On yesterday’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO, Oliver interviewed National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in Russia and led off by giving Snowden the chance to answer some tough questions from his detractors. The interview segment begins at around the 14 minute mark in the above-embedded video provided on the show’s YouTube channel.
In particular, The Daily Beast points out the fact that Oliver questioned Snowden on whether or not it was wise to release so many classified NSA documents without being able to read them all first, given the fact that some of the leaks could have affected US national security. When asked by Oliver how many of the documents Snowden had actually read prior to turning them over to journalists, Snowden said, “I do understand what I turned over.”
Oliver challenged Snowden 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.”
Snowden replied, “That is a problem… In journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.”
Snowden and Oliver discussed some of the NSA’s foreign surveillance scandals, including its spying on UNICEF, before turning their attention to the issue of whether NSA agents can access the explicit photos that many Americans trade with their significant others via cell phone. “This is something that’s not actually seen as a big deal in the culture of the NSA, because you see naked pictures all the time,” said Snowden.
After Oliver showed Snowden a video of a random sampling of Americans reacting strongly to the thought that the NSA might have their explicit photos, Snowden said, “I guess I never thought about putting [NSA spying] in the context of your junk.”
Oliver provided Snowden with a picture of his own unmentionables and listed off a series of NSA programs and authorities while asking whether agents could use them to justify seizing the photo. In each case, the answer was yes. As an example, Snowden described how PRISM could be used to obtain the photo, “When you send your junk through Gmail, that’s stored on Google’s servers… Google moves data from data center to data center—invisibly to use 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 is how they pull your junk out of Google with Google’s involvement.”
Snowden also admitted that, when he first leaked info about the NSA’s widespread spying on Americans, he was worried that the issue would fail to gain traction in the media. “I was initially terrified that this was going to be a three-day story — 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.”
Snowden concluded his interview with a uniquely American response to John Oliver’s question about whether people should stop taking explicit photos of themselves on their cell phones given the fact that the NSA has the ability to seize them. “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.”