What are the odds?
I mean, Vladimir Putin does a call-in show and one guy who happens to get through—to ask a question in English—is Ed Snowden?
That is one amazing coincidence—almost as amazing as those soldiers who mysteriously materialized in Crimea turning out to be Russian.
In a few moments, Snowden became part of a Soviet-style propaganda machine, even though he clearly views himself as a public-spirited crusader.
After Snowden leaked all those NSA documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post, which shared a Pulitzer Prize this week, he fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, which was more than happy to tweak President Obama by harboring him.
But Snowden is clearly drawn to the spotlight, and he played a starring role in Putin’s political theater on Thursday.
He gave the Russian leader a chance to beat his chest about how moral he is, compared to the bad old USA.
Keep in mind that Snowden is not just some zealous activist. Some people think he’s a traitor, others think he’s a hero sparking a global debate. But there is no dispute that he is a fugitive from justice.
Nor did he just ask a question. He gave a little speech, saying that White House and other reviews of the NSA surveillance program had concluded “that these programs are ineffective in stopping terrorism. They also found that they unreasonably intrude into the private lives of ordinary citizens.”
Having delivered his anti-NSA spin, Snowden serves up the pitch for Putin to hit: “Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”
What a coup for Putin. And he did not miss the opportunity.
First, the former KGB officer engaged in a little espionage talk:
“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to be working for an intelligence service; we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to a translator. “Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law. So our special forces can use special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online. You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have mass system of such interception. And according to our law it cannot exist…
“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States, we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by the society and the law, and are regulated by the law.”
In other words, we can’t afford what the Americans do, and wouldn’t do it if we could.
First, Putin is probably not leveling about his intelligence capabilities. Some analysts say Russia has few if any checks on its spying apparatus. Remember all the surveillance at Sochi?
Second, the U.S. surveillance is also in accordance with the law—although the public uproar sparked by Snowden has prompted Obama to move toward slapping restrictions on the NSA. Whether it’s a good anti-terror tool is another question.
But most important, this guy is lecturing us about respect for the law? The man who at this very moment is threatening eastern Ukraine? The man who flouted international law by seizing Crimea, even as he denied that Russian troops had marched into the peninsula?
This is the guy who Snowden wants to prop up?
I don’t think, as I said earlier this week, that Snowden’s involvement taints the Pulitzer-worthy work of the Guardian and Washington Post. But his star turn yesterday sure muddies Snowden’s reputation even further.
Update: In a piece this morning for the Guardian, Snowden says he was trying to hold Putin accountable:
"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...
"So why all the criticism? 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. 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. Moreover, I hoped that Putin's answer - whatever it was - would provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further."