TIME Television

Watch John Oliver Tell Edward Snowden No One Knows Who He Is

Oliver also talked to Snowden about your naked pictures.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden says his disclosure of government surveillance activities have been vindicated by American awareness of the issue. John Oliver says, eh, not so much.

“I think we’re seeing something amazing, which is that if you ask the American people to make tough decisions to confront tough issues to think about hard problems, they’ll actually surprise you,” Snowden said in an interview with Oliver in Russia for Last Week Tonight.

“OK, here’s the problem,” Oliver responds. “I did ask some Americans, and boy, did it surprise me.” He went on to play clips of Americans befuddled by questions about who Snowden is.

Oliver also talked to Snowden about your naked pictures. Watch the full segment below:

Read next: Watch Norman Reedus and His Crossbow Crash SNL‘s Weekend Update

Listen to the most important stories of the day.


TIME celebrities

Shailene Woodley Calls Edward Snowden a ‘Hero’

2014 GQ Men Of The Year Party
Jon Kopaloff—FilmMagic/Getty Images Actress Shailene Woodley arrives at the 2014 GQ Men Of The Year Party at Chateau Marmont on December 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

The actress plays his girlfriend in the upcoming biopic Snowden

In keeping with her character in the upcoming biopic Snowden, Shailene Woodley has said that she considers notorious leaker Edward Snowden “a hero.”

The Insurgent actress told E! Online that if she could talk to Snowden herself, she would say, “You are the epitome of the word selfless … So I would like [to] say thank you.”

Woodley plays Lindsay Mills in the Oliver Stone-directed film; she had to take pole-dancing classes for certain scenes as Snowden’s girlfriend. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who released a photo of himself in character last week on Facebook.

While Edward Snowden is staying in Moscow for the time being, the real Lindsay Mills attended the Academy Awards in Los Angeles last month and appeared onstage when Citizenfour won Best Documentary. Afterwards, host Neil Patrick Harris explained, “Edward Snowden couldn’t be here, for some treason.”

TIME movies

Here’s Your First Look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden

The actor shared a photo of himself as Snowden in basic training

If you’re looking for Oscar bait, taking a starring role in a biopic is usually a safe bet — even if the subject is one of the most controversial men alive. Joseph Gordon-Levitt likely had this in mind when he signed on for Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone and slated for a December release. The Inception actor released the first photograph of himself in costume on Facebook Tuesday, and if appearances are everything, it looks like the casting director made the right choice.

In his post, Gordon-Levitt said he was surprised when he learned Edward Snowden had enlisted in the army in 2004, but was discharged after breaking both legs in basic training. “After that,” the actor wrote, “he was still determined to serve his country (love him or hate him, you gotta admit the guy’s strong-willed) and so he ended up getting a job at the CIA, which is where his career in Intelligence began.”

The real-life Snowden’s lawyer announced Tuesday that the former NSA contractor is considering a return to the U.S. if he’s guaranteed a fair trial. But JGL is busy in the fictional Snowden’s early days, writing, “I’m just honored and excited to be doing a soldier sequence with Oliver. I keep saying to myself: “f-, this guy directed Platoon!”

Read next: Watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt Explain Why He’s a Feminist in a Truly Thoughtful Way

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME celebrities

Edward Snowden Laughed Off Neil Patrick Harris’ ‘Treason’ Joke

He didn't mind the host's jab

Citizenfour, the documentary about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. But the film’s win has been somewhat eclipsed by one of host Neil Patrick Harris’ jokes about the movie’s controversial subject.

After Citizenfour director Laura Poitras accepted the award on stage (along with journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, the film’s editor and one of its producers), Harris remarked, “The subject of Citizenfour, Edward Snowden, could not be here tonight for some treason.” Plenty of supporters of Snowden, whose charges don’t actually include treason, weren’t impressed by the pun and voiced their disappointment on Twitter.

Snowden himself, however, appears to have taken it in stride. “To be honest, I laughed at NPH,” Snowden wrote in a question-and-answer session on reddit following the movie’s win. “I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad. My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.”

TIME movies

Citizenfour Wins Best Documentary at the Oscars

"The most important decisions being made in secret affect all of us," said Poitras

One of the most talked-about documentaries in recent memory now has an Oscar to its credit.

Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s account of her work with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, won the Best Documentary Feature prize, making for an increasingly rare win for a film about a political subject. (The most recent two Best Documentary winners, Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom, were about underheralded musicians.) Poitras, with journalists from the Washington Post and The Guardian, won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her work in documenting and publicizing Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance of civilians; her film takes the viewer back to the moments immediately before Snowden went public, in which he attempted to evade detection and potential imprisonment and came to terms with the fact that he would never live a normal life again.

“I was a participant as much as a documentarian,” Poitras told TIME when Citizenfour was released. In her speech, Poitras said: “The most important decisions being made in secret affect all of us.”


TIME intelligence

New NSA Privacy Chief Promises Transparency

NSA Surveillance-Privacy Report
Patrick Semansky—AP The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.

In a Q&A online, Rebecca Richards promised a new era in transparency at the United States’ eavesdropping agency

The National Security Agency’s newly appointed Civil Liberties & Privacy Officer Rebecca Richards said Monday in an online Q& A she hopes to inject a sense of transparency into the secretive spy agency.

“Until somewhat recently, relatively little information about NSA was public. And the information that was made available rarely discussed the safeguards in place to protect civil liberties and privacy,” Richards said. “One of my goals is to share what NSA does to protect civil liberties and privacy. This will take time, but we must start somewhere.”

Richards conducted an online question and answer session Monday through the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Richards position was create earlier this year following recommendations from the White House on privacy reforms within the NSA. Those recommendations were made in response to revelations of privacy violations contained in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Much of her Q&A was little more than a defense of the agency but Richards did identify her four primary goals as privacy chief.

  1. Advise NSA leadership including the director.
  2. Build systematic and holistic civil liberties and privacy processes.
  3. Improve civil liberties and privacy protections through research, education, and training.
  4. Increase transparency.

Richards also revealed that the NSA is preparing to launch a privacy and civil liberties internship or work exchange program as part of its privacy initiative.

TIME intelligence

Tech Firms Push NSA Reform Bill as Senate Vote Approaches

The USA FREEDOM Act still faces challenges from both sides

In an open letter to U.S. Senators a powerful coalition of technology companies including Google, Apple, Facebook and others called for passage of the USA FREEDOM Act surveillance reform package as Sen. Harry Reid scheduled a vote to advance the measure Tuesday.

“The Senate has the opportunity to send a strong message of change to the world and encourage other countries to adopt similar protections,” wrote CEOs of the companies comprising the Reform Government Surveillance coalition. The CEOs called the bill “bipartisan” and said it “protects national security and reaffirms America’s commitment to the freedoms we all cherish.” Signatories to the letter include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Twitter’s Dick Costolo and others.

The USA FREEDOM Act is a package of changes to the way the U.S. National Security Agency conducts mass surveillance of American citizens chiefly sponsored by Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D—VT). Debate over the issue accelerated a year and a half ago after leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed vast non-public surveillance programs and duplicity on the part of some officials about the extent of the programs.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D—Nevada) called for a cloture vote on Tuesday to end debate. Cloture requires a 60-vote majority is likely to be the biggest hurdle the legislation would face on its path out of Congress.

Though major interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the President’s own surveillance reform task force have backed the compromise legislation passage is anything but certain. Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D—CA) is reported to have reservations about the bill and other surveillance hawks have expressed outright hostility toward the measure. On the other side of the issue, libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul has said he will oppose the bill for not going far enough to rein the NSA.

In current form the bill puts new limits on the NSA’s ability legally to gather up bulk U.S. phone meta-data and installs special privacy advocates in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that oversees and authorizes NSA activities. The measure also forbids the NSA from storing data it collects in its own computers, instead requiring telecom companies to retain the data for up to five years. Some critics say the measure puts onerous restrictions on the NSA’s ability to protect Americans from harm. Others say the bill actually codifies and formalizes surveillance practices that once existed in a legal grey area.

“This is a first step in surveillance reform. This is by no means the whole kit and caboodle,” Director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office Laura Murphy tells TIME. “For over the last decade we’ve been empowering government with more and more capabilities to surveil with less and less protections for its citizens. This legisaition would mark a departure from the trajectory since 9-11. We think it’s a very important first step.”

TIME movies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Will Play Edward Snowden in New Movie

"White Bird In A Blizzard" - Los Angeles Premiere
Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt attends the premiere of "White Bird in a Blizzard" at ArcLight Hollywood on October 21, 2014 in Hollywood, California.

Backers confirm the casting choice

Producers confirmed Monday that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Edward Snowden in the Oliver Stone movie set to start shooting in Munich in January.

The casting choice has been rumored since September, but was finally confirmed today, just two months before the film is set to begin filming, the Guardian reports.

Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay based on two books about Snowden and NSA surveillance (The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena) and reportedly sought out independent production companies Open Road and Endgame in order to protect the production from political pressures.

TIME movies

REVIEW: Citizenfour Is This Halloween’s Scariest Chiller

Radius/The Weinstein Company

Edward Snowden is both the ghost and the hero of Laura Poitras' documentary about blowing the whistle on the spooks at the NSA

In December 2012, a mysterious person known only as Citizenfour contacted documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras with promises of important revelations about the U.S. government’s spy apparatus. Before they met, Citizenfour sent her this warning: “For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell-phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”

As Edward Snowden typed that email, was he humming the 1983 Police song “Every Breath You Take” and transposing Sting’s threat of an ex-lover’s surveillance to the National Security Agency? (“Every single day/ Every word you say/ Every game you play, every night you stay/ I’ll be watching you.”) Snowden, an IT analyst under contract with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, had downloaded thousands of NSA documents to present to journalists he could trust to sift through the material and publish what was pertinent. This included Poitras and political gadfly Glenn Greenwald, with Greenwald’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill soon joining them in a Hong Kong hotel room.

The news stories from this cache stash revealed a program monitoring the phone calls and social media of U.S. citizens, and earned the 30-year-old Snowden runner-up status as TIME’s Person of the Year for 2013. (He lost to the Pope, who gets his inside information from an even higher source.) For his service, the U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage, invalidated his passport and stranded him in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for 5½ weeks, before he found temporary asylum in Russia, because no other country would challenge U.S. pressure and accept him as a political refugee. Snowden must believe that, for the rest of his days abroad, they’ll be watching him.

Moviegoers will too, through Hollywood’s lens. Oliver Stone is preparing The Snowden Files, possibly starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and based on a biography by the Guardian‘s Luke Harding (which Greenwald called “a bullshit book” because Harding didn’t speak to Snowden). Sony Pictures has an option to make a movie of Greenwald’s No Place to Hide.

But for the pure, driven Snowden, you must see Citizenfour, an inside view from a filmmaker who is also familiar with government pressure in the Land of the Free: for her 2006 doc My Country, My Country, about a Sunni physician and democracy advocate in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Poitras earned a spot on the Department of Homeland Security’s “watch list.” (Every breath you take, every call you make …) Focusing on the eight days in June 2013 when Snowden first spilled his and his computer’s guts to the three journalists in his 10th-floor room at the Mira Hotel, this is a fascinating, edifying and creepy record of history in the making.

Why Citizenfour? Here’s a wild guess: Snowden sees himself as the latest American — following Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers, William Binney for his 2002 NSA whistle-blowing and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning with the WikiLeaks documents — to risk his liberty by revealing U.S. government secrets. (Ellsberg, like Snowden, was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, before being acquitted. Manning, accused of “aiding the enemy,” was convicted in a military court of 17 other charges and is serving a 35-year sentence at Leavenworth. Binney, the subject of Poitras’ short film The Program, never did time, but in 2007 armed agents broke into his home and confiscated his computer and business papers.)

Snowden wasn’t a Harvard-educated Beltway insider like Ellsberg, a 30-year NSA veteran like Binney or a soldier like Manning. Getting his high school diploma through a GED and doing a brief spell at a Maryland community college, he impressed employers with his intelligence and his command of encryption. That secured him jobs in the government and eventually a spot as a Booz Allen contractor. Quiet but not a loner, he has a longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who lived with him in Hawaii and eventually joined him in Moscow. He is a vegetarian who sometimes eats pepperoni pizza, because who doesn’t love pepperoni pizza?

In Poitras’ closeup view, Snowden is a pretty impressive specimen of the genus Nerdus. He speaks in long, fluent sentences, and his tone is serious with occasional flecks of humor. He correctly anticipates what’s in store for him and makes clear that the need for the public to know the range of government eavesdropping is worth the price he will pay. He radiates an almost Zen equilibrium; on one application form he listed Buddhist as his religion because agnostic wasn’t one of the choices. He keeps saying, “I’m not the story,” in the hope that the impact of the revelations he’s providing will distract the media from putting a face, his face, on the news.

He must have known that that wouldn’t happen. For all his calm, Snowden pursues the meticulous safeguards of a hunted man in a John le Carré spy thriller. He devises elaborate codes for meeting Poitras — “I’ll be playing with a Rubik’s Cube” — and when fire-drill bells ring unexpectedly in his room, he gets so jittery that Greenwald says, “You’ve been infected by the paranoia bug.” Snowden covers himself with a sheet while typing a certain password on his laptop; he calls it “my mantle of power,” alluding to the World of Warcraft video games. He also alerts Poitras to the enormous reach, or perhaps simply the enormity, of the U.S. snoop system, telling her, “Your adversary is capable of 1 trillion queries per second.” It’s fruitless to try outracing the NSA megacomputers; the only option may be exposing what’s inside them.

Poitras’ movie works even better as a horror picture — perfect for Halloween week. (Even the title suggests a scare-film franchise: After Insidious 2 and Saw 3 comes Citizenfour.) The heroine of the new movie Ouija, who communicates with the dead through a Hasbro toy, can’t compete with Snowden. His Ouija board is his computer; it helps him access what he sees as the U.S.’s darkest real-life secrets. His hotel room is well lighted, but for eight days he’s trapped in it, like Cary Elwes in the Saw basement, with people he has to hope are on his side. The camera glare gives a ghostly pallor to the young man, who had spent his last few months in sunny Hawaii. He could be a specter reaching out from the other side to warn the living. When he picks up his hotel phone and tells the operator, “There’s no Edward Snowden here,” you almost believe him.

Now for the obligatory George Packer paragraphs. The New Yorker staff writer, in his Oct. 20 story based on his visit with Poitras as she completed the editing of her film in Berlin, criticized her for not taking a more skeptical view of her subject. Packer quoted Binney, a vocal supporter of Snowden and a prominent supporting voice in Citizenfour, as saying in USA Today that when Snowden went beyond leaking information about the NSA’s spying in the U.S. to revealing the agency’s spy strategies against China, he was “transitioning from whistle-blower to traitor.” Packer wrote, “This is a distinction that Poitras might have induced Binney to pursue.”

A Binney follow-up on this allegation would have been welcome, since elsewhere in the interview he lavishly praised Snowden’s efforts. But Packer can’t deny Poitras’ openness to potentially hostile journalists — i.e., him. Last year he wrote a piece for Prospectus called “The Errors of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald” (and got his own assertions picked apart by Henry Farrell in “George Packer and His Problems”). Yet Poitras agreed to talk to Packer, who apparently never raised the question about Binney. That is a question he might have induced her to answer.

To state the obvious: Poitras didn’t intend her movie as a balancing act of pro- and anti-Snowden opinions — if any film or TV documentary has ever taken the impartial Olympian overview that Packer demands. Citizenfour is, at heart, a portrait of a man at the moment he chooses to change Americans’ understanding of what their government knows about them. And it ends with the hint of another lone wolf ready to spill more essential dirt. Greenwald doesn’t speak to Snowden of the new whistle-blower; he writes some information on papers he then tears into pieces. On one of the scraps we glimpse the word POTUS: President of the United States. Snowden sees this and whispers, “Holy shit.”

Stay tuned for Citizenfive.

TIME movies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Might Play Edward Snowden

2014 Creative Arts Emmy Awards - Arrivals
David Livingston--Getty Images Joseph Gordon-Levitt attends the 2014 Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Aug. 16, 2014 in Los Angeles.

Oliver Stone is thought to have his sights set on the "Don Jon" actor and director for an upcoming biopic on the NSA leaker

The extremely busy Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who already has two films in the works—The Walk and another Seth Rogen flick—could be making room in his schedule for another major role. Deadline reports that Oliver Stone is interested in having the actor play the asylum-seeking NSA leaker Edward Snowden in an upcoming biopic.

Stone has already offered the part to Gordon-Levitt, who in turn has said he’d come aboard, Variety reports. But no formal deal has been signed.

Stone and his producing partner Moritz Borman cut a deal with Snowden’s lawyer for the film rights to the former NSA contractor’s novel Time Of The Octopus, about an American whistleblower who fees to Russia and awaits asylum there. Stone and Borman also hold the film rights to journalist Luke Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story Of The World’s Most Wanted Man.

The still untitled film is tentatively slated to begin filming this December in Munich.


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