MOSCOW - Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday made an unexpected intervention in 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 was granted asylum by Russia last August after he spent a month in the transit zone at a Moscow airport. His location within Russia has been kept strictly secret ever since.
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.”
Snowden asked the question in English via video. Putin appeared taken aback and was not provided with a translation through an earpiece, suggesting he was not expecting the question.
Russians were able to submit videoed questions to Putin using cell phone apps. Snowden spoke against a dark background giving no clue to his location. His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Snowden recorded and submitted the video.
“I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store or analyse in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden asked Putin.
“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 looked uncertain. “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 replied that 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 greeted Snowden, drowned out by clapping 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. And it cannot be done by law.”
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 in 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.”
Putin served as a KGB agent in East Germany and briefly headed the service’s post-Soviet successor, the FSB, before becoming prime minister in 1999.