Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked classified NSA documents to the media, thus exposing that American citizens were having their privacy infringed upon by a complex web of global government surveillance programs, has given loads of interviews. He’s even been profiled in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.
And it took a comedian to get him to crack.
On Sunday night’s episode of the HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the droll British satirist renewed his unwavering commitment to practicing real journalism by traveling to Moscow to interview Snowden. The interview was bookended with the series premiere, which featured Oliver interviewing former NSA director Keith Alexander.
Oliver didn’t pull any punches. “How many of those documents have you actually read?” he asked Snowden with a palpable air of skepticism. “I do understand what I turned over,” the ex-CIA systems admin mumbled.
Not good enough. “There’s a difference between understanding what’s in the documents and reading what’s in the documents… because when you’re handing over thousands of NSA documents the last thing you’d want to do is read them,” Oliver said.
He continued, “So The New York Times took a slide, didn’t redact it properly, and in the end it was possible for people to see that something was being used in Mosul on al Qaeda.”“That is a problem,” Snowden replied.
“Well, that’s a fuckup,” said Oliver.
“It is a fuckup, and those things do happen in reporting. In journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty,” Snowden said.“Right. But you have to own that then,” grilled Oliver. “You’re giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there.”
Snowden is stunned to near-silence, not expecting such a contentious line of questioning from the bespectacled late-night host.
Later, things got a bit less tense, and a lot more fun. Oliver showed Snowden video of people being interviewed in Times Square, but most of the people have no idea who the hell he is, or what he did. One of them even claimed, “Edward Snowden’s in charge of WikiLeaks,” eliciting a chuckle from the expat.
In order to get people to understand the gravity of the situation, Oliver feels they should frame it differently: dick pics. Alluding to the fact that Americans seemed far more outraged over “The Fappening”—the celebrity nude photo hacking spree that exposed a laundry list of A-list actresses last year—than the Snowden revelations, Oliver felt that an easier way to communicate the issue to Americans is as follows: The government is accessing your private dick pics.
Oliver then shows Snowden video of people being interviewed about having their dick pics stolen. Unlike the previous video, these interviewees are very upset over this reveal.
“If I had knowledge that the U.S. government had a picture of my dick, I would be very pissed off,” offered one fired-up subject.
“Well, the good news is there’s no program named ‘The Dick Pic Program,’” Snowden said after viewing the on-the-street interviews. “The bad news is [the government’s] still collecting everybody’s information—including your dick pics.”
So Oliver kicks it over to Snowden. “This is the most visible line in the sand for people: Can. They. See. My. Dick? So with that in mind, look inside that folder. That is a picture of my dick. So let’s go through each NSA program and explain to me its capabilities in regards to that photograph of my penis.”
Yes, Oliver (allegedly) showed Snowden a picture of his dick. He then proceeds to list a series of programs, asking Snowden what role they play in exposing that penis photo. “This is something that’s not actually seen as a big deal in the culture of the NSA, because you see naked pictures all the time,” Snowden said.
“When you send your junk through Gmail, that’s stored on Google’s servers,” added Snowden. “Google moves data from data center to data center—invisibly to use without your knowledge—your data could be moved outside the borders of the United States, temporarily. When your junk was passed by Gmail, the NSA caught a copy of that… PRISM is how they pull your junk out of Google with Google’s involvement.”
Snowden paused. “I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk.”