The National Security Agency and Edward Snowden have entered a public battle over the 30-year-old whistleblower's claims that he repeatedly raised "official" concerns about surveillance overreach while employed by the government.
Following Snowden's reassertion in his Wednesday interview with NBC that he did, in fact, attempt to voice objections over U.S. surveillance practices using internal channels with superiors, the NSA responded on Thursday afternoon by releasing a single—and they say "only"—email exchange they can find.
Though the agency has previously said that it could find no record of any such emails, Thursday's disclosure—made through the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, came less than twenty-four hours after the NBC interview in which Snowden boldly repeated his claim that such documentation did exist.
"If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer." —Edward Snowden
Snowden's internal email to the NSA's Office of General Counsel, and dated April 2013, shows him asking for clarification from the office about how Executive Orders do or do not "supersede" the authority of laws written by Congress.
“Hello, I have a question regarding the mandatory USSID 18 training,” writes Snowden in the email which was redacted in places, including the exact addressee.
As the Guardian explains, the Snowden email "goes on to cite a list provided in the training that ranks presidential executive orders alongside federal statutes in the hierarchy of orders governing NSA behaviour."
“I'm not entirely certain, but this does not seem correct, as it seems to imply Executive Orders have the same precedence as law,” adds Snowden. “My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statute, but EO's may not override statute. Am I incorrect in this?”
According to the Guardian, the issue Snowden raises in the email "is an important one in the context of whether NSA surveillance activities were permissible, as it addresses possible conflict between laws passed by Congress and orders given by the White House."
In the statement from the NSA that accompanied the release of the redacted email exchange, the agency rejected the idea that this proves Snowden was raising a serious challenge to the legality or constitutionality of any programs. The statement read, in part:
The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed. [...]
There are numerous avenues that Mr Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations. [...]
We have searched for additional indications of outreach from him in those areas and to date have not discovered any engagements related to his claims.
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Following the release of the email exchange, Snowden himself responded via an email interview with the Washington Post:
Q: How do you respond to today’s NSA statement and the release of your email with the Office of General Counsel?
The NSA’s new discovery of written contact between me and its lawyers - after more than a year of denying any such contact existed - raises serious concerns. It reveals as false the NSA’s claim to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post in December of last year, that “after extensive investigation, including interviews with his former NSA supervisors and co-workers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden’s contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention.”
Today’s release is incomplete, and does not include my correspondence with the Signals Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Compliance, which believed that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress, contradicting what was just published. It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities - such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies - are sometimes concealed under E.O. 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations.
If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer.
Ultimately, whether my disclosures were justified does not depend on whether I raised these concerns previously. That’s because the system is designed to ensure that even the most valid concerns are suppressed and ignored, not acted upon. The fact that two powerful Democratic Senators - Ron Wyden and Mark Udall - knew of mass surveillance that they believed was abusive and felt constrained to do anything about it underscores how futile such internal action is -- and will remain -- until these processes are reformed.
Still, the fact is that I did raise such concerns both verbally and in writing, and on multiple, continuing occasions - as I have always said, and as NSA has always denied. Just as when the NSA claimed it followed German laws in Germany just weeks before it was revealed that they did not, or when NSA said they did not engage in economic espionage a few short months before it was revealed they actually did so on a regular and recurring basis, or even when they claimed they had “no domestic spying program” before we learned they collected the phone records of every American they could, so too are today’s claims that “this is only evidence we have of him reporting concerns” false.
Now that they have finally begun producing emails, I am confident that truth will become clear rather sooner than later.
Q: Were there others?
Yes, and not just on this topic. I’m glad they’ve shown they have access to records they claimed just a few months ago did not exist, and I hope we’ll see the rest of them very soon.
Q: Were you wrong to say that you reached out to multiple peers and supervisors to express your legal and policy concerns?
No, not at all. The bottom line is that even though I knew the system was designed to reject concerns raised, I showed numerous colleagues direct evidence of programs that those colleagues considered unconstitutional or otherwise concerning. Today’s strangely tailored and incomplete leak only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide.