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Edward Snowden Asks Vladimir Putin A Question

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden
During his annual marathon question-and-answer session today Russian President Vladimir Putin took unsurprising questions from a pensioner in the far east, a new Russian citizen in Crimea, and a former Ukrainian riot policeman in Moscow.

Then came a video message from Edward Snowden.

"Zdravstvuyte," said the former NSA employee, using the formal Russian word for "hello." After explaining that several U.S. government studies had found mass surveillance programs "ineffective," Snowden asked Putin, a former KGB member, if Russia "intercepts, stores, or analyzes in any way, the communications of individuals."

Putin, who said he had trouble understanding Snowden's American accent but seemed unsurprised by the question, said because they were both former spies he could address the question "in professional language."

"Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law," said Putin, who added that spying technology is used on an individual basis with "criminals and terrorists" threatening Russia. "We do not have the money for the kinds of devices they have in the United States. Our special services are strictly controlled by society and the law."

Snowden, whose message was apparently prerecorded, did not have opportunity for a follow-up. Putin's answer, while unsurprising, seemed to require suspension of disbelief.

Russia does, in fact, have a mass surveillance program. Called SORM, the system allows Russia's security service direct access to Internet service providers throughout the country. Russia reportedly used the technology to monitor "all communications" during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

And a day earlier, the founder of Russia's largest social network, VKontakte, released documents showing he had been pressured -- "in violation of the law" -- to turn over personal information for accounts promoting Ukraine's pro-Europe protest movements.

Roman Dobrokhotov, an opposition activist and journalist who once penned an open letter to Snowden, joked that the American refugee should have asked VKontakte's founder, Pavel Durov, about information collection.

But by allowing Putin to compare his spying program with Washington without actually having to be transparent about its practices, Snowden prompted immediate suggestions that he had become -- wittingly or not -- a Russian propaganda tool.

As if to prove the point, Aleksandr Sidyakin, a Duma deputy from Putin's United Russia party, tweeted, "Edward Snowden is with us."

The Kremlin's English-language Twitter account also highlighted Putin's response.

Snowden's supporters, however, said the outrage was being promoted by those who already disapproved of his bombshell revelations on NSA spying.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who worked with Snowden to break the NSA story, has forcefully defended the former NSA contractor for moving to Russia where he received asylum last year. Greenwald, who has defended the move as the only tenable option for a man likely to face serious charges in the United States, reacted with sarcasm to today's pushback.

UPDATE: Snowden responds to his critics in "The Guardian," arguing that he started a national conversation about Russian surveillance.
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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