent of U.S. collection of data about its own citizens. 

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“Clapper's lie – to the Senate and to the public – was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public, and an historic example of the importance of official accountability,” Snowden wrote.

Without directly calling Putin out for lying, Snowden went on to point out specific holes in the Russian leader’s statements, comparing them, incidentally, to President Barack Obama’s initial denials that U.S. intelligence officials had programs that spy on its own citizens. He urged journalists in Russia to begin asking questions about them.

Providing links to media accounts of the surveillance systems Russia is known to have in place, Snowden wrote, “For example, journalists might ask for clarification as to how millions of individuals' communications are not being intercepted, analyzed or stored, when, at least on a technical level, the systems that are in place must do precisely that in order to function. They might ask whether the social media companies reporting that they have received bulk collection requests from the Russian government are telling the truth.”

Whether or not even a vigorous media investigation would be able to penetrate Russia’s secretive intelligence apparatus is, of course, an open question. And if it did, Putin has shown little compunction about suppressing reporters whose work he doesn’t like. 

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For their part, Russian journalists hailed Snowden’s effort to get Putin on the record. Snowden noted that in an article in the Daily Beast that was otherwise dismissive of Snowden as a pawn of Putin, veteran Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov was quoted saying, “This is extremely important for Russia. I suspect Kremlin propaganda wanted to play Snowden, nevertheless this was a positive thing because it helps us to start the debate about the mass surveillance in Russia.”

But that hasn’t stopped the criticism.

Lewis, of CSIS, said the op-ed seemed to him to be an exercise in damage control – an after-the-fact attempt by Snowden to undo damage he had done to himself by agreeing to the interview. Lewis also wondered whether Snowden had been compelled to participate.

“Why did he do it? We don’t know. Is it Stockholm syndrome, was he under duress?” Lewis asked. In any case, he concluded, “It’s likely he was being used. Whether he knew it or not, we don’t know.”

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Others weren’t as charitable.

Former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum slammed Snowden’s op-ed as “fellow traveler toadying.” Frum claims that because Snowden knows that Putin tolerates little dissent from the media, his suggestion that Russian reporters follow-up on the story is a cynical part of an effort to “[deceive] his supporters in the West about his own stance toward the Russian state.” 

Part of Frum’s argument is that Snowden’s appearance on television will carry more weight with the Russian public than his op-ed will, so Snowden helped Putin by shoring up his reputation at home, while doing him little real harm by publishing his article outside Russia.

But that’s a far cry from collaboration. And as Frum himself notes, Snowden didn’t really have any options when it came to publishing within Russia.

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To sum up, Snowden, who has asked for and failed to be granted asylum in dozens of other countries, is currently staying in Russia on what amounts to the sufferance of Vladimir Putin. The other day, he asked Putin a question in a very public forum, and received an evasive, misleading answer.

The next day, Snowden wrote an op-ed in an internationally read newspaper saying that Putin is not being honest with his people about his country’s surveillance program and urged journalists to investigate.

Snowden is subject to arrest and imprisonment if he returns to the U.S., and U.S. officials have used the country’s influence with foreign countries to deny him asylum in other countries. Putin could, with a snap of his fingers, toss Snowden out of Russia, effectively handing him over to certain prosecution and likely imprisonment in the U.S.

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to see exactly how Snowden is the one getting played here. It feels a lot more like someone taking a principled stand – whether you agree with the principles or not.

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