The Lies Edward Snowden Tells

The former NSA contractor claims he challenged Vladimir Putin on government surveillance. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Journalists in Moscow listen as Edward Snowden asks Vladimir Putin a question about government surveillance. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Edward Snowden disappointed even his admirers on Thursday by participating in the annual propaganda ritual of Russia’s phony “ask Putin” call-in show. On Friday, Snowden tried to recoup by publishing an op-ed in The Guardian justifying himself. The self-justification, however, only makes things worse.

The show featured softball questions and deceptive answers, and the exchange between Snowden and Vladimir Putin followed this pattern. Snowden, the world’s most famous (Well, what shall we call him? Whistleblower? Defector? Putin humorously addressed Snowden as a fellow “secret agent,” and that term may have more double meaning in Snowden’s case than in most) lobbed this: Does Russia engage in mass surveillance of its population?

The Russian president answered: “We don’t have a mass system for such interception and according to our law it cannot exist.”

That bold lie was instantly punctured by Eli Lake of The Daily Beast:

The [Russian security agency] FSB has far more power to eavesdrop on Russian and foreign citizens than the FBI or the NSA…. [T]he FSB has a back door into every server belonging to Russia’s telecom companies and Internet service provider.… [I]n Russia, there is no special court or even a parliamentary committee to check the FSB’s work.

Lake reports that during the Sochi Olympic games, Russia pioneered an even more intrusive system. A Russia expert told him that Russian authorities “required telecom providers to store all phone conversations, text messages, everything for 24 hours.”

In The Guardian today, Snowden congratulates himself for having elicited an “evasive” and “suspiciously narrow” answer from the Russian president—and promises that this answer “would provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further.”

Speaking of suspiciously narrow answers, let’s consider Snowden’s. Putin’s approach to propaganda has been to tightly control television—which, in most of Russia, is the only media there is—while granting wider latitude to the remote and unpopular elites who communicate in print and online. Snowden is now taking part in this process. He played the dutiful courtier on TV, where he was seen by tens of millions of Russians; he expressed his tentative and circuitous criticisms in an English-language foreign newspaper.

Yet even in print and in English, Snowden is participating in and lending his support to a massive lie. Russian journalists will not “revisit” (as he puts it) the truthfulness of Putin’s answers. Russian journalists who do that end up dead, in at least 56 cases since 1992. Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who pressed Putin hardest, was shot dead in her own apartment building in 2006, after years of repeated arrests, threats, and in one case, attempted poisoning.

As for “civil society”: Snowden is writing at a time when Russian forces have invaded and conquered Crimea. Russian-backed forces have attacked and abducted journalists on the peninsula and shut down independent news outlets. People who have resisted the annexation have disappeared, then reappeared dead, bearing signs of torture. To write about Russia as a normal state, in which normal methods exist for discovering and discussing truth, is to share culpability for a lie—and a lie that, at this very moment, is shattering the peace and security of all of Europe.

As criticism, Snowden’s op-ed today occupies a fine place in the history of fellow-traveling toadying. (Here’s Sidney and Beatrice Webb, writing in 1935, and showing how it’s done, including criticizing Stalin for his “weak half-measures adopted towards the kulaks.”)

But, of course, Snowden’s op-ed is not a document intended to be remembered for its content. It’s a document intended to allow him to claim that he bravely and boldly criticized the Russian government that shelters him. That is simply not true.

On Thursday, Snowden did what Putin needed for Putin’s domestic purposes. Friday’s follow-up excursion should be seen not as a deviation from the propaganda work of yesterday but as a continuation of it. Yesterday, Snowden aided Putin in deceiving the Russian people about state surveillance of their communications. Today, he undertook the secondary task of deceiving his supporters in the West about his own stance toward the Russian state. On past performance, that second task will likely be the easier one.