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Many students on this campus have heard the name “Edward Snowden” — it’s created a buzz that’s lasted from the event’s announcement back in December until today, when Snowden will give his much-anticipated talk to CU students, faculty and staff at Macky Auditorium at 7 p.m. via video chat, all the way from Russia.
The talk, titled “An Evening with Edward Snowden,” is expected to see Snowden speak about his actions that exposed the National Security Agency (NSA)’s secret mass surveillance programs and about the ever-heated debate over government surveillance on the Internet.
Snowden’s name first became scandalous in June 2013, when The Guardian published a secret court order revealing that the NSA was constantly collecting American citizens’ phone records. Snowden, a former NSA agent himself, had illegally leaked 9,000 to 10,000 government documents — what some call the most vital leak of government information in U.S. history — that also disclosed that the NSA was surveilling Americans’ Internet activity.
That government activity, some argue, violates the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment — usually, the government needs to obtain a warrant before searching a citizen, but under NSA surveillance, records were collected daily from huge swaths of the American public. The U.S. government — including, largely, a post-scandal President Obama — argues that the measures are necessary to protect the public in an increasingly interconnected and vulnerable world. Because Snowden also leaked information related to U.S. surveillance of other countries, many of his critics argue that his actions unnecessarily endangered national security.
The debate has raged on since Snowden’s leak and subsequent fleeing to Russia, and Americans are still engaged two and a half years later, a fact reflected in the Facebook event page for his talk, and CU’s Distinguished Speakers Board welcomes the controversy.
“It’s been really great to see that dialogue because that’s exactly what we wanted to see happen,” said Emma Woodyard, chairwoman of DSB. “And in those terms, it’s been one of the most successful events I’ve been involved in because of the amount of discussion that’s happened even before the event.”
Woodyard, a CU senior who has been involved on the board since her freshman year, said that Snowden’s agent at the American Program Bureau, which manages well-known speakers from around the world, reached out to her this summer to ask if the board would be interested in hosting Snowden.
“It was presented as ‘Mr. Snowden has joined our circuit’ — very sparse, but very enticing at the same time,” Woodyard said of the initial emails.
“I would hazard a guess that this has been [one of] our most controversial or anticipated events,” Woodyard said.
Tickets sold out just four days after going on sale two weeks ago, and the surrounding buzz has garnered comments from the campus, the Boulder area, Denver and even Virginia and Arizona — some on social media, some to the board directly, Woodyard said. Media outlets ranging from the Boulder Weekly to Denver’s 7News to the Huffington Post will be covering the talk at Macky.
The nature of the debate surrounding Snowden presented a slight challenge to DSB, but it was quickly diffused.
“Typically the board is pretty autonomous,” Woodyard said — DSB is usually made up of 10-15 students, and they make the decisions independent of any CU staff. “Given Snowden’s background, we did need approval from different parts of the university [administration], but we did get it.”
“We had all our ducks in a row when we presented it, and we do not take a stance on what [Snowden] has done, and I think that’s a key thing. Once we made that clear, I think it went a lot smoother.”
The board itself was never in question, though, and it jumped at the chance to land Snowden in the fall.
“It was very impromptu — we would have done the normal nominating process [for a pool of potential speakers], but we did an ultimatum: Do we want him or do we not?” Woodyard said.
It was a unanimous vote.
The board, which hosts one speaker per semester — last fall’s was the “State of Satire” talk — has hosted former presidential candidate John Huntsman, former Senior Adviser to President Bush, Karl Rove, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the past.
“It’s been something of a challenge, but only in the way of technicalities,” Woodyard said of preparing for Snowden. DSB usually hosts candidates “in the flesh,” Woodyard said, but Snowden has helped accommodate the circumstance.
“He’s done a couple video chats before, so this is not his first rodeo,” she laughed. “He knows how to approach this kind of event, so that’s lucky.”
His talk at CU will by no means break ground in reaching him — he’s given interviews to several media outlets and venues since his exile, and has spoken to the University of Iowa, Princeton and Stanford via video chat in the past. He even wrote a guest column for The Guardian after accusations that he lofted a softball question to Russian President Vladimir Putin while interviewing him, a misstep that only raised more suspicion that Snowden had defected in allegiance to Russia’s government.
A year after the leak, in 2014, the U.S. government had made no determination that Snowden was an “agent of a foreign power” — which is why the government has not legally been able to target Snowden or attempt to forcibly bring him back. After Russia extended his residency for three more years in 2014, the problem of Snowden’s location doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon.
Amidst the debate over the last two and a half years, Snowden has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has had the European Union’s parliament vouch for the dropping of his criminal charges and has been praised and criticized roundly by journalists and citizens alike. Former Attorney General Eric Holder recently seemed almost forgiving of Snowden, despite no change from the current Obama administration and attorney general, who are still calling for him to face charges back home.
Whether Snowden is a duty-bound patriot or a law-flouting traitor comes down mostly to opinion, but the everyday debate is still hotly and concretely contested.
“People seem to have a lot of information, but the information is disputed by so many people,” Woodyard said of the conversations on social media surrounding the talk. “Twelve people will say, ‘You have your facts wrong!’ — then 30 will respond to those 12.”
Not everyone is toeing a political line, though — some people have spoken out with unbiased questions.
“People will say, ‘I really want to know the answer to this question,’” Woodyard said.
The answers may come tonight. The talk will be moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind of the Wall Street Journal, and will include a Q&A session of pre-screened questions from the audience asked by Suskind.