Snowden flouts court ruling with paid speeches, Substack: ‘He’s above the law’
Iowa State University paid $35,000 for Edward Snowden to make a digital appearance earlier this year, Yahoo Finance has learned, and the exiled leaker started a newsletter despite a court ruling that placed a permanent injunction on similar paid speeches and writings without authorization from his former government employers.
The situation creates a dilemma for the U.S. government: Move to enforce the terms of the Sept. 29, 2020 court ruling, which would raise complicated legal issues, or allow a fugitive former intelligence official to loudly snub requirements to pre-clear certain written or broadcast material with the relevant Prepublication Classification Review Board (PCRB).
“He's above the law, and that is… an extremely intriguing concept to some of the younger generation,” Karim Hijazi, a former contractor for the U.S. intelligence community and CEO of the cybersecurity firm Prevailion, told Yahoo Finance. “That's the concerning part about this: The more [the government goes] down these normal paths, the more that he's going to win over a younger generation. … I don't know that there's an easy solution here.”
The 38-year-old former CIA technician and NSA contractor, who has been living in Russia since June 2013, launched a newsletter on Substack in June that costs $50-$150 per year for subscribers (though no paid posts have been published yet). The newsletter recently published an excerpt of his autobiography, "Permanent Record," which was an impetus of the civil case that led to the ban on unauthorized speeches and writing. Substack did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is a very clear expression by Snowden of his view that no part of his former legal obligations matter to him,” Bradley Moss, an attorney at the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, P.C., which specializes in national security issues and whistleblower law, told Yahoo Finance when asked about the Substack.
A CIA spokesperson referred Yahoo Finance to the agency's PCRB rules, which state: “Current and former CIA officers and contractors who have signed the standard CIA secrecy agreement are required to submit to the PCRB any and all materials they intend to share with the public that are intelligence related, such as materials that mention the CIA or intelligence activities, or that concern topics on which they had access to classified information while employed at or performing contractual work for CIA.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the civil case was adjudicated, declined to comment. (The civil case was separate from criminal charges against Snowden, which were filed in the same district court but have not been adjudicated since Snowden has avoided arrest.) A Department of Justice spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
‘This is not like he's going to fork over the money’
The U.S. government alleges that Snowden removed 1.5 million classified documents from U.S. systems in 2012 and 2013 before providing roughly 200,000 of those documents to journalists and eventually settling in Russia. The torrent of disclosures in news stories upended the secret application of post-9/11 U.S. surveillance practices across the world, including both domestic dragnet programs and international espionage campaigns.
In 2014, Snowden began giving paid speeches over video around the world. Snowden earned more than $1.2 million for 67 appearances between September 2015 and May 2020, according to the American Program Bureau speakers agency, as well as a $4.2 million advance for his 2019 memoir.
On Sept. 29, 2020, U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady ruled that Snowden had “breached his contractual and fiduciary obligations to the CIA and NSA by publishing Permanent Record and giving prepared remarks within the scope of his prepublication review obligations without first submitting those preparations to the CIA and/or the NSA for prepublication review and obtaining written authorization for the disclosures.”
The judgment found that 56 speeches, which brought in speaker honorariums totaling $1.03 million, were "made in contravention of the terms of his Secrecy Agreements and fiduciary obligations."
The ruling enjoined Snowden, his attorneys, and “those persons in active concert or participation with him who receive actual notice of this Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction” from further breaching the prepublication review obligations and ordered Snowden to relinquish the more than $5.2 million earned to a “constructive trust” created to transfer the money to the U.S. government. (Macmillan Publishing Group, which published Snowden’s memoir, previously agreed to direct to the government all future royalties from the book’s sales.)
"This is not like he's going to fork over the money,” Lawrence Lustberg, Snowden's attorney in the civil case told CNN after the ruling, adding that the U.S. government would struggle to access money earned by Snowden if it were held outside of the country.
"My involvement was for purposes of that litigation, and I haven't maintained ongoing communication with Snowden," Lustberg told Yahoo Finance this week. The ACLU's Ben Wizner, a lawyer who has been advising Snowden, "was the primary contact with the client" while Lustberg "was really the litigator," according to Lustberg. Wizner did not respond to a request for comment.
Speaking fees were paid for at least three Snowden appearances since the court ruling, according to documents obtained by Yahoo Finance and people familiar with the events. It's unclear if these speeches would fall under Snowden's prepublication review obligations, though Snowden's paid appearances in 2021 were similar to the speeches cited in the civil court case.
Another question arises in terms of enforcement of the permanent injunction.
“It's simply an issue of jurisdiction,” said Moss, the attorney specializing in national security issues. “If he were living in Montana or Alabama, it's easy to apply this, and they could impose liens or anything they want in the local jurisdiction. … We certainly don't have the relationship with Russia to impose anything in their local jurisdictions to seize the money.”
Moss added that further pursuing the issue in court could become “so complex into potential discovery issues and so many sensitivities around the classified information and around the drama that's involved that the government just may not be interested in trying that.”
Hijazi, who has worked with law enforcement in a private sector capacity for two decades, noted that Snowden “is capitalizing on that slow methodical plod and the secrecy requirements that usually these governments have to abide by. He absolutely knows the dials to turn and the levers to pull to mess with things, and he's doing it right now.”
Unfortunately for the U.S. government, there is a cost to inaction.
“You got this judgment but you've taken no action to really impose it against someone who's clearly flouting your rules?” Moss said of the issue facing the U.S. prosecutors. “Because otherwise yeah, [the ruling] is just a paper tiger. Great, you got this judgment. Who cares? If he spends the rest of his life in Russia, going to become a Russian citizen, he's going to have the kid and the wife out there, what does he care about your judgment?”
Snowden and his wife are in the process of becoming Russian citizens, which they can do without relinquishing their American citizenship after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in April 2020 that eliminated the requirement that applicants renounce citizenship in their native countries. Snowden’s son, born in December 2020, is automatically a Russian citizen.
Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Kremlin-connected lawyer in Russia, recently told Russian state media outlet Interfax that his client “is patiently awaiting a decision on his case. He hopes to become a citizen of Russia in the near future.” Kucherena also reiterated that Snowden remains at his job at an unnamed Russian IT company.
Moss also noted that the Substack is “ultimately no different than if he was being paid to write op-eds. … He is supposed to submit for pre-publication review, lest he risk the proceeds being encompassed by the constructive trust DOJ already secured against him. No reason they can’t move to have the court ruling amended to encompass his Substack proceeds too.”
At the same time, Moss added, the situation “is very much the difficulty with getting something like this applied to someone who lives overseas, has no intention of complying with any of this, and whose agents are clearly under no desire, have no intention of complying with it either.”
Snowden’s latest payday from a public U.S. college
On March 4, 2021, Snowden gave a speech to Iowa State (ISU) students that was sponsored by the National Affairs Lectures Series committee and the ISU Committee on Lectures, which is funded by the school’s student government.
“Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, every friend you keep, article you write, sites you visit, subject line you type … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not,” Snowden told ISU students. “Those are the words that I wrote to journalists and filmmaker Laura Poitras in 2013… but those words hold true today. So where does that leave us?”
According to emails obtained by Yahoo Finance through a public records request, ISU Lectures Program Director Amanda Knief first reached out to the Global Speakers Bureau (GSB) on Oct. 14, 2020. GSB CEO Lucas Gielner, who handles Snowden’s bookings, stated that his client’s “minimum fee is US$50,000 net to us.”
Knief, citing the prices of previous paid speeches given by Snowden to U.S. universities, eventually offered $35,000 on behalf of ISU. On Oct. 27, Gielner told Knief that he had “heard back and Mr. Snowden has accepted the invitation.” On Oct. 28, GSB sent ISU a contract detailing the terms of the speaking engagement and instructing that payment be sent to an account at the Hellenic Bank in Cyprus.
Routing banking transactions through overseas intermediaries before reaching Snowden, Moss explained, “makes it far more complicated and sensitive for the government to try to secure the money. There are ways to do it, but it starts implicating multiple different international organizations and governments, and it becomes a question of: How much is it worth?”
When reached by phone, Gielner told Yahoo Finance that he was not aware of the civil court ruling against Snowden. When asked about whether GSB negotiated other speaking fees for Snowden, Gielner stressed that “we are not exclusive agents of Edward Snowden, at all.”
ISU told that the lecture committee was aware of the September 2020 court ruling against Snowden before paying him to speak, adding that the university generally “works to bring a broad spectrum of lectures, political debates and cultural events to campus.”
Moss noted that paying Snowden to speak “is not a great look for the school to be doing this, notwithstanding the federal injunction, but I don't view this necessarily as causing them any particular liabilities.”
Snowden began speaking at public and private U.S. colleges with a video chat at Harvard in January 2015. Before the ISU speech, Snowden had not spoken at a public U.S. college since a February 2017 appearance at University of Pittsburgh. (The University of Pittsburgh paid $15,000 to the American Program Bureau, a different speakers bureau, for that appearance.)
“There’s a reason he’s speaking at universities,” Jason Talamantes, an expert on social engineering, which involves targeting specific audiences with influence operations, told Yahoo Finance in 2017. “If I were to inspire a movement,” Talanenates added, “the first place I would go to is universities and start from the grassroots. It’s pretty clear to me in terms of what he’s trying to do.”
Hijazi described the basic strategy as a way to “get into the minds and hearts of these younger ‘revolutionary’-type millennials who feel like he stands up against the man. Because if they get the stylized, digested version of what Snowden is after all these years, it was someone that stood up and fought. … Now it doesn't matter which side you land on. He's coming out strong to an impressionable group of young people who probably are getting one side of the story.”
Asked about how the U.S. government could counter Snowden’s influence outside the courts, Hijazi posited that the U.S. needs to find a counterbalance “to really be like, ‘Look, this is the guy that's still trying to make a lot of money off feeding you a bunch of stuff that isn't even relevant anymore. He's been out of the loop for so long. And if anything, he's a puppet of the Russian apparatus. Do you really want to feed that machine? Because it's just not really doing anything good for anyone.’ I don't know who that is or what confluence of people they could pull together, but they literally need to do a counter-[psychological operations] campaign to deal with him.”
‘Enough bitcoins to live on until the fu***** sun dies’
Since the court ruling, Snowden has also appeared at events including the Centre for Investigative Journalism Logan Symposium, the Priv8 cybersecurity conference, a real estate seminar (where he was set to be the keynote speaker but abruptly left the interview after a few of minutes), the Ethereal cryptocurrency summit hosted by Decrypt, and a New Knowledge educational marathon in Moscow.
Snowden’s fee was $35,000 to appear at the Ethereal summit “when discussion began,” according to a source familiar with the matter. His fee for the real estate seminar was $25,000, and the event’s host told Yahoo Finance that Snowden “kept the money despite our request for a refund.” Gielner, the GSB CEO, said that his agency did not negotiate the contracts for either of those events.
It’s unclear if Snowden was paid for any of his other appearances in 2021 or whether any of the events would fall under his PCRB obligations.
“If he made [his appearances] free, man, that would be a hard one,” Hijazi said. “That'd be very difficult because at that point you get a lot of these younger audiences going: ‘This is a person just trying to get the word out.’ But because he's trying to get money out of it, that's his Achilles' heel.”
Snowden has previously stated that he does not need money: Asked about his living conditions by investigative journalist Barton Gellman in early December 2013, Snowden reportedly described the question as “unnecessary” given that his supporters in Silicon Valley had sent him “enough bitcoins to live on until the fu***** sun dies.” (A single bitcoin, worth roughly $1,000 at the time, is worth more than $42,000, as of the time of publication.)
In any case, short of an extraordinary action from the U.S. government, Snowden will seemingly be able to continue receiving money for speeches and writing that could be subject to the permanent injunction as long as he doesn’t set foot on U.S. soil.
“He doesn't care,” Moss said about Snowden’s flouting the civil court ruling. “He'll do whatever he wants to do… to make money. And his view of the government at this point is: ‘You don't like that? Come and do something about it.’”
Michael B. Kelley is an editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelBKelley.
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