Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who sought asylum in Moscow after leaking details of U.S. surveillance programs, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday if Russia spied on its citizens — the first known instance of direct contact between the two.
"Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?" Snowden asked via video link during a televised call-in show hosting Putin. It was not immediately clear if Snowden was speaking live or if his question had been prerecorded.
Snowden also asked whether Putin believes improving the effectiveness of investigations justifies "placing societies … under surveillance.”
After the show’s host helped translate the questions for Putin, he responded that Russia regulates communications as part of criminal investigations, but "on a massive scale, on an uncontrolled scale, we certainly do not allow this and I hope we will never allow it."
Russian authorities require consent from a court to conduct such practices, "and for this reason there is no [surveillance] of a mass character here and cannot be in accordance with the law,” Putin added.
Putin, a former spy during the Soviet era, also raised a laugh among the studio audience when he said: "You are an ex-agent. I used to have ties to intelligence."
The televised exchange allowed Putin to portray Russia as less intrusive in the lives of its citizens than the United States, which has faced intense scrutiny for its mass surveillance of telephone and Internet communications. It also enabled Snowden to suggest that he is concerned about surveillance practices outside of the U.S., including those of his host country.
Putin's refusal to hand Snowden over to the U.S., where he is wanted on espionage charges, added to strained ties between Russia and the United States that have now been even more badly damaged by turmoil in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Snowden was granted asylum for at least a year.
Thursday’s exchange was part of a marathon question-and-answer session on Russian television, the 12th such program Putin has held as president. He also answered questions about Crimea, deteriorating relations with the U.S. and a burgeoning Russia-China partnership.
Snowden recently appeared via video link at the South by Southwest conference held in Austin, Texas, in March, which focused on privacy and surveillance issues in the U.S.
“Would I do it again? Yes,” he said during his appearance. “Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we have a right to.”
Al Jazeera and Reuters
SLIDESHOW: VLADIMIR PUTIN'S TELEVISED CALL-IN SHOW