Fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden has written an op-ed column in the Guardian justifying his decision to go on live TV to question Russian President Vladimir Putin about his country's policies on mass surveillance.
"It was not the president's suspiciously narrow answer that was criticised by many pundits," Snowden complained in the 750-word editorial. "It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all."
Snowden appeared on Putin's Thursday broadcast – which the former NSA contractor described as "an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged" – in a video segment in which he asked, "Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?"
Critics were justifiably skeptical of Putin's answer that no such program exists in Russia and that all surveillance there is supervised by the courts, and many accused Snowden – who is wanted on espionage charges by the Obama administration and has been living in Russia since June – of helping to whitewash Putin's government.
No less than The New York Times reported that Snowden's "surprise" appearance had actually been arranged by the Kremlin, and that he had been "a prop" on "a tightly scripted show" in which Putin took "a stunningly bold poke at the White House."
But in his op-ed, Snowden defended his question as a legitimate one.
"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," Snowden wrote.
The former spy described Putin's response to his question as "evasive" and said that there were "serious inconsistencies" in the president's denial that Russia engaged in mass surveillance of phone lines or the internet.
"In fact, Putin's response was remarkably similar to Barack Obama's initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA's domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible," Snowden said.
In his own defense, Snowden said he felt compelled to ask Putin his question for the same reasons that he felt compelled to leak a trove of documents revealing the vast scale of the US National Security Administration's domestic surveillance programs. Even if Putin's answer was dishonest, he said, it was important to get him on the record on the subject.
"If we are to test the truth of officials' claims," Snowden wrote, "we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims." ®