John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on HBO is by far the best of the "informational satire" shows out there, mainly because with the show being on pay cable, Oliver can say whatever the hell he wants to, and it's far funnier and more effective than Jon Stewart or even Colbert on top of his game. So far Oliver has really yet to make a major miss like Colbert did on the rare occasion (or Stewart did far more often, descending into "both sides do it" nonsense just to be a contrary bastard.)
So it was with some trepidation that I watched this week's episode as it tackled government surveillance and an interview with Dudebro Defector himself. If there was any subject where Oliver's razor wit could have faded into preachy garbage, it would be praying at the church of the Snowbro.
Luckily, he was up to the task.
The interview with Snowden picks up at the 14 minute mark, but the entire episode is worth watching. The Daily Beast's Marlow Stern weighs in on the grilling:
Oliver didn’t pull any punches. “How many of those documents have you actually read?” he asked Snowden with a palpable air of skepticism. “I do understand what I turned over,” the ex-CIA systems admin mumbled.
Not good enough. “There’s a difference between understanding what’s in the documents and reading what’s in the documents… because when you’re handing over thousands of NSA documents the last thing you’d want to do is read them,” Oliver said.
He continued, “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.”
“That is a problem,” Snowden replied.
“Well, that’s a fuckup,” said Oliver.
“It is a fuckup, and those things do happen in reporting. In journalism, we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty,” Snowden said.
“Right. But you have to own that then,” grilled Oliver. “You’re giving documents with information you know could be harmful, which could get out there.”
It's kind of sad that by far the best interview that I've seen with Edward Snowden, one that actually explains where he believes he's coming from in his own words, was conducted by a fake news host. Snowden came across here as an actual person and not a techno-martyr. He honestly believes he did the right thing, but Oliver pointed out that Snowden had managed to dodge the consequences of what he did, and for once, Snowden seems to actually think about those consequences and the responsibility he has for those actions. I don't think anyone has ever forced him to consider those consequences before, certainly not in any of the other interviews I've seen him in.
And then Oliver explains NSA surveillance through something that we can all understand: penis pictures. It's actually very good and he makes some excellent points about the NSA having done unacceptable acts in our name.
If there's anything I took away from this, it's that Snowden is naive and didn't quite fully understand the megatonnage of the stuff he swiped before he put it out there. And he didn't understand it because he never had time to dissect it all and still hasn't.
And frankly, this interview is an admission that he hasn't even read over everything he got his hands on. People did that for him, and that's a problem. It also means that when he said he did evaluate all the documents he took out of the NSA in his NBC interview last year, he was lying, point blank.
That's a major concern and no matter what you think of the guy personally, he has feet of clay. Snowden's defense of his actions were 100% based on having evaluated all the documents he took from the NSA, and finding them all worthy of public release, that the necessity of releasing them outweighed the harm the information might cause.
We know now that was complete nonsense. He took it all and released it all and didn't carefully evaluate it. The NSA has to answer for what it has done, but so does Edward Snowden.
I thought it was tough but fair, and it didn't make me want to pull my hair out. At the same time, I'm still not among the crowd that thinks we should be putting up statues of the guy, either. A trial awaits this guy if he ever returns to the states, and rightfully so.