April 18, 2014
Yesterday we, like many, were perplexed by Ed Snowden’s decision to go on a Russian television program, and to ask Vladimir Putin a question about whether or not the Russians do mass surveillance like the NSA does (which was, of course, exposed by Ed Snowden). It was clearly playing into Putin’s propaganda efforts, because Putin immediately took the opportunity to insist that no, Russia does not do mass surveillance like that. Of course, Putin’s answer was not true. Many of Snowden’s detractors immediately jumped on this as an example of how he was working for the Putin propaganda machine — and many (including us), wondered if he was, at the very least, pressured to play a role in order to keep his temporary asylum. Others thought he was just being naive. Some Snowden supporters, however, insisted that we should hear him out, and see if there was some more specific motive behind his question.
Apparently, we didn’t have to wait long. Snowden himself has now directly called Putin out for lying about Russian surveillance, and said that his question was designed to act similar to Senator Ron Wyden’s now famous question to James Clapper, leading to Clapper’s lie, which (in part) sparked Snowden’s decision to finally release the files he’d been collecting. Snowden, writing in the Guardian, explained:
On Thursday, I questioned Russia’s involvement in mass surveillance on live television. I asked Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?”
I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified.
The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion. (See a side-by-side comparison of Wyden’s question and mine here.)
Clapper’s lie – to the Senate and to the public – was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public, and a historic example of the importance of official accountability.
From there, he explains why he thinks Putin was lying, and how he expects this to now be exposed in Russia, as it was in the US:
In his response, Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter. There are serious inconsistencies in his denial – and we’ll get to them soon – but it was not the president’s suspiciously narrow answer that was criticised by many pundits. It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all.
I 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. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, 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.
The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus (and someone who has repeatedly criticised me in the past year), described my question as “extremely important for Russia”. It could, he said, “lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping.”
Snowden also pointed out the remarkably similar response from Putin and Obama when asked about their domestic surveillance programs, and noted that he expects the Russian press to finally start challenging Putin on this assertion.
When this event comes around next year, I hope we’ll see more questions on surveillance programs and other controversial policies. But we don’t have to wait until then. For example, journalists might ask for clarification as to how millions of individuals’ communications are not being intercepted, analysed or stored, when, at least on a technical level, the systems that are in place must do precisely that in order to function. They might ask whether the social media companies reporting that they have received bulk collection requests from the Russian government are telling the truth.
Finally, he notes that his position continues to remain entirely consistent:
I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices not because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault, but because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.
Last year, I risked family, life, and freedom to help initiate a global debate that even Obama himself conceded “will make our nation stronger”. 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.
I don’t think many people — other than perhaps the most diehard Snowden supporters — expected something quite like this. For months, many Snowden detractors have repeatedly criticized Snowden for not speaking out against Russian authoritarianism and surveillance. Many of us have felt that those criticisms were significantly off-base, in part because that wasn’t Snowden’s particular fight (nor did he have any unique knowledge of Russian surveillance, as he did with the US). It seemed like a stupid false equivalency to try to make Snowden look bad. And when he asked his question to Putin, some people argued that this showed he was actually “questioning” Russian surveillance. Except that the TV question felt like such a softball, so designed to allow Putin to spin some propaganda that this didn’t really seem like Snowden challenging anything.
However, this latest response suggests that Snowden is (once again) playing a game where he’s several moves ahead of many folks. The question may have set up a propaganda answer, but it appears there was a bigger strategy behind it — and one that remains entirely consistent with what Snowden has claimed his position has been since the beginning. Frankly, while this possibility was raised about his original question to Putin, many people (myself included) thought it was unlikely that Snowden would so directly go after his current hosts (who only became his hosts thanks to the US pulling his passport). Putin is not known for gracefully handling those who directly challenge him, and I don’t think it would be surprise anyone if Snowden had continued to stay out of the question of Russian surveillance, simply out of basic necessity.
Snowden, however, has said from the beginning, that this story has never been about him, and he accepts that the end result of his starting the process may not be good for himself. He’s made it clear that he was willing to effectively sacrifice himself to get this debate going — and having done it once, he apparently has decided he can do it again in another context. While I was confused by this move 24 hours ago, I’ll admit it was because I never thought Snowden would go this far (and so quickly) to criticize Russia while he was there. Already, given what Snowden did in releasing the NSA documents, he’s shown that he’s much braver (and in many ways, patriotic to the public) than just about anyone. In now questioning — and then calling BS on Putin’s answer — he’s shown that bravery was not a one-time thing, but a position he intends to live by going forward.
Snowden likely made a lot more powerful enemies today — including more who could make life very uncomfortable for him very soon. But he also showed why the public, around the globe, owes him an incredibly large debt of gratitude, one which it’s unclear we’ll ever be able to pay off.