American media coverage of Vladimir Putin’s nearly four-hour call-in marathon on Russian television on Thursday was understandably dominated by a two-and-a-half minute segment featuring fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who asked if Russia practices mass surveillance of communications of the kind he exposed in the United States.
After a bit of ribbing about his and Snowden’s shared background as former “agents,” Putin gave a solemn assurance that Russia does nothing of kind, and conducts surveillance of suspected wrongdoers only in strict accordance with the law. The exchange was widely seen as a scripted propaganda stunt—and, for Snowden’s critics, proof that he has become a Kremlin tool. Snowden has defended himself in a column in The Guardian, insisting that the purpose of his pre-screened question was not to help Putin look good but to trap him in a lie and push the issue of Russian surveillance out into the open. He says he deliberately modeled his question on the one Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, posed to U.S. national intelligence director James Clapper at a congressional hearing in March 2013; Clapper’s response, denying that the NSA engages in mass collection of Americans’ communication data, gave Snowden the impetus to go public.
Snowden is probably telling the truth about his motives. But here’s why it’s almost irrelevant.
For one thing, the fact that the Russian state engages in routine and massive spying on its people is hardly a secret, either in Russia or abroad. (Neither was the existence of NSA domestic surveillance, but Snowden’s revelations showed its scope to be far greater than generally known.) In the fall 2013 issue of World Policy Journal, Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan described the growth and reach of Russia’s surveillance state. All Russian telecom companies and Internet providers are required to install, at their own expense, “black boxes” that allow Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, to monitor phone and email communications from local control centers (and to access the actual content of these communications, not just the records). The FSB doesn’t have to present a warrant or notify the company when a customer’s data are accessed.
This surveillance system is, in fact, the focus of a pending case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; the plaintiff, St. Petersburg resident Roman Zakharov, claims the monitoring equipment violates his right to privacy. Zakharov’s earlier lawsuit against mobile phone companies, the Ministry of Communications, and the FSB was dismissed by Russian courts for lack of standing, since he couldn’t show that he had been personally harmed by FSB surveillance.
But there is no shortage of known incidents in which the government has targeted specific individuals—mostly dissenters and political opponents—for spying which may or may not violate the law. Current Russian law is itself the problem: it allows virtually any critic of the regime to be classified as an “extremist,” and thus a proper target for surveillance. As Soldatov and Borogan report, in 2012 the Russian Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, “ruled that spying on Maxim Petlin, a regional opposition leader in Yekaterinburg, was lawful since he had taken part in rallies that included calls against extending the powers of Russia’s security services. The court decided that these were demands for ‘extremist actions’ and approved surveillance and telephone interception.”
But sometimes, government snoops circumvent the law anyway. Last September, Vyacheslav Malstev, a political activist and former regional Duma chairman in Saratov, told the independent news agency Moskovsky Monitor that he had been repeatedly called in for questioning about opposition activities and asked about various telephone conversations—which were sometimes replayed for him. “When my lawyer asked on what grounds those conversations were recorded,” said Maltsev, “they would mention a court order issued on a particular date. Sometimes, it was completely ridiculous: the recording was made a couple of weeks before the date on which the authorization was given. … They just do whatever they want, and then, if they need to legalize something, they get the proper papers afterwards.”
Russian attorney Boris Kuznetsov, who now lives in Fort Lee, NJ after receiving political asylum in the United States in 2007, had a fateful first-hand encounter with this practice. Kuznetsov, a noted human rights lawyer and longtime gadfly, discovered that a wiretapping warrant for one of his clients, a parliament member accused of bribery, had been issued only after an incriminating conversation had been intercepted. He filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court—and was promptly charged with disclosing classified information, even though he had not gone to the press with the story. After realizing that he himself was being spied on, Kuznetsov decided to flee the country, driving across the border into Ukraine.
A particularly egregious political abuse of surveillance took place in December 2011, when the long-dormant protest movement had been galvanized by Putin’s decision to return to the presidency and reports of pervasive fraud in the parliamentary elections. Recordings of several private telephone conversations in which opposition leader Boris Nemtsov made profanity-laced disparaging comments about some of his fellow activists were posted on Life News, a news and gossip site known to have Kremlin ties. While no direct evidence linked the recordings to FSB wiretaps, there is little doubt about the government’s role in the leak—for which, unsurprisingly, no one was ever arrested. (Ironically, this blatant attempt to divide the protest movement backfired: most people were too outraged by the Kremlin’s dirty tricks to be upset at Nemtsov, who publicly apologized and appeared with one of the activists he had badmouthed, Yevgenia Chirikova, on the independent cable news channel Dozhd-TV.)
These and other incidents highlight another big problem with Snowden’s question to Putin. Snowden’s concern is with the mass collection of data for mining instead of the targeted, legally authorized surveillance of individuals who are actually suspected of criminal activity. But in Putin’s Russia, the more egregious problem is the targeted, legal or semi-legal surveillance of individuals whose sole “crime” is political activism or criticism of the government. These tactics are accompanied by other repressive measures—including, increasingly, online media censorship. Under a law in effect since February 1, Internet providers can be forced to block access to websites seen as encouraging participation in unsanctioned protests; in March, several leading independent news and commentary sites were indefinitely blocked in the territory of Russia by order of the chief prosecutor’s office.
In this climate, how likely is it that any Russian journalists—especially ones from the mainstream media, brought almost completely under the Kremlin’s heel in the last decade—will investigate the veracity of Putin’s answer to Snowden? One might add that Putin is not particularly vulnerable to being embarrassed or politically damaged by being caught in a lie. This is, after all, the same Putin who only last month flatly asserted that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, even as it was being taken over by mystery men in unmarked uniforms with Russian army weapons and vehicles. During his call-in show, by the way, he casually admitted that they were, in fact, Russian soldiers.
After the Snowden/Putin exchange, Soldatov, the Russian investigative journalist who has written about Putin’s surveillance state, tweeted, “Whether Snowden was used or not by the Kremlin, the question was a good thing—it allows to start the debate over Russia's surveillance.” But with all due respect to Soldatov, this comment—cited by some Western commentators as a vindication of Snowden—smacks of wishful thinking. Indeed, less than 24 hours later, Soldatov followed up with another tweet ruefully noting that “while Snowden's question to Putin is hotly debated in English, I don't see much of debate in Russian.” In his Guardian column, Snowden takes credit for bringing the issue of surveillance before those Russians who only get their news from state-run television. But, with few if any exceptions, those Russians will be satisfied with Putin’s answer—and, unfortunately, most of them probably believe that surveillance of “subversives” is appropriate in any case.
The discussion of surveillance that Snowden’s revelations prompted in the United States has been a healthy one, whatever one thinks the proper limits of national security programs should be. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. While the NSA’s data collection does create potential for abuse, there is not a shred of evidence so far that it has been used under either the Bush or Obama administration to target people for constitutionally protected beliefs or activities. (The closest NSA critic Glenn Greenwald comes to such an example is a document mentioning a plan to use the online porn habits of two Islamist “radicalizers,” believed to be recruiters for jihad, to discredit them in the eyes of their fellow Muslims; it does not appear, however, that either man was a U.S. national.)
The Russian surveillance state, by contrast, not only has incomparably larger powers to monitor actual conversations and messages but uses these powers for explicitly political and repressive purposes. The NSA may engage in problematic practices, but comparing them to the FSB’s domestic spying is as hyperbolic as comparing sexism in North America to sexism in Iran. As long as Snowden and his supporters don’t get that, their sincere idealism will continue to play into the Kremlin’s hands.