NSA Leak: Russia Says It Would Consider Asylum for Snowden

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World service PRI and WGBH Boston. There are so many angles to the Edward Snowden story that are intriguing. One interesting story on its own is whether Snowden was wise in fleeing to Hong Kong in order to expose top secret U.S. surveillance. He then left his Hong Kong hotel, but from there plot grows cold. Now it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin may be interested in granting asylum to Snowden. Miriam Elder is the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian Newspaper. Just generally Miriam, what has been the Russian reaction to the news of the Edward Snowden leak?

Miriam Elder: You know, until today it's been surprisingly muted. And the coverage only really started getting going today when Putin's spokesman gave a quick interview to a leading newspaper this morning saying that Russia would be willing to consider an asylum request by him. And then all the coverage kind of exploded.

Werman: Why do you think Putin's press secretary would say something like that?

Elder: It kind of fits into this line that the Russian government has had for about a year now if not longer, kind of positioning itself as a potential home to anybody who want to reject the west. So the most famous example so far is Gerard Depardieu, the actor who renounced his French citizenship in protest over rising taxes in France, and was welcomed with open arms in Russia. So I think this is just part of that trend.

Werman: But last year Julian Assange was given his own T.V. show on the state T.V. channel, propaganda channel, Russia Today. So this is more than just a Gerard Depardieu, Steven Segal moment. This seems more serious in some way.

Elder: I don't know if it's more serious or if I would put them all in the same category in terms of the Russian government. I think they really see it as a potential propaganda coup. Saying anybody who rejects the west, you know, be it just a kind of show like the Depardieu thing or something more serious like Snowden, that they would just be welcomed in Russia because this is a place where, you know, freedoms are protected. And if the west is out to get you, you can come here to find what you really want, which is of course ridiculous, but that's the position that they've been putting forward.

Werman: And do you think that this Snowden episode is seen by the Russian government as a bigger propaganda coup?

Elder: Yeah, of course. But we have to remember that Snowden, as far as we know, hasn't made any request to the Russian government, and if we take him at his word he does want to find asylum in a country that shares similar values to his own, which one would think Russia doesn't fall into that considering its own human rights abuses here. But of course it would be a huge propaganda coup and I think that's why what I took today's message to be is them kind of slowly reaching out to him.

Werman: Back to what you said earlier, the fact that the Snowden story is a little snoozer for some Russians. What's that do to it? Is it partly because Russia spied so much on its own citizens?

Elder: I think that's part of it, and just kind of everybody here functions under the assumption that that continues today. Russia's spy world is very opaque. I would say every average Russian citizen functions under the assumption that the Federal Security Service can tap into their phones, and are tapping into their phones and emails, as often as they'd like. It's a Soviet relic, that way of thinking.

Werman: Right. And speaking of Soviet relics, Vladimir Putin himself, as a former KGB officer, is seen as something of the ultimate spy. Where does he stand on this brave new world of data monitoring and digital mining?

Elder: It's interesting you would ask that because he just came out with his first thoughts on the subject in an interview with Russia Today, and he said this sort of thing, spying on phones and internet, it's fine if it's done within the foundations of the law. So he says in Russia you need a court order to have these things done, and if it's done the right way then it's fine. But what America did was illegal and therefore not correct.

Werman: And as far as whistleblowers, how does Russia view whistleblowers in their own country?

Elder: That to me is the most interesting angle of this whole case because you have Russia, you know, holding up Julian Assange and Snowden as these heroes, and when you look at how Russia treats its own whistleblowers it's a terrible record. From people like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was exposing abuses in Chechnya, who was shot dead in her apartment, to Sergei Magnistky who exposed a corruption scheme amongst police and tax police who was killed in prison. Anybody who has stuck their neck out in Russia has ended up dead or in jail. So it's very odd for them to be trying to welcome Snowden with open arms. It's interesting that they would even make that effort.

Werman: The Guardian newspaper's Miriam Elder in Moscow. Thanks so much as always Miriam.

Elder: Thank you.