Snowden: I asked Putin that softball question on surveillance to start a public debate in Russia

And you know how famous Russia is for robust public debate.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus (and someone who has repeatedly criticised me in the past year), described my question as “extremely important for Russia”. It could, he said, “lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping.”

Others have pointed out 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…

When this event comes around next year, I hope we’ll see more questions on surveillance programs and other controversial policies. But we don’t have to wait until then. For example, journalists might ask for clarification as to how millions of individuals’ communications are not being intercepted, analysed or stored, when, at least on a technical level, the systems that are in place must do precisely that in order to function. They might ask whether the social media companies reporting that they have received bulk collection requests from the Russian government are telling the truth.

The most interesting thing about this is how different the tone of the op-ed is from his interaction with Putin on TV. In the Guardian, which caters to an English-speaking western audience, he insists that he asked the question about surveillance because he knew that it “cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program.” He knew there’d be “serious inconsistences” in Putin’s “evasive” answer; he even links to this Guardian piece published before the Olympics confirming that, yes indeed, Russia conducts mass surveillance. Essentially, Snowden’s spinning his pattycake session with Czar Vladimir yesterday as some sort of J’Accuse because that’s the image that he needs his defenders in the west to believe.

On Russian TV, though, at a press event Putin organized for domestic consumption, all of that was absent. Snowden asked, straightforwardly, whether Putin conducts NSA-style surveillance and the czar, true to form, cheerily lied. Which is how it had to be: He couldn’t have asked an accusatory question because the Kremlin doesn’t allow robust debate, especially on state media and especially when Putin’s busy nurturing a nationalist siege mentality vis-a-vis the west over Ukraine. Imagine watching that exchange as a Russian citizen and seeing a guy who fled to Russia for safe haven from the sinister United States asking Putin placidly whether he spies on innocents, before being reassured that he doesn’t. What would you take from that? Would it make you suspicious of Russian surveillance, or would you be impressed that Putin’s willing to field a question like this from a dissident whom even the U.S. government couldn’t tolerate? Snowden wants you to believe that he somehow put Putin on the spot, but if he’d truly done that, you can guess what would have happened to him:

Putin’s approach to propaganda has been to tightly control television—which, in most of Russia, is the only media there is—while granting wider latitude to the remote and unpopular elites who communicate in print and online. Snowden is now taking part in this process. He played the dutiful courtier on TV, where he was seen by tens of millions of Russians; he expressed his tentative and circuitous criticisms in an English-language foreign newspaper.

Yet even in print and in English, Snowden is participating in and lending his support to a massive lie. Russian journalists will not “revisit” (as he puts it) the truthfulness of Putin’s answers. Russian journalists who do that end up dead, in at least 56 cases since 1992. Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who pressed Putin hardest, was shot dead in her own apartment building in 2006, after years of repeated arrests, threats, and in one case, attempted poisoning.

As for “civil society”: Snowden is writing at a time when Russian forces have invaded and conquered Crimea. Russian-backed forces have attacked and abducted journalists on the peninsula and shut down independent news outlets. People who have resisted the annexation have disappeared, then reappeared dead, bearing signs of torture. To write about Russia as a normal state, in which normal methods exist for discovering and discussing truth, is to share culpability for a lie—and a lie that, at this very moment, is shattering the peace and security of all of Europe.

Right. Snowden’s core value as a propaganda asset is to let people like Putin claim moral equivalence with the United States in all matters of civil liberties by claiming equivalence (or superiority, per Putin) on surveillance matters in particular. It’s not true, but it’s useful. The irony of Snowden insisting that he somehow trapped Putin in a lie is that Putin’s spoken approvingly of NSA surveillance before, in his own state media, and on more than one occasion. Last summer, shortly after Snowden’s leaks began, he called mass surveillance “generally practicable” and said that as long as there are some legal safeguards, “That’s more or less the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism with modern-day technology.” Six months later, in December 2013, he said that the NSA program is needed to fight terrorism and quasi-joked that he envies Obama for being able to get away with it. He’s not telling Russians, in other words, that mass surveillance is a grievous abuse with little use in protecting the state; he’s telling them the opposite — in which case, how damaging would it really be if Snowden’s dream came true and Putin’s lie was exposed? If, somehow, Russian media did feel emboldened enough to uncover Russian surveillance and, for whatever reason, they weren’t censored or killed, what leads Snowden to think there’d be a massive outcry? Putin would simply justify it as necessary to fight the west’s campaign of subversion and most of the public would go along. Either Snowden knows that or he doesn’t, but he asked his question anyway. Which is worse?

Exit question for Russia experts: Would a population whose adults grew up in the Soviet Union really be that sensitive to revelations that they’re being spied on en masse by Moscow? Don’t they assume they’re being spied on already and that Putin’s lying to them, just as their leaders always have?