Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor who leaked details of U.S. intelligence eavesdropping, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin a question on Thursday during a televised call-in show.
The exchange was the first known direct contact between Putin and Snowden since Russia granted the American asylum last summer after he disclosed widespread monitoring of telephone and Internet data by the United States and fled the country.
Snowden, who has been given refuge in Russia, was not in the studio where Putin was speaking. He submitted his question in a video clip, and it was not immediately clear if he was speaking live or if it had been recorded earlier.
Snowden, wearing a jacket and open-collar shirt and speaking before a dark background, asked Putin: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”
He also asked whether Putin believes improving the effectiveness of investigations justifies “placing societies .. under surveillance”.
He was speaking in English, and Putin had to ask the anchor for help with a translation of the question.
Putin, a former spy during Soviet rule, raised a laugh among the studio audience when he said: “You are an ex-agent. I used to have ties to intelligence.”
Turning to Snowden's question, Putin said Russia regulates communications as part of criminal investigations, but “on a massive scale, on an uncontrolled scale we certainly do not allow this and I hope we will never allow it.”
He said the Russian authorities need consent from a court to conduct such surveillance on a specific individual “and for this reason there is no [surveillance] of a mass character here and cannot be in accordance with the law”.
The televised exchange allowed Putin to portray Russia as less intrusive in the lives of its citizens than the United States and enabled Snowden to suggest that he is concerned about surveillance practices not only in the United Sates but in other countries, including the one that is sheltering him.
Putin's refusal to hand Snowden over to the United States, where he is wanted on espionage charges, added to strained ties between Russia and the United States, which now have been even more badly damaged by turmoil in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Snowden was granted asylum for at least a year.