MOSCOW – Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday joined a phone-in with Russian President Vladimir Putin, quizzing him over the extent of Moscow’s surveillance activities.
Putin, a former KGB agent, greeted Snowden as a fellow “former agent” before assuring him that Russia’s surveillance of the population was not on a mass scale and strictly controlled by laws.
Snowden, a 30-year-old former United States National Security Agency contractor was granted asylum by Russia last August after shaking the American intelligence establishment to its core with a series of devastating leaks on mass surveillance in the US and around the world.
His location has been kept strictly secret ever since.
His campaign sparked global uproar over surveillance of phone calls and emails by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.
Russians were able to submit video questions to Putin using cell phone apps. Snowden spoke against a dark background giving no clue to his location, wearing a dark suit jacket and grey shirt, looking unshaven with his hair plastered down.
His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Snowden had recorded and submitted the video in advance.
“He found out there would be a direct line with the Russian president and recorded a question. He knows how to go on the Internet safely and sent a request in this way,” Kucherena said.
‘Does Russia intercept communications?’
First the camera cut dramatically to a co-host who announced an “unexpected and I would even say sensational message” and introduced Snowden as “a person who carried out a real information revolution”.
“That’s just what we needed,” Putin joked ironically.
“I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden asked Putin in English.
“And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify our placing societies rather than subjects under surveillance?”
Putin appeared taken aback and was not provided with a translation through an earpiece, suggesting he was not expecting the question.
“American English is a bit different,” he said after the show’s host initially assumed he understood the question. The host then translated it from his notes.
Putin assured Snowden the kind of “mass eavesdropping” on the population that Snowden exposed in the United States was impossible as Russia’s special services were under strict control.
“Mr Snowden, you’re a former agent, I also had something to do with this, so we’ll talk in a professional language,” he told Snowden, to applause from the audience.
“We have strict legal regulation of the use of special surveillance by special services, including tapping phone conversations, surveillance on the Internet and so on,” Putin said, stressing a court decision was necessary for this.
“This is not done on a mass scale and indiscriminately in Russia.”
‘Not on Mass Scale’
Nevertheless Putin added that special services do use “appropriate modern means” to carry out surveillance of “criminals including terrorists”.
“Of course we do not allow ourselves to do it on a mass scale, on an uncontrolled scale. And I hope, I very much hope, we never will.
“We don’t have the technological means and money the United States has, and most importantly, thank God, in our country, special services are under the control of the state and society and their activities are regulated by the law.”
It was a tantalizing glimpse of Snowden, who has never openly appeared in public in Russia while he is being sought for prosecution in the United States.
Putin said in December that he had never met Snowden but said “he’s not uninteresting to me,” while insisting that espionage is a “necessity”.
The Russian leader served as a KGB agent for five years in East Germany and briefly headed the service’s post-Soviet successor, the FSB, before becoming prime minister in 1999.