National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden says that people shouldn't be surprised that he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin questions about his country's surveillance program, as he also challenged the U.S. government on the same issue.
"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 criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive," Snowden wrote in a column for The Guardian
"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."
On Thursday, Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence eavesdropping, asked Putin several questions
on Thursday during a televised call-in show.
The exchange was the first known direct contact between Putin and Snowden since Russia granted the American asylum last summer after he disclosed widespread monitoring of telephone and Internet data by the United States and fled the country.
Snowden, who has been given refuge in Russia, was not in the studio where Putin was speaking. He submitted his questions in a video clip, and it was not immediately clear if he was speaking live or if it had been recorded earlier.
"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, analyze, or store millions of individuals' communications?'" Snowden wrote in The Guardian column. "I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified."
Snowden said he intended his question to mirror an exchange in Senate Intelligence Committee hearings between Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the NSA's collection of records on 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 said.
He noted that Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged the second, and there were "serious inconsistencies in his denial."
"But it was not the president's suspiciously narrow answer that was criticized by many pundits," complained Snowden. "It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all."
Some have pointed out, Snowden claimed, that "Putin's response appears to be the strongest denial of involvement in mass surveillance ever given by a Russian leader — a denial that is, generously speaking, likely to be revisited by journalists."
The response, though, Snowden said, was "remarkably similar" to President Barack Obama's initial denials of the NSA's domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible."
Snowden said he expected there would be some criticism over him participating in a forum that usually features "softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged."
But he saw it as "a rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media outweighed that risk."
He also hoped Putin's answers would allow journalists and society to "push the discussion further," and he hopes the summit next year will attract more questions on Russia's surveillance programs.
"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," Snowden wrote.
Snowden said last year he risked his family, life, and freedom over the issue, and he is "no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today than I was then."
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