For Snowden appearance, an ironic rule gets reversed


Condoleezza Rice spoke to University of Minnesota graduate students and faculty members last month, but she won’t be delivering a commencement address at Rutgers. (Amanda Snyder/MINNESOTA DAILY VIA AP)

Edward Snowden, the poster child for truth-telling, answered questions live, but the audience was instructed not to record them.

Irony, much?

That was the scene at an awards ceremony held at the National Press Club last week where a watchdog group that decries government secrecy passed along this message from Snowden’s lawyer: No digital recording of Snowden’s virtual appearance.

An attendee at the event tells the Loop the room was packed to see Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor and controversial whistleblower, accept the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling from an undisclosed location in Russia. His remarks, the source says, were “poignant and moving.”

But during a question-and-answer session, Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight and emcee of the event, took the microphone and told the crowd: “I’m sorry to interrupt just for a second, but I want to make it clear that no one can be recording. There had been an understanding with the media, but others in the room have iPhones . . . ”

Mother Jones, known for releasing secret audio (47 percent, anyone?) did not heed this warning and posted audio of Snowden’s remarks on its Web site. The reporter notes at the end of his story, “At one point during Snowden’s appearance, an organizer of the event asked the audience not to record him — but this was near the end of his remarks, and numerous people in the audience were holding up smart phones and recording devices.”

After the Loop reported this odd scenario, Joe Newman, spokesman at POGO, reached us to clarify that the no-recording rule came from Snowden’s legal team.

“Danielle, as emcee, simply passed the message along,” he said. The award organizers, the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, made the arrangements.

Then Taya Kitman, executive director and chief executive of the Nation Institute, said the groups had received permission to make the recorded remarks public.

“Mr. Snowden’s attorneys told organizers that they preferred that the event not be streamed or recorded, and that is why the MC was asked to make that statement. But now that they see the demand, the audio and video will be posted on the Nation Institute’s website,” Kitman said in an e-mailed statement.

To layer on the irony, Snowden didn’t seem to have any issue being recorded when he went on Russian TV a few weeks ago to ask a question of freedom-loving Vladimir Putin.

And who held their drinks?

Samantha Power is a big name in this town, but for the occupants of the Hilton ladies room (where all the best gossip occurs), the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was just a nice woman on hand to take a photo.

At the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, all the celebrity-spotting can cause whiplash. Everyone is handing off smartphones to the nearest warm body to snap photos of them with the next famous person.

At this year’s event, held Saturday night, a woman who we think was Candice Crawford, the beauty-queen wife of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, asked to have her photo taken with “Today Show” co-host Savannah Guthrie. So another woman in the bathroom helpfully took the shot.

That woman, it just so happened, is one of the United States’ top diplomats, a Cabinet-rank official, and a human rights activist with a Pulitzer Prize. A face well known in D.C. circles, but not as widely recognizable as Guthrie’s — even at an event ostensibly about Washington.

We asked Guthrie about the bathroom photo shoot.

“The Hilton restrooms aren’t exactly the hallowed halls of diplomacy Ambassador Power is used to,” Guthrie told the Loop, “but I was impressed by her mastery of the art of iPhone photography!”

In the bathroom, everyone’s equal.

Summa cum, summa go

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s announcement Saturday — declining to give the Rutgers commencement address so as not to “become a distraction for the university” — is hardly unusual.

In fact, her move, which came after student protests over her role in the Iraq war, follows decades of invited graduation speakers and participants either declining to get in the midst of controversies or finding themselves dealing with the issues while onstage.

Rice’s withdrawal followed first lady Michelle Obama’s decision last month to alter plans to speak to high-schoolers in Topeka, Kan., after students and parents said they were concerned her appearance would cut ticket availability.

In recent years, actors, former government officials and pundits have withdrawn or were canceled as speakers. Last year, alma mater Swathmore invited former World Bank president Robert Zoellick but he withdrew over his support for the Iraq war.

Even former first lady Barbara Bush was a magnet for controversy, drawing protests for not being a career woman when she spoke at Wellesley in 1990.

And those who do not face protests beforehand can face opprobrium at the podium. We recall a takedown at Wellesley by a student now known as Hillary Clinton after the 1969 commencement speaker, then-Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), criticized antiwar protesters in his speech.

Wonder if, as the 2016 campaign approaches, she might get hit by protests over her vote to authorize the Iraq war, or over the Benghazi attacks.

One of the most dramatic commencement events came at Haverford College in 1986, when Drew Lewis, former transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan, startled a commencement gathering by ripping off a ceremonial hood and rejecting an honorary degree at his alma mater over protests about his role during the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

So don’t be surprised as graduation season kicks into gear to see more retreats, cancellations and controversies. It’s not 1968, but college kids still know how to revolt.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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