Edward Snowden during a question and answer session with Russian president Vladimir Putin

Edward Snowden during a question and answer session with Russian president Vladimir Putin Pavel Golovkin/AP

Snowden Asks Putin About Mass Surveillance in Russia

The NSA leaker showed up in the Russian president's annual televised Q&A session Thursday. By Matt Berman

No matter where you come down in the overwrought "Is Edward Snowden a hero or villain" debate, this surely looks bizarre.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual televised Q&A session on Thursday, Snowden, the NSA leaker who's currently living in Russia after being granted asylum in the country, made a video appearance to ask the president about surveillance in Russia.

"I've seen little public discussion of Russia's own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance," he said. "So I'd like to ask you: 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?"

Putin's answer in short: Nah.

Here's the full response, translated by RT (my emphasis added):

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. First of all, our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law, so how special forces can use this kind of special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online, and you have to get a court permission to stalk a particular person. We don't have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law, it cannot exist. Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts, and of course a special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes, including those of terrorist nature. Of course we do some efforts like that. But we do not have a mass scale, uncontrollable efforts like that. I hope we won't do that, and we don't have as much money as they have in the states, and we don't have these technical devices that they have in the states. Our special services are, thank god, strictly controlled by the society and by the law and regulated by the law.

You can watch video of the full exchange below.

Thursday's event was Putin's 12th annual Q&A, where he takes (largely) questions from Russian citizens. They can be incredibly long affairs: Last year's went on for over four hours.

As you might expect from a country that tightly controls its media, the Q&A session isn't exactly unfriendly. In a preview of Thursday's event, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave ITAR-TASS a sense of where the questions would lean, particular in regard to Russia's actions in Ukraine.

"That's what people say: Thank you for Crimea! Many also ask how they could help, express their intention to participate in raising funds for the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait. And this enthusiasm is manifest in the overall amount of appeals, which cannot but gladden," Peskov told the news service.

Putin did address what's currently happening in eastern Ukraine in response to a question, saying that the idea that Russian troops are currently in the area is "all nonsense; there are no special units, special forces or instructors there."

Peskov also pretty bluntly stated the purpose of the Q&A: "Under the burden of a possible effect from the call-in show and under the burden of possible decisions the head of state makes after it, things miraculously begin looking better in many regions."

All of this begs an obvious question: Why would Edward Snowden involve himself in an event that is, at best, a heavily controlled broadcast from the Russian government? Especially in this particular instance, where the Q&A is being used to rally and display support for Russia's actions in Crimea?

Snowden's Thursday appearance may've helped Putin position his government as being morally superior to that of the United States, but it certainly doesn't help Snowden's defenders in the U.S.