Snowden, Putin, Wyden, and Clapper

Imagine the tension inside the studio on Russian state television when Vladamir Putin was confronted by Edward Snowden. How would Russia’s president handle a direct challenge from the world’s most famous whistleblower?

Was the most powerful man in the world going to cower like DNI James Clapper did a year ago and wipe sweat from his forehead as he nervously tried to evade pointed questions from his interrogator?

It turned out the Putin remained as calm as the Buddha.

I guess it’s hard having the same impact when you can’t ask any follow-up questions, the person being questioned has no fear of perjuring himself, and he enjoys the popular support of a 71% approval rating.

The Moscow Times reports:

Most of the more than 2.5 million questions that were sent via telephone, web and text message concerned social policy, housing and infrastructure. But most of the show was occupied by questions about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.

Since Snowden’s question was among the 81 questions that made the cut, it’s safe to say that Putin and his handlers recognized that it would serve their interests. In Putin’s posture of speaking “spy to spy” there was no hint of the merciless way he deals with defectors.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, welcomed Snowden’s appearance:

Whether a debate of any consequence in Russia ensues, remains to be seen:

And while Snowden might want to applaud his own challenge to Putin, Soldatov reminded the American of an invitation he has yet to accept:

Speaking to the Washington Post, Soldatov explained why Putin’s denials on mass surveillance don’t stand up to scrutiny.

In fact, Soldatov says, Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered. It’s called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin’s 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.

Soldatov argues that there were three key points made by Putin, each of which was a half-truth or a lie. First, Soldatov says, Putin argued that the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet era’s KGB, needs to get a warrant from a court before surveillance can begin. This is true in theory, Soldatov admits, but in practice the warrants are not required to be shown: Telecoms agencies and Internet providers do not have the necessary security clearance to view the warrants, in any case.

Secondly, Putin seemed to suggest that the Russian legislature, the Duma, has oversight over the FSB. This is not true, Soldatov says, arguing that while the State Duma does have a Special Committee for Security, it has no actual oversight for secret services.

Finally, Putin argued that Russia doesn’t have the “hardware and money the United States has.” Soldatov says this is “not entirely correct.” The biggest limitation on FSB’s spying is that Russian communication systems – for example, the social network VKontakte – are rarely used abroad, unlike U.S. systems (for example, Google and Facebook). This gives the U.S. a clear advantage in international surveillance, but it is mostly irrelevant for the discussion of domestic mass surveillance, Soldatov argues.

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