Snowden defends his questioning of Putin


Edward Snowden is pushing back against criticism that he went on Russian television to whitewash the surveillance programs run by President Vladimir Putin, arguing his questioning was intended to expose the Kremlin.

In an op-ed in The Guardian on Friday, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor said his question was a “rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media,” which “outweighed” the risk of people objecting to the action.

“Last year, I risked family, life, and freedom to help initiate a global debate that even [President] Obama himself conceded 'will make our nation stronger,' ” he wrote. “I am no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today than I was then.

“I understand the concerns of critics, but there is a more obvious explanation for my question than a secret desire to defend the kind of policies I sacrificed a comfortable life to challenge: if we are to test the truth of officials' claims, we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims.”

Journalists, he said, would be able to follow up on Putin's remarks, now that he had formally denied any widespread domestic surveillance operations.  

Snowden’s questioning of Putin during a wide-ranging annual television event was seen as a bit of stagecraft meant to support the Russian leader and embarrass the United States. Multiple analysts said that it showed how the former contractor, who has sought asylum in Russia for the last several months, had become a pawn of the Kremlin. 

Snowden wrote 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 criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive.”

The intent, he said, was to get Putin on the record and “mirror” an exchange last year in the Senate where Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denied that the U.S. was collecting information about millions of Americans.

Documents leaked by Snowden showed that Clapper’s response to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was incorrect. In fact, the NSA is able to collect records about the phone calls of virtually everyone in the country on a routine basis.

Snowden wrote that “Clapper’s lie” was a “major motivating force” for him to release his documents to the press.

Experts also claimed that Putin essentially lied to Snowden about the extent of the Russia’s domestic surveillance.

The Russian president said on Thursday that NSA-style bulk collection “cannot exist” under Russian law, though in fact the Russian SORM programs are considered to be more comprehensive than anything at the NSA.

Snowden on Friday noted that there were “serious inconsistencies” in Putin’s remarks, but said they were “remarkably similar” to claims President Obama initially made about the NSA, “before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible.”