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Colbert turns his funny gun on Snowden in RSA keynote

No joke: Stephen Colbert's not a fan of Edward Snowden's whistleblowing, the political satirist tells a packed house at the closing RSA Conference keynote speech.

Stephen Colbert kept San Francisco's Moscone Center audience of around 6,000 laughing as he mocked the state of computer security and expressed a vote of no-confidence in Edward Snowden on Feb. 28, 2014.
Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Don't mistake this for something out of the mouth of Stephen Colbert's ultra-conservative, Bill O'Reilly-modeled TV persona: The popular funnyman actually believes that former NSA contractor and domestic spying whistleblower Edward Snowden should come back to the US and face trial.

In front of more than 6,000 people at the RSA Conference's closing keynote at the Moscone Center here, Colbert had the audience roaring within minutes over his jokes about computer security and encryption.

Colbert described the conference jokingly as a place where the best security experts "gather, talk shop, and breed with each other. That's called exchanging private keys."

He quickly changed the subject to address the petition that demanded that he join the RSA Conference boycott over the conference's parent company colluding with the National Security Agency.

Colbert said he had signed a contract with RSA that he wasn't going to break, in part because, he was "paid in Bitcoin, from Mt.Gox" -- a company that has now filed for bankruptcy protection.

Then he got serious. There was "no evidence in Reuters' story," he said of the original report that broke the news about RSA's ties to the NSA.

"Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the NSA created and promulgated a flawed formula for generating random numbers to create a 'back door' in encryption products," wrote reporter Joseph Menn in the story.

Menn then cited two anonymous sources who said they were familiar with an alleged $10 million contract between the NSA and the RSA division that promoted the flawed encryption as the default encryption to use in RSA's BSafe encryption tool.

While RSA told Menn and later CNET in a statement that it "does not design or enable any back doors" in its products, that word choice leaves wiggle room for a weaker or flawed encryption algorithm to be left in place over better encryption choices.

Colbert interwove jokes about the situation with seriousness. "I hope RSA took the money. If they didn't, they should have. We all have Uncle Sam's cameras up our junk. Shouldn't someone be getting paid for it?" he quipped.

But he also said over the course of the 45-minute keynote that Americans have proven "time and time again" that they support the policies in the Patriot Act that allowed expanded surveillance of American citizens.

"We the people voted for the Patriot Act. We voted for the people who reauthorized it, and re-reauthorized it. The American people have spoken," he said. "You don't change horses in mid-wiretap."

Colbert joked that the Patriot Act-authorized policies as "enhanced liberty," similar to how "enhanced interrogation" lets you "drink all the water you want."

He didn't have much love for the NSA either, pointing out the ridiculousness that a "sophisticated agency" like the NSA "can get pwned by a 29-year-old with a thumb drive."

Stephen Colbert listened intently to a woman in the audience and projected on-screen behind him ask about his dislike of whistleblower Edward Snowden, in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 2014. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

He explained the NSA's tortured logic: "We have solid proof that this program saved zero lives. It was designed to root out terrorists. It shouldn't bother you if you're not hiding anything, and since you can't hide anything from the NSA, nothing is bothering you."

He closed his monologue by saying that he was going to turn his back on the audience for 30 seconds while they cheered. The crowd obliged.

At the following question-and-answer session, Colbert interacted more playfully and more forthrightly than might have been expected for such a popular TV personality.

One woman asked him what the meaning of life was. He replied, "42!" to the delight of Douglas Adams fans in the audience. Another fan set him up by saying that Jon Stewart has had Neil deGrasse Tyson on 10 times, while Colbert has only hosted the popular astronomer 9 times.

"Why do you hate space?" came the fan's punchline.

"I had [Tyson] on first," said Colbert, "but he demoted Pluto, so he's not getting a 10th."

Some audience members were surprised by Colbert's take on the Snowden situation and asked more serious questions.

When asked whether it was what Snowden did, or how he did it, that had turned Colbert against him, Colbert was silent for a minute.

When he spoke, he said that his problem was that Snowden released too much top secret information to the world about how the US conducts its spying practices.

"Why, if Snowden was concerned with letting us know how we are spied on, why did he let us know how we spy on other countries? I think we should spy on other countries," Colbert said. Snowden, he said, should be taken to court over the espionage charges.

This wasn't the first time that Colbert has expressed a lack of support for Snowden, but it was his most vocal expression of anti-Snowden sentiment to date.

At the end, Colbert said that the "greatest threat to our security" was not knowing where political money came from, and not voting. But when it comes to doing the right thing for your country, as Snowden has stated was his reason for leaking the NSA documents, Colbert said that you must face the consequences of the law.

It's not often that Colbert stops being satirical, but when he does, he does it to express a closely held value. Unfortunately for his fans, this is one value that they all might not agree with.