Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden has joined a phone-in with Russian President Vladimir Putin, quizzing him over the extent of Moscow’s surveillance activities.
Putin, a former KGB agent, greeted Snowden as a fellow “former agent” before assuring him that Russia’s surveillance of the population was not on a mass scale and strictly controlled by laws.
Snowden, a 30-year-old former United States National Security Agency contractor, was granted asylum by Russia last August after shaking the American intelligence establishment to its core with a series of devastating leaks on mass surveillance in the US and around the world.
His location has been kept strictly secret ever since.
Russians were able to submit video questions to Putin using cell phone apps.
Snowden spoke against a dark background giving no clue to his location, wearing a dark suit jacket and grey shirt, looking unshaven with his hair plastered down.
His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Snowden had recorded and submitted the video in advance.
“He found out there would be a direct line with the Russian president and recorded a question,” Kucherena said.
First the camera cut dramatically to a co-host who introduced Snowden as “a person who carried out a real information revolution”.
“I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store or analyse in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden asked Putin in English.
“And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify our placing societies rather than subjects under surveillance?”
Putin appeared taken aback and was not provided with a translation from the show’s host.
Putin assured Snowden the kind of “mass eavesdropping” on the population that Snowden exposed in the United States was impossible as Russia’s special services were under strict control.
“Mr Snowden, you’re a former agent, I also had something to do with this, so we’ll talk in a professional language,” he told Snowden, to applause from the audience.
“We have strict legal regulation of the use of special surveillance by special services, including tapping phone conversations, surveillance on the Internet and so on,” Putin said, stressing a court decision was necessary for this.
“This is not done on a mass scale and indiscriminately in Russia.”
Nevertheless Putin added that special services do use “appropriate modern means” to carry out surveillance of “criminals including terrorists”.