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On Russian TV, Snowden asks Putin about Moscow surveillance

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country's surveillance isn't as broad as that in the U.S.
  • "We do not have the money or the means to do that," he tells the fugitive intelligence leaker
  • Putin says he and the former NSA contractor "can speak in a professional language"

(CNN) -- Months after accepting asylum in Russia, fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.

"Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?" Snowden asked in English via a video link during Putin's annual question-and-answer program, which was broadcast on state television. "And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their subjects, under surveillance?"

Putin responded that Russia has a special service that bugs telephone conversations and Internet communications to fight crimes, including terrorism, but only with court permission and only "for specific citizens."

Snowden's NSA leaks earn Pulitzer Prize

"So, the mass character is something we do not have and cannot have," Putin said in Russian.

"On such a mass scale ... we do not allow ourselves to do this, and we will never allow this. We do not have the money or the means to do that," he said.

Putin, a former intelligence agent, noted that his questioner, a former National Security Agency contractor, shares that background. "So, we can speak in professional language," he said.

Snowden last year disclosed details of the vast U.S. surveillance network put in place after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including the government's record keeping on billions of phone calls.

Anticipating legal consequences, he fled to Moscow.

U.S. authorities have charged him with espionage and theft of government property.

Last month, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told National Public Radio that U.S. officials must plan for the possibility that Russia has access to American battle plans and other secrets.

"If I'm concerned about anything, I'm concerned about defense capabilities that he may have stolen from where he worked, and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries -- in this case, of course, Russia," Flynn said.

He cited intelligence capabilities, operational capabilities, technology and weapons systems as potential subjects that Snowden -- and now Russia -- may have.

"We have to assume the worst case and then begin to make some recommendations to our leadership about how do we mitigate some of the risks that may come from what may have been compromised," Flynn said.

Last October, Lon Snowden visited Moscow, where he told reporters that his 30-year-old son told him he had had no contact with Russian security or intelligence.

In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Snowden leaks caused serious damage to U.S. security.

"What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs," Clapper said then. "As a result, we've lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners."

The nation's adversaries were "going to school on U.S. intelligence sources' methods and trade craft, and the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder," he told the committee.

READ: Stories about NSA surveillance, Snowden leaks win Pulitzers for two news groups

READ: Edward Snowden speaks at SXSW, calls for public oversight of U.S. spy programs

CNN's Jason Hanna and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

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