In case anyone still doubted the US-based comedian John Oliver’s journalistic capabilities, he scored an interview that very few other journalists have—a sit-down with Edward Snowden. Oliver flew to Russia, where the former National Security Agency contractor has been living since he fled the US following his release in 2013 of documents showing the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs.
Oliver toggled between comedy (Snowden misses the American snack food Hot Pockets, but not the state of Florida) and hard-hitting questions. For example, he called out Snowden for releasing his trove of US National Security Agency documents to journalists without fully reading them.
“When you’re handing over thousands of NSA documents, the last thing you want to do is read them,” Oliver said sarcastically, sounding kind of like a disappointed father.
And even though those leaked documents have been covered and shared for almost two years now, the American public—or at least the ones who Oliver’s people polled in Times Square—didn’t seem to know who Snowden is, or the importance of his work.
“I guess on the plus side, you might be able to go home because it seems like no one knows who the [beep] you are or what the [beep] you did.”
But behind Oliver’s comedy is always an attempt to actually make the American people care about an issue. This time, it’s Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows much of the domestic communication surveillance that Snowden revealed. The US government could lose that power in June, unless Congress renews it.
“It’s a real challenge to figure out, how do we communicate things that require sort of years and years of technical understanding, and compress that into seconds of speech?” Snowden told Oliver.
The host offered an answer: sexy selfies. “That terrifies people,” Oliver said, before showing Snowden a series of clips of those same Times Square people saying things like “I would want the dick pic program changed.”
He asked Snowden specifically how each of the government’s programs that allow snooping—Section 702, Executive Order 12333, upstream, MYSTIC, PRISM, Section 215—give the government to access his “junk.”
Snowden’s response? “Well, the good news is there’s no program named ‘the dick pic program.’ The bad news is they are still collecting everybody’s information, including your dick pics.”
Still, Snowden encourages Americans to keep sending whatever pictures or messages they want to. ”You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing,” he told Oliver. “If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”