On Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight, our host did something special for his main story of the night. John Oliver interviewed Edward Snowden about government surveillance, which might be scaled back in June, when certain sections of the Patriot Act are scheduled to expire. However, Oliver has some bad news for Snowden, who believes that public knowledge of the NSA's mass surveillance program has helped change the country. Not the case, says Oliver, who asked actual Americans about the issue. It turns out that not everyone even knows who Snowden is, let alone what he did or the implications of his whistleblowing.
Oliver opens his segment by announcing that some vital provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire on June 1, when Congress will vote on whether or not to reauthorize them. One of the most notable provisions that could be voted out is Section 215, which says that the FBI can order any American to turn in "any tangible things" as long as the FBI claims that the order is "for an authorized investigation ... to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." It's the section that has allowed the FBI to spy on the masses and collect phone records without suspicion of criminal activity or informing the subjects of their surveillance.
The authorizations that Section 215 has given the U.S. government have been the subject of national debate and Congressional reform since Snowden blew the lid off in June 2013. Whether or not Americans agree with what Snowden did, Oliver says, the focus should be on the information and what we do with it.
Look, you can think that Snowden did the wrong thing or did it in the wrong way, but the fact is we have this information now and we no longer get the luxury of pleading ignorance. It's like you can't go to SeaWorld and pretend that Shamu is happy anymore when we now know at least half the water in her tank is whale tears.
But nearly two years after Snowden exposed the monumental news, it's sort of disappeared off of Americans' radars. In fact, a Pew report from last month showed that 46 percent of Americans were either "not very concerned" or "not at all concerned" about government surveillance — but not because they're aware of the issue and they just don't care.
Oliver sent his team into Times Square recently to interview a random sampling of people, and many of them had no idea who Snowden was. Oliver made sure to point out that his team didn't edit the footage to make it seem that way — most people either didn't know who he was or couldn't remember what he did.
Oliver actually sat down with Snowden in Russia to deliver this alarming news to him in person. Snowden didn't show up at the interview's scheduled start time, which kept Oliver vacillating between the edge of his seat and pacing throughout the hotel room, but after a nail-biting hour the world's most famous whistleblower arrived.
Oliver begins the interview with a question to test his patriotism: "How much do you miss America?"
Snowden: "You know, my country is something that travels with me. It's not just a geography..."Oliver: "Well, that's already a way too complicated answer. The answer is 'I miss it a lot. It's the greatest country in the world.'"Next question: "Do you miss Hot Pockets?" [Takes out pen to jot down notes.]Snowden: "Yes. I miss Hot Pockets very much."
Oliver: "Truck nuts?"
Snowden: "You've really thought ahead."Oliver: "Well, at least one of us did ... you know, because of the quandary, the Kafkaesque nightmare that you're in..."OK, the joking portion of the interview is over (for now), and Oliver gets down to business.Oliver: "Why did you do this?"
Snowden: "The NSA has the greatest surveillance capabilities that we've ever seen in history. What they will argue is that they don't use this for nefarious purposes against American citizens ... 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, but I'm not going to pull the trigger. Trust me.'"
Oliver: "So what's the NSA you want look like, because you applied for a job at the NSA, so you clearly see an inherent value in that shadowy organization."Snowden: "I worked with mass surveillance systems against Chinese hackers. I saw that these things do have some purpose. ... Spies are great when they're on our side, but we can never forget that they're incredibly powerful and incredibly dangerous."Oliver: "Just to be clear — we're talking about two different things here: domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance. Because domestic surveillance Americans give some of a shit about. Foreign surveillance, they don't give any remote shit about."Snowden tries to play devil's advocate, but Oliver reiterates, "Americans do not give a shit about foreign surveillance."Snowden: "I think you're right."
Oliver then starts playing hardball like we've never seen him do. When Snowden suggests that he had not read every single document he'd turned over, Oliver points out that there's a certain amount of responsibility involved in leaking information of such importance, and that allowing journalists to do the sifting and leaking might not have been the best idea (i.e., the New York Times ' poorly redacted document about al Qaeda).
Oliver: "You have to own that thing. You're giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there."He then asks how Snowden felt when his leak became one of the biggest stories stories of the century.Snowden: "I was initially terrified that 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, 'Whoa, this is a problem; we have to do something about this,' it felt like vindication."Oliver: "Even in America?"Snowden: "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."Oliver: "OK, here’s the problem. I did ask some Americans, and boy, did it surprise me."
Oliver then plays the same footage from earlier of everyday Americans who had no clue who Snowden was.
Oliver: "I guess, on the plus side, you might be able to go home because it seems like no one knows who the fuck you are or what the fuck you did."So is everything Snowden has done and sacrificed for naught? Oliver emphasizes that it only counts if the American people have the conversation properly, so he's here to help.Oliver: "You mentioned in an interview that the NSA was passing naked photos of people ... that terrifies people."Oliver then shows a clip of everyday Americans being asked about that, and this time they do give a shit. Essentially, their consensus is "shut the Dick Pic Program down!"
Snowden: "Well, the good news is that there's no program named the 'Dick Pic Program." The bad news is that they are still collecting everyone's information, including your dick pics."
Oliver: "This is the most visible line in the sand for people: Can they see my dick?"Based on that very clear priority shared by most Americans, we can start to get somewhere with this important conversation on government surveillance. Oliver then hands Snowden a folder and asks him to look inside.
Oliver: "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. So, 702 Surveillance, can they see my dick?"
Snowden: "Yes."Even if you use Gmail to send a pic to your spouse, your "junk" can get sent to a data center overseas and therefore collected by the NSA, according to Snowden.Oliver: "Executive Order 12333 — dick or no dick?"Snowden: "Yes. ... When you send your junk through Gmail, for example, that is stored on Google's servers. Google moves that 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? Yes. Upstream? Yes. MYSTIC? Snowden: "If you're describing your junk on the phone, yes."Oliver then asks if Snowden needs a reminder of what the dick pic looks like and Snowden, visibly uncomfortable, says he doesn't know what to do with it. "It's a lot of responsibility."Oliver: "Yeah, it is a lot of responsibility. That's the whole point."
Snowden then turns the folder to the camera and asks, "Should I?"
Oliver: "No, you should absolutely not. And it's unbelievable that you would do that. Actually, it's entirely believable."What about 215 Metadata? Surprisingly, no. But they'll have a record of your phone number and the number of who you called, which, in Oliver's case, was a penis enlargement center, and the duration of the call, which, for Oliver, was 90 minutes.Oliver: "Edward, if the American people knew about this, they would be absolutely horrified."Edward: "I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk."Oliver then asks if a good takeaway from this would be to just stop taking dick pics, and Snowden says no, we shouldn't stop taking pictures of our dicks.
Snowden: "You shouldn't change your behavior because the 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."
Oliver: "That's a pretty inspiring answer to 'Hey, why did you send me a picture of your dick?' Because I love America, that's why."There you go, America. Now we are all equipped to have this vital conversation.Watch the segment below.
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube