I was reading in the New York Times the other day an article entitled Snowden Defends Query to Putin on Surveillance. The article references a question-and-answer session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the interview, Snowden shows up unexpectedly and asks President Putin and asks him whether or not Russia engages in the same sort of unlawful surveillance that the NSA participates in.
Putin jockeys with him jokingly for a bit, saying that they’re both intelligence agents, and then denies it. They don’t have the money to do it, and their intelligence gathering is governed by society and by law. In other words, Russian intelligence agencies are more ethical than US intelligence agencies.
American journalists were quick to criticize Snowden. Just how, exactly, did he manage to conveniently show up on this telethon to ask President Putin these questions? The underlying message is that Snowden is being used as a propaganda piece for the Russian government, willingly or unknowingly. While pointing his arrows at the US for intelligence gathering practices he finds unethical (and the morality of which is still ambiguous, at least in the United States [you may disagree with my assessment but there is not universal condemnation]), how can he clearly miss the unethical actions that Russia is taking in Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea and then threatening to invade Ukraine, or at least causing unrest?
In other words, the criticism is that Snowden is picking-and-choosing at whom he feels outrage; it is hypocritical to give the Russian government a chance to showcase their moral superiority at the expense of the US, while ignoring the Russian government’s current transgressions.
Snowden disagrees with this. He flat out denies it:
Calling Mr. Putin’s answer evasive, Mr. Snowden wrote that he was “surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the intelligence practices of my own country could not believe that I might criticize the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have shown no allegiance, without ulterior motive.”
He also noted that a Russian investigative journalist, Andrei Soldatov, “perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus” described his question as “extremely important for Russia.”
As soon as I read this, many red flags went up in my mind.
For you see, a few years ago I started studying up on deception – how humans do it and how to detect it. There’s no sure-fire way to tell when someone is lying, but with training you can get it right 80-90% of the time (without training you can get it right 53% of the time, roughly equal to a coin flip).
People don’t like to be labeled as deceivers. We have a great need to feel consistent and will often explain things to ourselves in order to convince ourselves of our actions to make that cognitive dissonance go away.
I am not an expert in detecting deception, nor am I a trained analyst. But I have read many books and Snowden’s answers jumped out at me with their obviousness.
What follows is what I think:
- The first red flag – Look at the past good things I have done!
When someone is accused of something and they change the subject by bringing up past examples of good behavior, that is suspicious. This is known as a “convincing statement.”
For example, suppose the police were interrogating a suspect about breaking-and-entering and he says “You know, this past weekend I was helping out at the homeless shelter.” The idea is to deflect suspicion by creating a halo effect – the tendency for us to believe that good characteristics about a person spills over into all traits about that person. Surely someone who helps out selflessly to assist the homeless would not commit a crime! But that this person helps the homeless does not mean they could not break-and-enter.
Look at Snowden’s response: he risked his life to expose the intelligence practices of his own country. That was a very ethical thing to do, so why would he do such an unethical thing and appear as a propaganda piece for the Russian government now?
- The second red flag – you haven’t seen me do anything
Snowden issued a non-specific denial: Russia is a country to which he has shown no allegiance. If the “no” statement is delivered in a way that’s open ended but overly specific, that can be a sign of deception. Snowden said he has not shown any allegiance, without ulterior motive. That is subtle; it doesn’t mean he has none, nor has no ulterior motive, only that others can’t see it.
- The third red flag – Turning around the accusations
When someone is caught in a lie, they will often flip around the question and attack the accuser. In this case, Snowden expresses surprise that people who saw him do such a heroic action now can’t believe that he would break from his past ethical actions. In other words, they should be ashamed of themselves for not trusting his character.
- The fourth red flag – Redirection with an appeal to authority
This one is not as strong, but Snowden dismisses the attack against him by appealing to another journalist who has similarly criticized Russia’s surveillance state, and this journalist says that Snowden’s question is very important.
Snowden’s question is important, yes, but that is not what we are discussing; we are discussing whether or not this question-and-answer session was staged and whether or not Snowden is being used by the Russian government to further its own public relations.
Regardless of what you think of Snowden – that he’s a hero for exposing a corrupt government or that he is a traitor for giving away trade secrets – my view is that his most recent critics for this Putin Q&A session struck a nerve that he had to defend himself. But the way he phrased it indicates to me that he is hiding something. Maybe he realizes now that he initially thought he was asking Putin a hard question but upon further reflection, that he was used to further the Russian agenda and now has to rationalize what he did… but can’t admit it.
Or perhaps I am wrong and he actually means what he says and the red flags I detected are false positives.
I guess that depends on what I want to believe.