Edward Snowden Says He Was Challenging Vladimir Putin, Not Helping Him

Vincent Yu/AP file photo

Whistleblower Edward Snowden raised some eyebrows yesterday when he made a"surprise" appearance at Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference. Today, Snowden has defended his decision to participate in the Q and A in a Guardian op-ed, saying he was taking Putin to task, not lobbing him a softball for propaganda purposes.

"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," Snowden said, continuing, "a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive." 

On Thursday, Snowden asked the following to Putin: "Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals' communications?" His participation in the press conference was widely read as an opportunity for Putin to rebuke the U.S. in a politically tense moment, especially since Snowden has been living under asylum in Moscow for the past eight months. There were also questions about whether Snowden's participation was voluntary, compelled, or somewhere in between. In his response, the former NSA contractor says it was entirely up to him. "I am no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today than I was then, " he writes. Here's more: 

I expected that some would object to my participation in an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged. 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.

Snowden also notes that he believes Putin "denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter," which was about the legal and moral backing for mass surveillance programs in general. Russia, in fact, does have some known surveillance programs that mirror precisely the kinds of U.S. programs Snowden exposed in the US. Take the PRISM clone SORM, which was active in the country as recently as the Sochi Olympics. As the Washington Post (citing Russian surveillance expert Andrei Soldatov) outlines, Russia's KGB successor FSB, seems to have a pre-reform, NSA-like leeway to obtain permission to conduct surveillance in a way that doesn't gel with the spirit of the laws on the books: 

Putin argued that the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet era's KGB, needs to get a warrant from a court before surveillance can begin. This is true in theory, Soldatov admits, but in practice the warrants are not required to be shown: Telecoms agencies and Internet providers do not have the necessary security clearance to view the warrants, in any case.

Soldatov went on to note that Putin's claim of Duma oversight on the country's surveillance program is limited to a special Security Committee, which has no actual power over secret intelligence gathering programs. 

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