Edward Snowden responded to accusations that he played a patsy for Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine on Thursday, arguing that his question during a softball Q&A with the Russian president was “a rare opportunity” that was “misinterpreted” by his critics.
The former NSA contractor, exiled to Moscow after releasing reams of documents on the spy agency foreign and domestic programs, appeared on an annual program featuring Putin answering questions phoned-in from Russia’s state television audience.
In English and via video, Snowden called into the tightly-controlled propaganda exercise with a question on whether Russia “intercepts, stores, or analyzes in any way the communications of millions of individuals” — prompting a quick and painless denial from Putin.
Long-time critics pounced. “It sure looks as though Snowden is playing the Kremlin’s game here,” wrote former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker, calling the question “a prearranged softball on demand.”
But even stalwart allies of the once-heralded “whistleblower” appeared shaken. “Snowden’s question WAS softball,” tweeted Electronic Frontier Foundation official Jillian York. “If he knows as much as he claims, he would’ve known that the wording gave Putin an easy out.”
The backlash prompted Snowden to pen a defensive op-ed in The Guardian on Friday called “Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama.” In it, he claimed he asked Putin the question to “get his answer on the record” — not hand the autocratic leader an easy propaganda victory.
He argued the question was “intended to mirror” last year’s Senate confrontation between Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion.”
“It was not the president’s suspiciously narrow answer that was criticized by many pundits,” he noted. “It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all.”
Snowden emphasized the risk he took in challenging the United States as proof that he’s not afraid of Russia and could criticize Putin’s surveillance practices “without ulterior motive.”
He is currently hiding from the United States, under the protection of Putin.
“I regret that my question could be misinterpreted,” he claimed, “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.”
He called the question “a rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media.”
But it’s unclear whether Snowden really chose to ask the question at all. His video call-in was unusual and suspiciously convenient for the program, and he prefaced his question with a lengthy polemic against America’s own surveillance practice.
Putin also addressed him as “a former agent, a spy,” declaring that “we are going to talk one professional language.”
Snowden claimed his query to Putin could be used by Russian journalists to ask about the discrepancy between Putin’s outright denial and the domestic surveillance systems already in place within Russia, or to again question Russian social media companies on whether they have received bulk data requests from Putin’s government.
But Russian journalists asking such questions have a nasty habit of turning up dead, making Snowden’s appeal a bit less convincing.
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