Snowden speaks on press freedom, surveillance at W&M


WILLIAMSBURG — Whistleblower Edward Snowden was nearly 5,000 miles away from Williamsburg on Tuesday, even as more than 150 people gathered to hear him speak.

Snowden spoke to students in the Commonwealth Auditorium at the College of William and Mary on Tuesday afternoon.

The college, in partnership with the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, streamed a chat with Snowden via Facebook Live, even as the former National Security Agency contractor remained exiled in Russia.

Snowden fled the U.S. after releasing documents that uncovered the federal government's use of mass surveillance programs. He spoke via live-stream while joined on stage by government professor Lawrence Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, an retired Army colonel, asked Snowden a pointed question about whether he considered himself a criminal.

"It's important to remember this country was borne of an act of criminality, an act of treason," Snowden said, adding that he has yet to be charged with treason or any other crime.

While Snowden agrees with targeted surveillance, he said people should be perpetually skeptical of their governments and how they justify surveillance of everyday citizens.

Throughout history, he said, governments have used information and the lack thereof to deceive and confuse citizens.

"If we only knew what governments want us to know, we wouldn't know much at all," he said.

Tucker Higgins, one of the event's organizers and a member of the William and Mary Media Council, said booking Snowden happened primarily through the help of the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Chancellor Robert Gates brought Snowden up in conversation with Higgins a few years ago.

"He looked me right in the eye, without blinking, and said Snowden was a traitor," Higgins said.

Snowden said that whatever people may think of him, he hopes that they also think critically about the role of government in their lives.

Wilkerson tied his current employer into the idea.

"The point of universities is to teach students how to think critically," he said.

One of the bigger issues discussed Tuesday was the nuance between where individual liberty and mass surveillance.

Power dynamics are at the heart of what mass surveillance is about, Snowden said.

Snowden said he appreciates surveillance when it deals with terrorist organizations. Other programs, he said, have not yielded much info.

"We have targeted surveillance, and this I am not a critic of," he said. "That's fine, as long as it is the least intrusive means of investigation."

Wilkerson saw the issue a bit differently.

"Our liberty is our security. There is no line, not in my view anyway," Wilkerson said.

An adversarial press, Snowden said, is one of the ways America can bolster itself, since it can help reveal some of the goings-on in government that otherwise would never hit the public sphere.

"I'm always going to fall on the side of the press," Snowden said.

He added that even getting stories wrong now and again was not a real reason to distrust the media.

"We're never going to have perfect journalism," he said. "In every case, the answer is bad speech is not censorship. The answer is more speech and good speech."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

Speaking with Snowden

Tuesday's chat received more than 270,000 views and more than 4,300 shares on Facebook.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette