"Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" viewers got a surprise during Sunday's show when the British satirist interviewed a man he described as "the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history:" NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
In an 18-minute segment, Oliver questioned the former NSA contractor, now living in exile in Moscow, about whether journalists can appropriately handle the volume and sensitivity of the information he leaked; whether his actions – and potential consequences – were worth the discussion he provoked; and the access the NSA has to private photographs of American citizens – like private photos of men's penises.
Snowden said that there was "no program named the dick pic program, the bad news is they are still collecting everyone's data, including dick pics."
Snowden eventually did arrive – and Oliver asked the former NSA contractor what he missed about America.
He said he "missed Hot Pockets very much." And he sat in a confused silence when asked if he missed "the entire state of Florida."
The interview soon took a more serious turn, with Snowden addressing whether the NSA played a role in keeping the world safe. "After all," Oliver said, "you applied for a job there."
"I worked with mass surveillance systems, against Chinese hackers. I saw that these things do have some purpose," Snowden said.
Oliver interrupted: "…and you want spies to be good at spying, to be fair."
Oliver also questioned whether Snowden had read all the documents he leaked, and if he believed the journalists handling them were adequately equipped to deal with the sensitive material contained within, despite their "lower skillset."
"They (journalists) do understand, just like you and I do, just how important is, to get this right," he said.
Oliver grilled him further: "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."
"Those things do happen in reporting," Snowden admitted, "in journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty."
Oliver went further: "Right. But you have to own that then. You're giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there."
"Yes, if people act in bad faith," Snowden responded.
Oliver: "You're not even talking about bad faith, we're talking about incompetence."
Snowden also addressed whether the risks in leaking the documents were worth the the discussion they provoked.
"I was initially terrified this was going to be a three day story and everybody was going to forget about it but when I saw that everybody around the world said: this is a problem, we have to do something about this, it felt like vindication…. even in America," Snowden said.
"And I think we're seeing something amazing, if you ask the American people to make tough decisions, to confront tough issues, to think about hard problems, they'll actually surprise you."
But Oliver showed Snowden footage of street interviews his team had done with Americans, with most either not knowing who Snowden was, or thinking he was heavily involved in Wikileaks.
Snowden didn't respond before Oliver quipped: "On the plus side, you might be able to go home because no-one knows who the fuck you are or what you did."
Oliver also wanted to know if spies could access nude pictures of Americans.
"The good news is there's no program named the dick pic program, the bad news is they are still collecting everyone's data, including dick pics," Snowden said.
"This is the most visible line in the sand for people: Can they see my dick?" Oliver asked.
Snowden continued: "When you send your junk through Gmail, for example, that's stored on Google's servers," Snowden said. "Google moves data from data center to data center—invisibly to you 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" – one of the controversial NSA programs – "is how they pull your junk out of Google with Google's involvement. All of the different prism partners… the government deputizes them to be their surveillence sheriff"
"They're a dick sherriff?" Oliver asked.
"Yes. I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk," Snowden admitted.
Still, Snowden said, "You shouldn't change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing...If we sacrifice our values because we're afraid, we don't care about those values very much."
Here's the full interview:
Francis Whittaker is a homepage editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Francis Whittaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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