Edward Snowden on Friday defended participating in Vladimir Putin’s annual live-television event and said he is not a puppet for the Russian president’s propaganda.
In an op-ed published in The Guardian, the former National Security Agency contractor said he framed his questions deliberately to challenge the Russian leader’s record on surveillance. Appearing in a question-and-answer session Thursday, Snowden pressed Putin in a video message, asking: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?”
“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law … We don’t have a mass system of such interception and – according with our law – it cannot exist,” Putin responded.
Snowden said he meant to mirror a now-infamous exchange from a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last year that motivated him to come forward and spill the NSA’s secrets. Nearly three months before Snowden unleashed a trove of secret documents to journalists exposing the massive breadth of the United State’s surveillance powers, National Intelligence Director James Clapper was caught misleading Congress when he denied that the U.S. collected the phone data of millions of Americans.
“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,” Snowden wrote Friday.
“Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter,” Snowden added. But rather than focus on the Russian president’s answer, Snowden said pundits were instead zeroing in on him.
Snowden’s participation in Putin’s annual live-broadcast triggered a flurry of backlash from critics who accused him of playing into the Kremlin’s softball propaganda machine. Former NSA lawyer Stewart Baker knocked Snowden for participating in the Russian government’s tightly scripted program. “It sure looks as though Snowden is playing the Kremlin’s game here, serving up a pre-arranged softball on demand,” Baker wrote in The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog. Other’s called him a “patsy” and a “Russian propaganda tool.”
The 30-year-old American, who has lived in exile in Russia after being charged of espionage by the U.S. government, said appearing cozy with Russia was not his intention. He also pushed back against critics who suggest he’s sworn an allegiance to Russian spies.
“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,” he wrote.
“I expected that some would object to my participation in an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged,” he added. “But to me, the rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media outweighed that risk.”