Edward 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.
WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly four years since former contractor Edward Snowden spilled some of the most deeply held secrets of the National Security Agency (NSA), 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 part 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.
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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, he 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 The 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 it sought “somebody a little bit different, somebody relevant to the times.” The council 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, 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.
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 whistle-blowers use the well-established and discreet processes in place to voice grievances. They do not put American lives at risk,” Pompeo said last Thursday, 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, “Snowden,” which pulled in $37 million at the box office.
But it is on university campuses where Snowden generates the most buzz.
Snowden was paid $30,000 for his 60-minute Skype call with students at Ohio State’s main campus, in Columbus, on Nov. 30, that drew 1,700 students.
“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.”
For a video chat Snowden offered to the University of Colorado at Boulder in February 2016, the student government used student fees to pay $56,000 to his agents from the American Program Bureau, university spokesman Ryan Huff said in an email. “We don’t know what percentage of this money was paid directly to Snowden,” Huff added.
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.