Future Tense

Former NSA Chief Tries to Joke About the Internet, Fails

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had a solid premiere on Sunday, which included a real-talk interview with recently retired NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander. Nine minutes is a long time to go without saying something weird or clueless about the Internet, but Alexander really outdid himself in this segment. For a guy who ran one of the most massive Internet surveillance programs in the world, he doesn’t seem to actually use the Internet very much.

For the first few minutes of the discussion, Oliver goaded Alexander about the NSA’s reputation for aggressive, possibly invasive data collection. Oliver asked, “Do you think that the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people at the moment? Bearing in mind that the answer to that question is yes.” After a few minutes Alexander explained, “I am the biggest advocate of freedom of the networks, Internet, and if we could come up with a way of segregating all the terrorist communications … it would really help us. And protect our civil liberties and privacy.”

If that were possible, it would certainly help, yeah. Then Alexander remembered a suggestion he had heard once, and attempted to paraphrase it with corresponding gestures: “You know, what we really need to do is all the bad guys need to be on this section of the Internet. And they only operate over here. All good people operate over here. All bad guys over here.”

It sounds convenient, except what is this guy talking about?

In an attempt to refocus, Oliver made a joke about how the worst web users were already all together on Pinterest, corralled into that single part of the Internet. Alexander tried to play along, but eventually had to admit that he didn’t know what Pinterest was. Alexander was a good sport throughout the interview, and he tried to deliver a serious pitch about the NSA amidst Oliver’s chaos. But when he joked that since he hadn’t heard of Pinterest he must have “led a sheltered life,” things kind of went downhill.