18 April 2014

Snowden's side of the Putin story

All the criticism of his appearance yesterday on President Putin's call-in show got under Edward Snowden's skin. He felt it necessary to write an op-ed for the Guardian, a friendly venue, clarifying what he thought he was doing when he put his question about Russian surveillance techniques to Putin. He strikes a necessary cynical note, assuring his readers and fans that he never thought Putin would answer his question truthfully. In Snowden's knowing opinion, the sort of question he asked "cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program." While it might have been more interesting had he said that to Putin, his intent, he now suggests, was to catch Putin in what might be proved a lie down the line -- though it will be up to Russian investigators and whistle-blowers to prove the truth. Citing the opinion of one Russian journalist, Snowden believes that he's started a conversation in Russia about that country's surveillance programs that could prove uncomfortable for its president. Snowden is explicitly critical here toward what he describes as Putin's "evasive" response to the big question. Given all this, he is shocked, and possibly even surprised, to see himself characterized as everything from a naive dupe to a conscious mouthpiece for the Putin government.

I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin's evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.

Snowden's PR problem of the moment actually has less to do with speculation about his motives than with speculation about Putin's motives for allowing Snowden to ask his question. The simple assumption is that Putin doesn't arrange for Snowden to appear -- that his appearance was pre-arranged and no surprise to the president is taken for granted -- unless Putin benefits from the moment. Regardless of the repercussions Snowden may hope for in the long term -- he wants to see Russians ask Putin tougher questions about surveillance at next year's call-in -- Putin benefits now by saying Russia's surveillance program is smaller, better regulated and less intrusive than its U.S. counterpart, even if Putin himself admitted that Russia simply lacks the technology and finances to run a program on the American scale. Putin's enemies around the world, from rival powers to those common people for whom he's become the new international bogeyman, can't let any propaganda point for Putin go uncontested. Such people would rather that Snowden had gone outside his realm of expertise to ask Putin the questions they want asked about murdered journalists, alleged sham trials of political opponents, etc. Some would not have been satisfied unless Snowden used his airtime to call Putin a dictator, or maybe a poopyhead for extra measure. But since yesterday's show is assumed to be a propaganda victory for Putin, even if no one seems to believe what he said, Snowden is presumed guilty of aiding and comforting tyranny -- and of epic hypocrisy given his concern for civil liberties.

As a celebrity and political figure, Snowden is a slow learner in the art of spin. His spin control comes a day late and any number of dollars, rubles or pounds short, depending on your perspective. In his own mind -- and I have no reason to question his sincerity about this -- he's playing a long game with Putin, with a payoff expected over time. In his game, it doesn't matter whether Putin appeared to score a propaganda victory yesterday, but to many others it does. Snowden's game seems to require Putin to score first, or at least to make the first move. " [I]f we are to test the truth of officials' claims," he writes, "we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims." In other words, while many westerners assume Putin to be a liar, Snowden wants to prove it, if he can. It may be too cool an approach when Putin makes so many people's blood boil, and it may still prove naive if no Russian whistleblower takes up Snowden's implicit challenge. But Snowden has already proven that he plays his own games by his own rules. To assume, as so many do, that he's simply playing Putin's game, or is being played by Putin, is probably premature.

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