What Does It Say About The US Press That The Toughest Interview Keith Alexander Has Is From A Comedian?

from the too-much-and-none-of-it-good dept

Last night was the debut of comedian John Oliver's new show on HBO called Last Week Tonight. Oliver, of course, is well known from his years on The Daily Show (though, if you're not familiar with it, you should also listen to his podcast, The Bugle). On his first show, Oliver was able to get former NSA boss Keith Alexander, who retired about a month ago. The resulting ten minute interview is well worth watching, not just because it's pretty damn funny, but because it's one of the few times a journalist has actually asked Alexander direct tough questions about the NSA -- and it's not even from a journalist:
Seriously, compare that interview to the one Alexander gave to 60 Minutes, a show that used to be associated with asking the tough questions of people in power.

Alexander kicks off this new interview claiming that Americans don't understand that they're not the target of the NSA, and Oliver immediately shoots back:
Oliver: No, the target is not the American people, but it seems that too often you miss the target and hit the person next to them going 'Whoa, him!'

Alexander: You see, we're not just out there gathering information, listening to their phone calls, or collecting their emails. But, that's the first thing that people jump to.

Oliver: But you are out there doing that. You're just saying that you're not then reading them. You are gathering that data.
Alexander responds with the usual NSA talking points about "we just collect metadata" and again, Oliver immediately hits back:
Oliver: That's not nothing. That's significant information. Otherwise, you wouldn't want it.
Oliver also pushes back on the whole "needle and haystack" argument, by pointing out that people's "concerns" are that the NSA is also collecting "the whole farm, and the county and the state, and now you've got photos of the farmer's wife in the shower as well." Later on, after a series of funny exchanges, including Oliver being shocked that Keith Alexander has never heard of Pinterest (where Oliver suggests all the worst people in the world gather), Oliver asks:
Oliver: In your mind, has the NSA ever done something illegal.

Alexander: In my time, no. Not that I know of. You know, one of the most impressive things that I've seen in my career was people who made a mistake, that could be a huge mistake, stepping up to say 'I made a mistake.' And in every case, to my knowledge, everyone but 12 individuals stepped forward at the time they made those mistakes.

Oliver: Right, but you can't say 'everyone... except for 12.' That's like saying 'I've never killed anyone... apart from those three people I have buried under my patio at home.'

Alexander: The key issue I was trying to make was, in every case, we reported. In some cases, those who made a mistake, but were still caught.
Alexander is being incredibly dishonest here, not surprisingly. The NSA's own internal audit highlighted that the NSA abused its power to spy on Americans thousands of times each year. The NSA's Inspector General's report noted a track record of flagrant abuse which led to the program almost getting shut down. As for those "12 individuals," Alexander is simply wrong. As we detailed, most of those 12 actually self-reported the details but often did so years later (in one case seven years later).

So Alexander is flat out lying in saying that there were 12 non-self-reported cases that got caught. In fact, it's pretty clear that if most of those 12 had chosen to keep their abuses secret, we'd have never known about them. Which should lead to the obvious question: how many people within the NSA abused the powers to spy on people, didn't self-report, and therefore were never caught. It's incredible for him to basically be arguing that everyone who abused the system was caught, when the details show they actually failed to discover most of the intentional abuses until someone admitted to them much later.

And we won't even get into the fact that a court and the federal government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) have both found the entire program to be illegal and unconstitutional.

Either way, those are only a few examples, but the pushback against Alexander still seems much greater from Oliver than any journalist so far, and that says something (not good) about the state of journalism today.

Filed Under: john oliver, journalism, keith alexander, nsa, surveillance

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2014 @ 10:35am


    "you harm" a typo that should read "significant harm".

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