In an episode dedicated to helping viewers understand government surveillance and national security issues, comedian and host John Oliver grilled former NSA contractor Edward Snowden straight from the latter’s exile in Moscow.
Mr. Snowden, through journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, leaked classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs in June 2013. The information shed light on the depth and breadth of the US government’s foreign and domestic spying abilities.
Alternating between lighthearted and serious – an interviewing style some have called “investigative comedy” – Mr. Oliver asked Snowden about everything from Hot Pockets to racy photos to the exact scope of the NSA’s surveillance on the American people.
Here are four takeaways from the exchange, which aired Sunday on HBO’s satirical news program, “Last Week Tonight.”
Plenty of Americans don’t know who Snowden is.
Since The Guardian published Snowden’s revelations nearly two years ago, the man has been unable to return to the United States. He’s sought asylum in Russia and has been called a persona non grata and a traitor.
Despite that, Snowden said his decision was worth the consequences.
“I think we’re seeing something amazing, which is that if you ask the American people to make tough decisions to confront tough issues to think about hard problems, they’ll actually surprise you,” he told Oliver.
But Oliver had some bad news.
“OK, here’s the problem,” the host said. “I did ask some Americans, and boy, did it surprise me.” He went on to show clips of baffled Americans incorrectly answering questions about who they thought Snowden is and what he did.
Government surveillance is a confusing issue – which is why we need to talk about it more.
Even among those who do know Snowden and have an accurate picture of the man and his actions, the concept of how a government's agencies spy on its own citizens is a difficult one to comprehend, Oliver said.
“It’s so complicated. We don’t fundamentally understand it,” he said.
Snowden tried to explain it in layman’s terms: “The NSA has the greatest surveillance capabilities that we’ve ever seen in history,” he told Oliver.
“Now what they will argue is that they don’t use this for nefarious purposes against American citizens. In some ways, that’s true,” he said. “But the real problem is that they’re using these capabilities to make us vulnerable to them, and then saying, ‘Well, I have a gun pointed at your head. I’m not going to pull the trigger. Trust me.’”
At the same time, Oliver noted, “The public debate so far has been absolutely pathetic."
To prove it, he showed a year-old clip from MSNBC in which a news anchor, discussing the NSA’s capabilities with a former congresswoman, cut short the interview in order to air updates about pop star Justin Bieber.
“I’m not saying this is an easy conversation,” Oliver said, “but we have to have it.” He later pointed out that everything Snowden has done and said will matter only if “we have this conversation properly.”
There are ways to make a complicated issue understandable.
How then to make the American public both understand and care about such abstruse subject matter? Oliver had Snowden explain the NSA’s various surveillance programs through the lens of something the average person would not want the government meddling with: Revealing personal photos.
In other words, as CNN put it, “Can the government secretly access Americans' naked selfies?”
According to Snowden, the answer is yes.
"If you have your email somewhere like Gmail, hosted on a server overseas or transferred overseas or at anytime crosses outside the borders of the United States, your junk ends up in the database,” he said.
"Even if you send it to somebody within the United States, your wholly domestic communication between you and your wife can go from New York to London and back and get caught up in the database,” he added.
Online, the interview was praised as an entertaining way to make a difficult subject understandable, without condescending to the public.
We shouldn’t change our online behavior because of government surveillance.
Having satisfied his – and his audience’s – curiosity about the government’s access to private digital communications, Oliver asked Snowden if Americans should therefore stop taking racy photos and sending them via the Internet.
The former contractor was clear: Absolutely not.
“You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing,” Snowden said. “If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”