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In Defense of Snowden’s Question & How He Responded to Putin’s Answer Denying Mass Surveillance

Responding to the flood of speculation from individuals who thought his video question for Russian President Vladimir Putin proved he was a tool of the Kremlin, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has written an op-ed where he rejects Putin’s answer to his question. He also addresses the criticism he received for choosing to ask Putin a question during his annual call-in event.

Snowden said he had “seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance” and then asked, “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 subjects, under surveillance?”

Putin chose to speak to Snowden in a “professional language” because they both have worked for intelligence services. He claimed Russian intelligence efforts are regulated by law, that Russia did not have “mass scale uncontrollable efforts,” that Russia did not have the kind of technology that the United States has developed and used, and that everything is “strictly controlled by the society and by the law.”

According to Snowden, “The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US 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. (See a side-by-side comparison of Wyden’s question and mine here.)” He also adds, “Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter. There are serious inconsistencies in his denial.”

“I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive,” Snowden declares, “I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin’s evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.”

Snowden highlights investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who has been a “prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus” and apparently criticized Snowden repeatedly. He considered the question important because it could “lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping.”

“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,” Snowden notes. “In fact,” as others pointed out yesterday, “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.”

Of course, everyone who has committed themselves to believing conspiracy theories about Snowden and the Russian government, which are based almost entirely on speculation and not fact, will continue to promote theories that fit their worldview, despite Snowden’s response to what Putin said on Russian state television.

But, to address the skepticism, let’s consider an array of possible scenarios that may have occurred: (1) Snowden knew about the call-in show and thought it would be a good idea to submit a video question to the event; (2) Snowden was asked by an official in the Russian government to submit a video question so Putin could swiftly show Russia doesn’t engage in mass spying and Snowden obliged without any protest whatsoever because he wants permanent asylum; (3) Snowden was asked by a Russian government official to submit a video question for Putin, a question was sent to him and he rejected that question but still agreed to ask his own question; and (4) Snowden did not know about the call-in event but, when he became aware of an opportunity to get Putin on record, he thought it would convince some of his loudest critics that he was not a pawn of Putin.

It is unclear what exactly happened at this point. But let’s take the most nefarious theory—that Snowden was informed by a Russian government official that he had to submit a video question or else he may no longer be able to enjoy asylum in the country—and consider whether, if this happens to be true, Snowden fully submitted to Russian authority and sacrificed whatever integrity he might have had.

Why would Putin and any official in the Kremlin have wanted him to ask a boilerplate question that was modeled off what Wyden had asked when confronting Clapper? Why would Putin or any official in the Kremlin have wanted him to ask such a neutral question? Why would this have been the script he was asked to read in his video question so Russians could be reassured by someone with credibility on this issue that Russia did not engage in mass surveillance against its own citizens?

Why would Snowden accept a question written by the Kremlin? After spending months vociferously denying that he is under any influence from Russia and after many journalists have failed to find any shred of evidence that he is under the influence, why would he turn around and ask a question that the Kremlin demanded he ask? Why would he allow a powerful regime to pressure him into jeopardizing credibility that has inspired many Americans?

If it is possible that Snowden was fed a question to ask by the Kremlin, isn’t it just as possible that he rejected the question he was told he had to ask and instead asked Putin a different one that the Russian government had not expected? Isn’t it possible that he chose to comply with the request so he could still remain in Russia but refused to sell out and compromise his principles? Isn’t that just as possible (if not more possible) than this idea that he was acting as Putin’s pawn?

And, while the question was a part of a state-controlled event made to appear that Putin was taking the most interesting and relevant questions from Russian citizens, was it really more staged than any televised town hall with an American president? Or a town hall debate where presidential candidates take questions from audience members that were approved before the debate?


What is further remarkable is how critics do not appear to understand the pressures that asylees or asylum seekers like Snowden face in countries with powerful governments. They do not recognize that asylum seekers are not expected to renounce the policies of the government in the country of which they are seeking asylum in order to be given protection and safety.

Gays and lesbians have fled Uganda and sought asylum in the United States because the country’s government has aggressively criminalized homosexuality. No commentator has ever seriously said of Ugandans granted asylum that they must criticize anti-homosexual US government policies that remain in tact.

Does anyone seriously suggest that Mexican immigrants fleeing violent drug cartels for asylum in the US must condemn the US government’s War on Drugs and how it contributes to the violence in Mexico if they wish to continue to enjoy asylum in America?

What about the fact that powerful countries stand to benefit from high-profile asylum seekers who can advance their agenda? Chen Guangcheng, a prominent blind Chinese activist given asylum in the US, has previously appeared on the Voice of America’s Chinese language television network, which is state-funded.

Plus, why is it that a number of commentators or journalists in the US appear to be far more interested in exposing the Russian surveillance state than the US surveillance state? These Americans do not live in Russia and have no responsibility to regularly criticize and cover the actions of Russian government, however, as Americans, they do have a duty or obligation to report on the actions of the US government as its surveillance apparatus is expanded and operated. But their obsession with pumping out journalism that can be used to fuel the US government’s stance against an adversarial Russia deludes them.

Few are willing to engage in the kind of objectivity they promote and expose how the government surveillance policies and programs of any government in the world could be turned against those countries’ citizens. They are willing to call out the hypocrisy of world leaders with surveillance apparatuses who use Snowden’s disclosures to criticize the US government but do not always condemn the hypocrisy of officials in President Obama’s administration too.

As Snowden put it, “I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices not because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault, but because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.”

There is a global conversation and debate Snowden sparked that he continues to try and lead and in some instances that effort puts him at risk because he does not have permanent asylum in Russia. Putin could strike a bargain and turn Snowden over to the US in exchange for something in return. The covert intelligence war in Ukraine between the US and Russia could make it even more difficult to maintain his integrity. Yet, Snowden recognizes he embarked on a mission and there is no turning back.

Powerful leaders of powerful countries may seek to silence Snowden and manipulate him for their own purposes, but it appears he will play whatever chess game he has to play in order to cling to his principles—especially the principle that governments of countries should not be permitted to maintain massive surveillance apparatuses that can be directed at their own citizens and effectively contribute to making the world a global surveillance state that routinely violates persons’ human right to privacy.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."