Why John Oliver’s Interview With Edward Snowden Is So Vital


Claire Bernish  |  The Pontiac Tribune

As Oliver brilliantly, if not crassly, points out through the course of the show, people generally don’t care about something unless they are aware of how it will directly impact their lives.


In the April 5, 2015, airing of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the reason for the US’s disaffected attitude concerning what we’ve chosen to do with information about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program, as was brought to light by Ed Snowden in 2013, finally became clear.

Government Surveillance

As concerned members of both the activist community and the society at large, we’ve been approaching this debate with the assumption that people will naturally share in our resentment of the mere prospect of having our privacy intruded on by the federal government.

As Oliver brilliantly, if not crassly, points out through the course of his interview with Edward Snowden, people generally don’t care about something unless they are aware of how it will directly impact their lives.

In this episode of LWT, simply titled Government Surveillance, Oliver uses the context of the upcoming June 1 reauthorization of certain provisions of the Patriot Act to frame somewhat disturbing findings from a recent survey of US citizens, which illustrated a degree of apathy toward domestic surveillance in the post – Snowden era.

The Pew Research Center study, published in March, clearly indicates that most people don’t understand how invasive the NSA surveillance program is, as 46% say they are “not very concerned” or “not concerned at all” about it, and a scant 22% of adults have changed their technological behavior patterns “a great deal” or “somewhat” since the Snowden leaks.

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These findings expose a fundamental disconnect between raising awareness about the NSA program and what effect that awareness does or does not have on a populace which is strikingly ill – informed about the structure of its own government.

To emphasize this, taped, informal interviews with passersby in Times Square are played for the studio audience.

Seemingly basic questions, such as “Who is Edward Snowden?” and “What is he known for?”, are met with blank stares and sometimes nervous laughter when the interviewees try to recall why his name seems familiar, if at all. To better understand the cause of this disconnect, Oliver travels to Moscow for a one – on – one interview with Snowden, who currently resides there in exile since being forced to flee the US.

The 30-minute interview with Edward Snowden has been the subject of a slew of criticism, due in large part to Oliver’s apparent impudent approach with the man many see as an imperturbable, affable, quasi-icon; but this very criticism belies the crux of the entire show. Miscommunication about the applicability of the domestic surveillance program to people’s practical lives has caused the false appearance of apathy.

The unconventional tactic becomes apparent when the subject of foreign surveillance is broached, to which Snowden attempts an explanation of its importance; but Oliver roughly and quickly cuts him off, “No one cares. They don’t give a shit.” Snowden’s look of shock is priceless, so he proceeds in disbelief, but again is stopped short.

The next line of inquiry brings into sharp focus the burden of responsibility Snowden bears as a consequence of divulging classified documents to journalists who likely lack the technical capability that he would have had, to ensure that potentially harmful information isn’t revealed accidentally.

In fact, this did happen when the New York Times published a slide from the leak, which was so poorly redacted it revealed information about al-Quaeda in Mosul. Oliver tells Snowden that this was a “fuck up“, and Snowden agrees; but he expounds on this point, saying of journalism:

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

Interview With Edward Snowden

In order to lead into the interviews from Times Square, Oliver reads from the letter the whistleblower wrote to the Brazil regarding his reasons for leaking the classified files, as well as his fear that no one would “heed” his warnings.

Snowden expresses the feeling of “vindication” he experienced when the story of his massive information leak lasted longer than three days. While watching the interview videos which show people’s lack of recognition of his name, he appears to be crushed. This is the point when Oliver’s ingenious plan comes to fruition, as he rhetorically posits the possibility that Americans aren’t able to determine their desired form of government, because they lack the capacity to even begin the conversation.

The technical details of a national program employing insidious, bulk surveillance are clearly outside the grasp of ordinary thought, so he uses a concrete example which appears at first to be unnecessarily bold: people’s propensity to send “dick pics” to each other, using their phones.

Oliver astutely re-frames the entire domestic spying program to the very human instinct of people wanting to see each other naked. He queries Snowden about the NSA’s ability to see people’s naked pictures, and gets precisely the answer he needs:

“This is actually something that’s not a big deal in the culture of the NSA, because you see naked pictures ALL of the time.” The comedian responds simply,  THAT terrifies people, and proceeds to reveal the portion of the Times Square interviews that had been left out until now.

How would people feel if the government had a program in place where it could access pictures of people’s penises?

Responses to this vein of inquiry is unhesitatingly definitive and universal: “that would definitely be an invasion of my privacy” “the US government should never, ever, ever have a picture of my dick”“if the government could access a picture of my husband’s penis, I would want that program to be shut down”, should have clear and transparent laws that we knew about to be communicated to us, to understand why penis pictures were being kept.”

Without question, the ramifications of an invasive domestic spying program can be understood when people are given a precise and concrete demonstration of its direct effect in their lives.

As Oliver sums it up, for many people, the government having access their most private pictures is the “line in the sand“.

However unorthodox the comedian’s meeting with Ed Snowden might have been, it will endure as one of the most apt illustrations of the disconnect Americans feel when presented with information they find difficult even to conceptualize.

If we want to enjoin people to our causes from a place of understanding, and if we want to educate them to the issues we care passionately about, we’re going to have to keep in mind that only 35% of the populace can even name one Supreme Court justice.

The NSA’s bulk surveillance program needs to be shuttered as the potential for abuse and corruption remains, but in order to accomplish this, a basic understanding of its insidiousness is required, and one way to adequately portray this to people is through solid, personalizing examples.

“You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing. If we can sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much,” replies Snowden . . . and the comedian in his element continues, “That is a pretty inspiring answer to the question, ‘Hey, why’d you just send me a picture of your dick?’ ‘Because I love America, that’s why.’ “

In the end, Oliver asks Snowden if the fact that the government can access your naked pictures without you knowing means we should all stop sending racy pictures until further notice.

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