Edward Snowden, the former U.S. security contractor living under asylum in Russia, made a surprise appearance on Russian television to ask President Vladimir Putin if the nation spies on its citizens like the U.S.
“Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden asked the former KGB colonel through a video link from an unidentified location during Putin’s annual live call-in show, broadcast nationwide from Moscow.
Putin, addressing Snowden as a fellow “former spy,” said that Russia’s intelligence services are “strictly regulated” and the country can’t afford such broad spying, an answer that several specialists on Russia said belies the extensive surveillance conducted in the country.
Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. spying last year set off a global debate about the trade-offs between privacy and security and hurt ties with European allies. The London-based Guardian and the Washington Post shared a Pulitzer prize this week for reporting his leaked material on the top-secret programs. President Barack Obama has imposed some surveillance limits as a result of the disclosures.
“We do it of course, but we don’t allow ourselves such a massive, out-of-control scale,” Putin said about gathering communications in the fight against terrorism and financial crime, after a hasty translation by one of the television channel’s presenters. “I hope we will not get there.”
He said Russia doesn’t have the financial or technical resources that the U.S. has available.
“The most important is that our special services, thank God, are under strict control by the state and society and that their activities are regulated by law,” Putin said.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the White House had no comment on the appearance by Snowden, who the U.S. has charged with espionage.
Joshua Rovner, author of “Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence,” said Putin’s claims are “disingenuous to say the least.”
Russia’s main surveillance system is called the SORM, which was initially developed in the 1980s and captures “captures telephone and Internet traffic, and according to recent reports, stores a great deal of information and metadata on network subscribers,” said Rovner, who is a director at the Tower Center for Political Studies of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Russian mobile phone companies are required to open remote access to all information to the country’s law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the KGB.
“Putin’s statement that society has some control over the security services is an outright lie,” said Andrey Soldatov, an author and researcher on Russia’s intelligence services. “Everything else Putin said was a half-truth.”
Snowden’s appearance coincides with heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine. It came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov were meeting in Geneva with representatives from the European Union and Ukraine in an attempt to defuse the situation, which has escalated into deadly fighting between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian separatists.
It isn’t a surprise that the Snowden-Putin exchange happened at this point because Russia “has been trying to extract maximum propaganda value from the Snowden leaks for many months,” Rovner said in an e-mail.
“From Russia’s perspective, the chance to take a shot at the NSA dovetails nicely with the revelation that the CIA director was recently in Kiev,” Rovner said. “All of this feeds the Russian narrative that the United States is meddling in Ukraine, and that U.S. foreign policy is somehow sinister because it is bound up with secret intelligence agencies.”
Putin may have wanted to play off Snowden’s popularity, as he’s considered by many to be a hero, rights activist and truth seeker, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
“This is certainly a planned little piece of theater to show that people striking poses and blaming Russia for violating everything in Ukraine are a case of the pot calling the kettle black,” Lukyanov said. “It won’t affect Russia-U.S. relations since we’re already living in a de facto Cold War.”
Putin took a jab at the U.S., blaming its surveillance programs for complicating talks with Europe.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to negotiate with them on geopolitical issues,” Putin said. “It is hard to negotiate with people who even at home whisper among themselves because they’re afraid the Americans are listening in.”
Snowden has said he worked alone in taking thousands of classified documents, denying claims made by U.S. lawmakers that he was an agent for a foreign government. He was granted one year of asylum in Russia in August, after arriving in June from Hong Kong. It’s too early to say if he’ll apply for an extension, his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said in January.
Putin, who said last year that he’d never met the fugitive, has denied that Russian agents have worked with Snowden or invited him to fly through Moscow. He blamed Snowden’s continued presence in the country on the U.S. revoking his passport.
U.S. courts have split on whether the NSA’s collection of phone records is legal, while both a White House review group and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board have said the program isn’t effective and should be stopped. A majority of the five-member privacy board said the program is illegal.
Obama has defended electronic spying as a bulwark against terrorism while promising U.S. citizens and allies that he’ll put restraints on the government’s sweeping surveillance programs. U.S. data collection programs were expanded during President George W. Bush’s administration which, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., won passage by Congress of the Patriot Act.
Last month, the U.S. leader released proposals based on recommendations from intelligence proposals for reworking data collection. Under the plan, which parallels legislation proposed in the House of Representatives, the government would no longer keep and hold mass phone records from U.S. companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.
Carriers would be instructed to search their records for information based on requests from the government, which would be subject to judicial review.
The fixes proposed by Obama and top lawmakers still would let the government access phone and Internet records though the NSA would no longer store the data. Technology and Internet company executives, including Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, have pressed the administration to take more steps to limit surveillance.