Cheers to SXSW for Featuring Edward Snowden

March 17, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Cheers to Hugh Forrest and other officials of South by Southwest (SXSW) for organizing a video conference of a talk and interview by Edward Snowden, and for standing up against ominous threats by a powerful congressman against Snowden and SXSW.

Edward Snowden talks during a simulcast conversation during the SXSW Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas. Photo: AP

Snowden, who has been granted temporary political asylum in Russia, is the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and Central Intelligence Agency employee who boldly and with great conscience released thousands of classified documents exposing massive government spying, surveillance, and monitoring. He now faces three federal felony charges for these disclosures.

Snowden and people who support him, in particular journalists who published some of the files Snowden released, have been maligned and threatened repeatedly by leading political figures. In a speech this January at the Department of Justice, President Obama said Snowden "revealed methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come." The "operations" Obama referred to mainly mean the military and espionage measures, including spying on its own allies, the U.S. uses to maintain its position as the world's foremost exploiter and oppressor.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called Snowden "a traitor." Cheney—a man who was a key and leading figure in unleashing a network of global torture chambers and continues to defend torture by the U.S. military and spy agencies—said in a CNN interview that he wants the U.S. to catch Snowden and give him "the justice he deserves."

In fact, it is a fine thing that Edward Snowden revealed to the world the pervasive, almost incalculably large-scale spying on the world the U.S. government does routinely. It is also a fine thing that this courageous act has inspired and motivated many people to find ways to resist and oppose government spying. And it was great that SXSW not only invited Snowden to speak, but broadcast his talk around the world.


SXSW started in Austin, Texas, 27 years ago as a showcase for regional music. But over the decades it has become a major, international cultural event—a gathering of people from across the U.S. and many countries for cutting-edge music, film and interactive technology.

Ben Wizner, one of Snowden's American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys, pointed out the significance of his appearance at SXSW. "The tech community, particularly people worried about security, has been radicalized by these exposures. They now see the NSA as an adversary if they are going to protect their systems."

Snowden's March 10 appearance was billed by SXSW as "a Virtual Conversation With Edward Snowden" in which Snowden would "urge the entrepreneurs, innovators, makers, hackers, geeks, founders, investors and leading-edge thinkers who attend SXSW Interactive to build better systems that better protect user privacy." Of the hundreds of events at this year's SXSW, Snowden's speech became the major event at the week-and-a-half affair. Other highlights included video casts by Julian Assange, who released the WikiLeaks files, and Glenn Greenwald, who brought Snowden's exposures to light in the media.

The room for Snowden's video conference was overflowing, as were two other Austin auditoriums where the talk and interview were shown. The ACLU and the Texas Tribune provided simulcasts of Snowden's two-hour talk and interview for Internet viewers world wide.

Snowden gave his talk and interview with an enlarged copy of the U.S. constitution as a backdrop. Despite casting his remarks largely in the context of how best to serve the "national interest" of the U.S.—which regardless of one's intent, can only lead to defending imperialist domination and oppression—Snowden made blistering criticisms of U.S. officials and the U.S. policy of mass spying. He said the actions of the NSA and other government agencies are "burning the Internet," and called on the audience to be the "firefighters." Snowden made it clear that despite living in forced exile and facing criminal indictments, he had no regrets. "Would I do this again? The answer is absolutely yes. Regardless of what happens to me, this is something we had a right to know."

He was given a standing ovation by the SXSW audience, many of whom no doubt agreed with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, who tweeted to Snowden that when he released the files, he was "acting profoundly in the public interest."

Standing Up to Threats

Mike Pompeo, a Republican congressman from Kansas who is a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote an open letter to pressure SXSW organizers into rescinding their invitation to Snowden to speak. Echoing Obama and Cheney, he called Snowden a criminal and a traitor. He called Snowden and his "media enablers"—meaning people like Glenn Greenwald, who has been publishing articles based on Snowden's NSA leaks—"intentional distorters of truth."

Hugh Forrest, interactive director for SXSW, responded that Internet and social networking privacy is "a big focus at the 2014 event, as well it should be. It's something I think impacts all of us given how much social [media] is now just part of our lives. It's essentially woven into everything we do.... I've never uninvited a speaker, and so we wouldn't do this with Snowden.... I think it's the biggest thing we've ever done, in terms of political and cultural relevance. I'm proud and excited that Snowden wanted to get this message out at SXSW." Forrest also said that he was concerned about the possibility of the video cast being disrupted and said that SXSW was working to see that it "goes off flawlessly."

Congressman Pompeo accused Snowden of committing "treasonous acts," and specifically said information released by Snowden provides "comfort" to Russia's leaders as they "work to re-establish their empire." Talking directly to SXSW's organizers, Pompeo called on them not to "stamp the imprimatur [official approval] of your fine organization on his [Snowden's] lawlessness." He accused Snowden of putting the lives of U.S. military personnel "at risk", and also endangering "the lives of the people who will attend your [the SXSW] conference."

So Snowden is somehow endangering the lives of people at SXSW? Coming from a leading representative of the government that has killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world in the last decade alone while it has established a surveillance system that literally monitors the globe and tracks vital information on millions of people, Pompeo's statements are not just astonishingly brazen hypocrisy, but are a thinly veiled threat upon conference organizers and attendees.

Readers should look to previous Revolution articles for a fuller analysis of the content and importance of Snowden's NSA leaks and the battle to defend him from prosecution by the U.S. government. But here we want to give cheers to the organizers of SXSW for seeing the importance of providing a broad platform for Snowden to speak, and for not backing down in the face of intimidation and threats from a powerful government official.


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