PEN Center USA’s Literary Awards Were Like Reading a Long Spy Novel

Jared Leto’s high school teacher is really in the CIA and an audience member has to silence a whistleblower

There were so many interesting whistleblowers the other night at PEN Center USA’s Literary Awards Festival that the last honoree of the evening—Francis Ford Coppola—decided he didn’t want to talk about the future of cinema, like he had originally planned. Coppola ditched his remarks following a poignant speech by First Amendment Award recipient John Kiriakou. The teacher-turned-CIA agent was just released from prison this year after serving a sentence for passing on info to a reporter about waterboarding. He was given the award by one of his former students, Jared Leto. Leto’s favorite high school teacher was still blowing the whistle that night.

“Today, the NSA has an enormous facility in Utah that saves the copies of every email, every text message, and meta data from every phone call made by every American and they have enough memory to keep it for the next 500 years,” Kiriakou said. He went on to praise the original whistleblower in the audience, Pentagon Papers-leaker Daniel Ellsberg. “Ellsberg told me one time several years ago that every dirty trick that the Nixon White House did to him in the early 1970s is now legal under the Patriot Act.” Ellsberg then went on (and on and on), filling a slot left vacant when a satellite link with Edward Snowden wasn’t able to materialize in time. After 20 minutes or so, someone from the audience popped onstage to remind Ellsberg of the time.

Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola

Last up was Coppola, who was receiving the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award, but at this point the evening was hitting the four hour mark. “We all know that this evening was a little stolen by a more political style of thinking; certainly nothing is more fitting than a writer’s convention to have strong opinions expressed,” he said after he accepted the award from Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective). He promised his take on the future of cinema at a later date. I’m holding him to it.