For Putin, the former analyst represents the bad conscience of the United States.
A few days ago, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the Washington Post and The Guardian for their publication of materials on the U.S. telecommunications espionage, leaked by Edward Snowden, former analyst of the National Security Agency. Out of every Pulitzer category, it was the most treasured — the one that rewards services provided to society. In his Russian refuge, Snowden, who has been accused of espionage and treason, could have interpreted the news as what “made” him: Even though it is indirect, this award recognizes the services he has provided to his country and the world.
Three days after the Pulitzer ceremony, President Vladimir Putin gave his annual television appearance. Over the course of four hours, he answered the questions of his people, and Snowden appeared among the Russians. Ukraine was the central topic. The first questions came from Sebastopol, from the commander of the Black Sea fleet and the commander of the anti-riot troops in Crimea. A group of retired men wanted to know what fate would govern their pensions, if Europe refused to buy Russian gas. The questions surrounding the invasion of Ukraine emerged one after the other.
The Russian president received questions about his favorite brand of vodka, which city he would like to live in, and his favorite movie. A six-year-old girl asked him if Barack Obama would save him if he were drowning. When it was his turn, Edward Snowden asked him if Russia intercepted, stored and analyzed the data of millions of its citizens, and moreover, if the president considered it right and justifiable to have control in this area.
The question and the questioner had the same spontaneity as the little girls who were handing out flowers to the dignitaries at the official Soviet formal. Snowden was handing Putin a bunch of opportunities, and the president knew to seize them all. To begin with, he put the man who questioned him in his place. “Dear Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent,” he said. And he took advantage of the occasion to make the people believe that his relationship with espionage had come to an end. “I used to work for an intelligence service.” And given both of their pasts, he proposed to Snowden that they speak on professional terms.
Did this warning mean that they will be moving away from public discussion to speak in a code that is only decipherable to the two of them? What followed in his speech did not require experience in espionage to be understood. It brought to mind that [his mention of] his past membership in the secret service was only to make it clear that he knew that world from the inside. He answered Snowden by saying that in Russia, you needed a court order before putting an individual under surveillance. Therefore, an immense espionage system did not exist. He thanked God that the secret services were under the control of the state and society.
Edward Snowden did not have the right to counter-question. A day later, he decided to respond to The Guardian, which criticized him for appearing at that speech. He considered it a valid occasion because he had achieved the most negative response by a Russian leader to a question about immense espionage. Now, we must wait and see if society and journalists can take the issue further. He was sure that in the agenda of the coming year, Putin would receive other questions on the subject.
Judging by his article, Snowden saw his television participation from the perspective of Russian internal affairs. He hoped to open a point of discussion in Russia, ignoring that the presidential speech was mainly focused on Ukraine. The former NSA analyst failed to understand the extent of the propaganda campaign, and the role that he played in it. If they allowed him to go on television, it was because he was needed as a guarantor to the Kremlin. His life in Russia was the clearest confirmation that they are not spying much there because after risking his life for some revelations, he would not go and seek refuge in a country that would repeat the practice that he was fighting against before.
In truth, Snowden was a parcel of compromising documents that the Russian president waved at the West, yet another article in the arsenal of Putin’s blackmailer. In that speech, the young man did not represent the critical conscience of Russian society, but the bad conscience of the U.S. and its allies. Behaving as expected based on his fame, acting like the auditor of the Kremlin, he served as a witness in the campaign against Ukraine.
The Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Washington Post and The Guardian has managed to renew an argument that is often used when discussing the Snowden case. This argument considers that as questionable as it was to leak the documents, his disclosures would become a public benefit. (Those interested in this kind of dilemma can search for the book “Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy,” where Rahul Sagar studies what premises morally justify leaks in state secrecy.) With his article in The Guardian, Snowden wanted to convince public opinion that it was the defense of the common good and freedom that made him participate in Vladimir Putin’s speech.
In a few months time, in June, Snowden will have to renew his asylum permit. Who knows what he hopes for under the hospitality of the Kremlin. Who knows what new excuses he will have to resort to in order to justify his role as a hero.