John Oliver just solved Edward Snowden’s biggest problem, getting Americans to care

7 Apr 2015

Satirical news presenter John Oliver sat down with Edward Snowden recently and showed that discussing NSA’s extreme surveillance in terms of lewd personal pictures could provoke a serious, nationwide debate.

Travelling to Moscow to speak with the former NSA contractor, Oliver secured quite a coup in meeting with one of America’s most-wanted men.

Snowden is living in Russia under asylum, given that any return to the US would inevitably lead to his arrest and detainment following his leak of swathes of NSA documentation.

This documentation opened the world’s eyes to the likes of Prism, Mystic and the aggressive data retention by both US and UK authorities – but it’s something the vast majority of Americans, and indeed global citizens, can’t quite get a handle on.

This just got personal

But as Oiliver argued quite successfully, if it is explained to them in terms of their own personal exchange of lewd pictures with their loved ones, Americans are more likely to challenge the system.

When asked by Oliver if Americans should simply not send such messages to each other, Snowden disagreed.

“You shouldn’t change your behaviour because a government agency is doing the wrong thing. If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”

Oliver had previously challenged Snowden’s responsibility in how the documentation that he leaked is handled.

When asked if he had read all the documentation handed over, Snowden said he “evaluated” it, which wasn’t good enough for Oliver.

“There is a difference,” said the host, whose line of questioning seemed to surprise Snowden, and related to poor handling of the information by newspapers now charged with disseminating it all to the public.

A fundamental concept of liberty

“In journalism we have to accept that some mistakes will be made, this is a fundamental concept of liberty,” said Snowden.

“You have to own that,” snapped back Oliver. “You are giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there.”

“You will never be completely free from risk if you’re ‘free’. The only time you can be free from risk is when you’re in prison,” replied Snowden.

“I did this to give the American people a chance to decide for themselves the kind of government they want to have. That is a conversation I think the American people deserve to decide.

“The NSA has the greatest surveillance capabilities in history,” he had earlier explained. “They are using these capabilities to make us vulnerable to them, and then saying ‘while I have a gun pointed at your head, I’m not going to pull the trigger, trust me’.

“We spied on Unicef!”

Here’s the episode of Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which deals entirely in US surveillance, featuring Snowden. There’s a whole heap of NSFW moments throughout, be warned!

Edward Snowden mural image, via Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic