“Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?” Snowden asked Putin during the Thursday broadcast of the Russian leader’s annual question and answer session.
Putin said that the intelligence services bugged phones and monitored Internet communications but only targeted specific individuals suspected of terrorism and not the general public, denying that Russia conducted mass surveillance and data collection.
Critics questioned Snowden’s motives for asking the question, speculating if he intended to slight the U.S. amid a standoff over Ukraine’s sovereignty, or was taking part in a propaganda play to help bolster the Russian leader.
“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,” said Snowden in his defense in the op-ed.
“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,” he added.
Snowden insisted that his intentions were to show that all nations conduct surveillance and said he hoped the exchange would “mirror” Sen. Ron Wyden's questioning of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Under questioning before Congress, Clapper denied that the NSA collected data on Americans. He insisted later that he had not lied but misspoke, following Snowden’s leaks revealing the agency’s mass surveillance programs.
“Clapper's lie — to the Senate and to the public — was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public, and a historic example of the importance of official accountability,” said Snowden.
Snowden said that Putin had “denied the first part of the question” he asked and “dodged” a follow-up on whether mass surveillance could ever be justified.
“I understand the concerns of critics, but there is a more obvious explanation for my question than a secret desire to defend the kind of policies I sacrificed a comfortable life to challenge: if we are to test the truth of officials' claims, we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims,” wrote Snowden.
Snowden received temporary asylum in Russia. He is evading espionage and theft charges in the U.S. for disclosing classified information.