MOSCOW — Several hours into Vladimir Putin's televised call-in show, one of the TV anchors interrupted viewers' questions to air what she said was a "sensational video" for the Russian president: a message from Edward Snowden.
The American who leaked a vast trove of material from the super-secret National Security Agency was granted asylum in Russia last year. But given how stage-managed Thursday's show was, Snowden's appearance was no surprise to the man he questioned.
"I've seen little public discussion of Russia's own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance," Snowden said. "Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze the communications of millions of individuals?"
"You're a former agent and I used to work in intelligence," Putin said, to chuckles in the audience. "Special services here, thank God, are under the strict control of the government, society, and their operations are regulated by law."
Putin's official answer differs sharply from the reality in Russia.
In recent months, Russia's Internet regulatory body has shut down the domain of leading opposition figure and popular blogger Alexei Navalny. It has also moved to block groups on Russia's leading social network, VKontakte, that were connected to the Ukrainian protest movement that helped oust the country's Kremlin-friendly president from power.
Just a day earlier, Pavel Durov, VKontakte's founder, posted online what appeared to be FSB documents requesting personal information from the accounts of 39 groups, all of them linked to the Ukrainian protest movement.
"First, there is no parliamentary oversight of secret services," independent Moscow-based security analyst Andrei Soldatov wrote on Twitter in response to Putin's comments. "Second, the FSB (Russia's security agency) is not required to show a warrant to anyone."
The Washington Post and The Guardian won the Pulitzer Prize this week for revealing the U.S. government's sweeping surveillance programs — a series of stories based on secret documents supplied by Snowden.