They said it is hard to imagine that Snowden was not prompted and coached to pose his question about domestic surveillance in Russia to the country’s leader.
“They’ve got him by the shorthairs,” said James Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He knows from his NSA days that their surveillance system — their domestic surveillance system — puts ours to shame, and the fact that he’s calling in with these questions, he’s [got to be] sitting in the room with a guy with a gun.”
Others suggested the pitch would be an easier sell for Snowden, who has not been shy about appearing in the spotlight in recent weeks, even while staying in Russia to avoid U.S. espionage charges.
“I know how all these conversations go with these guys,” said Thomas Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College who has focused on Russia and national security issues.
“I’m sure they said things like: ‘You know what, we know Russia isn’t perfect and we know we have some problems here, but the president really believes in your message and why don’t you come on TV and ask that question so the president can go on the record,’ ” he said. “I’m sure that’s the way it was pitched to him.”
Putin’s annual question-and-answer session on television on Thursday came amid heightened tension with the U.S. over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and just days after the stories on Snowden’s leaks won U.S. journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize for public service.
The former NSA contractor appeared via a short prerecorded video clip to ask whether Russia had programs similar to the NSA.
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance,” Snowden said.
Snowden pushed back Friday on the notion that he was whitewashing Putin’s record and said his questioning was intended to expose the Kremlin.
In an op-ed in the Guardian, Snowden said that he 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.”
Defenders of Snowden said that it was hypocritical for supporters of the NSA and other intelligence agencies to mock Snowden while also barring him from returning to the U.S.
“People who accuse Snowden of being a Russian pawn don’t seem to remember that he tried to get asylum elsewhere and was expressly stopped,” Murtaza Hussain, a journalist with the pro-Snowden news outlet The Intercept, said on Twitter.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist most closely associated with Snowden, said his source’s critics were going to ridiculous ends to criticize him.
“Snowden should storm the Kremlin, take their surveillance docs & demand to be sent to the US: just like his brave patriotic critics would do,” he tweeted.
But for others, the scene was a typical setup from the Kremlin.
“This is not unlike what we’ve seen from Putin for some time,” said Tad Oelstrom, the director of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s national security program, noting that the other countries engage in similar types of stagecraft.
“We can turn these things around and look at leaders from around the world and you can see that same staging for the purpose of ulterior motives.”
Putin, a former KGB operative, told Snowden that Russia has “some efforts” to track terrorists and criminals, but those are “strictly regulated by our law” and aren’t on par with anything in the U.S.
“We don’t like a mass system of such interception,” Putin said. “And according with our law, it cannot exist.”
Actually, elements of the Russian SORM program, which has its roots in the former Soviet Union, can reportedly collect records about all phone calls and Internet traffic in the country.
Unlike the NSA, which only collects metadata such as the numbers people dial and the length of their calls, the Russian programs capture the full range of people’s conversations, experts said.
“It’s a system designed for complete political control. There’s nothing that rivals it in the U.S.” said Lewis. “It could qualify as certainly the most comprehensive domestic surveillance program in the world.”
That shouldn’t be surprising, analysts noted. All major countries have massive spy operations, and as communications have increasingly moved online, surveillance has followed suit.
“I think the ridiculous part is allowing Edward Snowden to perpetuate the childlike notion that only one country in the world really engages in mass surveillance in the 21st Century,” Nichols said. “All countries engage in large scale surveillance, in part because it’s a very dangerous world full of very bad people.
“There are a lot of things that the Russians do that are perfectly understandable, that in fact the Russian government would be derelict in its duty if it wasn’t engaging in them.”
— This story was updated at 10:51 a.m.