TIME National Security

NSA Throwdown: John Oliver v. 60 Minutes

Two interviews with the National Security Administration. One by a news program, one by a comedian. Only one of them came through a winner. Here's a "completely unscientific, utterly subjective" play-by-play. Let the scoring begin

In the debut episode Sunday of his new HBO show Last Week Tonight, Daily Show alum John Oliver grilled former National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander about the spy agency’s controversial surveillance programs. Oliver won praise for being remarkably tough in the segment, especially for a comedian, but it isn’t the first time Alexander sat down for a nationally-televised interview.

In December last year, Alexander granted unprecedented access to the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” including an extensive interview with the top spook himself. The “60 Minutes” segment on the NSA scored extraordinary access into a notoriously secretive organization but at perhaps too high a cost. The segment was panned for being remarkably easy on the agency, especially for a venerated investigative news program.

TIME wanted to see how tough-for-a-comedian stacked up against easy-for-a-venerated-news-program. So we did a completely unscientific, utterly subjective match up to help weigh the two interviews against one another. (Full disclosure: TIME is currently owned by Time Warner, the same parent company that owns HBO, though that will change in the coming months.)

Behold, the comedian-journalist throwdown of the century (or the week, or the day, anyway): John Oliver v. 60 Minutes.

1. On the reach of the NSA’s programs.

Among the low points of 60 Minutes correspondent John Miller’s interview with Alexander was when Miller asks if the NSA’s phone records collection constitutes spying on Americans and basically answers his own question. “You don’t hear the call?” Miller says, offering Alexander his answer. “You don’t hear the call,” Alexander repeats, to the surprise of no one. Miller didn’t see the point in pressing the issue any further. And while Alexander’s answers were not strictly untrue as a logistical matter, the NSA’s collection of phone metadata, including call duration, timestamp, and phone numbers, is not trivial, which John Oliver proves with one piercing retort.

“But that’s not nothing. That’s significant information. Otherwise you wouldn’t want it.”

Point Oliver

2. On the status of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

When Oliver asks Alexander what he’d like Snowden to know right now “other than significantly less,” the spy chief says he’d like to show the leaker the immense damage he’s done. Oliver might have asked Alexander to offer any example or evidence rather than the tired old unverifiable claims.

60 Minutes made a journalistic score by revealing a rift at NSA over whether or not Snowden should be offered amnesty if he can stop any more of his leaks from being published. While Alexander said he was opposed to that idea, his subordinate Rick Ledgett, the guy in charge of the task force charged with assessing damage from the leaks, said the exact opposite.

Point 60 Minutes.

3. On whether or not the NSA has broken the law.

Oliver asks Alexander if the NSA has ever done anything illegal, to which the general says no, not in his time at the helm. He goes on to say that though an NSA employee may have made a “mistake” from time to time, “In every case, to my knowledge, everyone except for 12 individuals stepped forward at the time they made those mistakes.”

Oliver to the rescue. “Right. But you can’t say ‘everyone except for 12,’” he says. “That’s like saying ‘I’ve never killed anyone apart from those three people I have buried under my patio at home.”

60 Minutes asks Alexander about a judge in the secret court that oversees NSA activities who expressed concern about the agency “systematically” violating its court-authorized boundaries. Alexander responds, “There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law,” and Miller just leaves it at that. In fact, at least two judges on the secret court were privately aghast at the regularity of NSA infractions, including one who wrote of “daily violations” in the phone records program over a period of two years.

Point Oliver.

4. On damage to the NSA brand.

Whereas the 60 Minutes report begins to feel a little infomercially, with the unchallenged claims and the correspondent Miller fawning over the brilliance and Rubik’s cube skills of NSA employees he meets on his admittedly extraordinary journey into the bowels of the spy agency, John Oliver drives right at the obvious point that the NSA’s image has been badly tarnished. He suggests a change to the comparatively unblemished name “Washington Redskins,” or to a picture of a kitten in a boot named Mr. Tiggles. Watching Gen. Keith Alexander coo “Mr. Tiggles” and giggle over the picture makes the entire thing worth it all on its own. Also, Alexander’s suggestion that the NSA take on the tagline “The only agency in government that really listens” is, come on, pretty golden.

Point Oliver.

Oliver: 3. 60 Minutes: 1.

Sorry 60 minutes. You just got bested by a comedian in his first day on the job.

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