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Snowden shows savvy on video talk circuit

Tim Johnson
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington — It’s been nearly four years since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden spilled some of the most deeply held secrets of the National Security Agency, emerging from obscurity to become a central figure in a global debate about surveillance and secrecy.

Now, nearly every week, Snowden hops on his computer from his exile in Russia for a video chat with university students, techies or privacy advocates in some corner of North America.

Never in modern times has an accused enemy of the U.S. state had so much access to the public, or so divided people about where he lands on the spectrum from “traitor” to “hero.”

It’s not a bad gig. Snowden’s got cash and clout, pulling in as much as $30,000 per talk, although his lawyer says he does many appearances for little or no money.

The U.S. intelligence community despises Snowden. But Silicon Valley listens to him. And citizens fearful of government-surveillance overreach see him as a voice of truth. If Snowden is a traitor, he is not a traitor to the whole United States, rather to a divided nation groping for a balance between personal privacy and national security.

Snowden’s visage shows up not only on huge screens at university campuses but also close to the apex of power. On May 15, Snowden will offer a “fireside chat” to open the K(NO)W Identity conference in Washington’s Ronald Reagan Building, barely three blocks from the White House. A day later, the chief technology officer of the Air Force will address the same confab.

It’s at universities where Snowden seems to be in greatest demand. The list of those that have paid to hear him speak is long, and includes not just illustrious private institutions like Princeton, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University but also publicly funded ones such as Ohio State University, University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Arizona and the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

“No one tried to shut us down,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a media scholar and director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Snowden took part in a conference last July 22. “This is a university, and universities take very seriously the question of academic freedom.”

When the University of Pittsburgh’s program council went looking for a speaker, lecture director Zach Linn said they sought “somebody a little bit different, somebody relevant to the times.” They settled on Snowden to speak Feb. 1. Tickets sold out within three days, he said.

Snowden remains a lightning rod figure, though, and the university took precautions.

“We did screen questions ahead of time because whenever you have a controversial speaker and you have a hot mic in a crowd ... there was a concern that someone would go off,” Linn said.

Moderators for events say they are aware Snowden remains politically radioactive.

Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell who now teaches public policy at William & Mary, a public Virginia university, said that if Snowden “were to ask me, ‘Should I come home?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely not. You’ll be hung.’ ”

President Donald Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have said they think Snowden should be executed. He remains a deeply contentious figure.

Pompeo, in his first public remarks since taking over the agency in January, decried those who view Snowden as anything less than a traitor.

“True whistleblowers use the well-established and discreet processes in place to voice grievances. They do not put American lives at risk,” Pompeo said a week ago, adding that Snowden’s disclosures had led more than 1,000 foreign targets of surveillance to try to change the ways they communicated to avoid detection.

While Pompeo plays up the damage Snowden caused, one former CIA director plays it down, asserting that disclosures — including that the NSA tapped conversations of foreign leaders — may be embarrassing but not illegal.

“Despite all the sound and fury, there really hasn’t been a lot of changes based on the Snowden allegations,” said retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009 and the NSA from 1999 to 2005.

Nor was Hayden disturbed by Snowden’s cashing in on his fame with fees for his talks.

“I do things for a speaker’s fee. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that,” he said.

Like Trump, Snowden has a sizable audience on Twitter, where he has more than 3 million followers. The exiled former contractor was also the subject of a 2016 Oliver Stone biopic, titled “Snowden,” which pulled in $37 million at the box office.

His attorney, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Snowden was not distressed by his exile status in Russia, where U.S. prosecutors cannot reach him to bring him to trial on espionage-related charges that could send him to jail for decades.

“He had every expectation that the end for him would be a prison cell,” Wizner said.

Instead, Snowden lives with his girlfriend of a decade, Lindsay Mills, has regular visits from relatives, walks freely about the Russian capital and is not constrained about discussing his past and his intelligence career.

“He’s more socially connected than he was when he was working in the intelligence community, where he couldn’t talk about his work,” Wizner said. “On average, he’s giving talks about once a week.”

Wizner said Snowden felt “immensely gratified” that he’d reached tens of thousands of people, many of them millennials, to talk about perils to privacy, the need for the widespread use of encryption and the pervasiveness of intrusion in the name of national security.

“He has an iconic presence in the global debate about surveillance, secrecy and democracy, and he’s got a unique ability to draw a mass audience,” Wizner said.

Snowden doesn’t talk only to university students, many of whom are disposed to like him. He’s also showing up on live-streamed chats before conference-goers at high-tech confabs in Toronto and Munich, the Comic-Con convention in San Diego and before an audience organized by Twitter in San Francisco.

But it is on university campuses where Snowden generates the most buzz.

“We sold out, I mean, oh, my goodness, within two hours,” said Catherine Murray, the associate dean of faculty of arts and sciences at Simon Fraser University, which has three campuses in and near Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The reaction to him was astonishing,” Murray said. “There was palpable electricity. ... He has a way of presenting appalling information without sensationalism.”

In contrast to Canada, some U.S. universities try to keep the Snowden talks low-key.

“It has come to our attention that the administration has chosen not to publicize this event widely,” two professors at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, wrote to colleagues before Snowden’s video chat there Sept. 28.

For his 60-minute Skype call with students at Ohio State University, in Columbus, on Nov. 30, which drew 1,700 students, Snowden was paid $30,000.

“That’s $8 per second, in case you were wondering,” student Robin Smith wrote in a letter to The Lantern, the student daily, saying she’d gotten the information after demanding it from the Office of University Compliance and Integrity. Smith said she opposed supporting “an alleged criminal through our obligatory payment of the student activity fee.”

Wilkerson, the William & Mary professor, said he was aware of suggestions that Snowden was indebted to Russian leader Vladimir Putin for his refuge in Moscow but added that the need for a broad civic debate about surveillance outweighs those concerns.

“I think this is an important debate in the long run even if Putin was orchestrating Snowden,” Wilkerson said.