The National Security Agency on Thursday released an email exchange between ex-contractor Edward Snowden and the agency’s office of legal counsel — one of a number of instances in which Snowden claims to have raised privacy concerns over agency programs before he leaked sensitive intelligence and fled the country.
Snowden repeated the assertion that he tried to raise concerns over the invasive and illegal nature of the programs during his first U.S. network television interview with NBC’s Brian Williams Wednesday. The leaker claimed he went through the proper channels but was either ignored or warned he’d face serious consequences.
“I reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authority, and the response more or less in bureaucratic language was, ‘You should stop asking questions,’” Snowden told Williams. “And these are recent records, this isn’t ancient history. One of my, I would say, final official acts in government was continuing one of these communications with the legal office.”
“In fact I’m so sure that these communications exist that I’ve called on Congress to write a letter to the NSA to verify that they do. Write to the Office of General Counsel and say, ‘Did Mr. Snowden ever communicate any concerns about the NSA’s interpretations of its legal authority?’”
The signals intelligence agency released such an email Thursday, though it appears to raise the issues described by Snowden in a far more ambiguous fashion than the former contractor described.
According to an agency statement released ahead of the emails, the NSA found ”one e-mail inquiry [...] asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had just completed.”
“The e-mail did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed,” the statement read. “There was not additional follow-up noted.”
Dated April 5, 2013 – shortly before Snowden fled to Hong Kong and initiated the first leaks, as he said in the interview – the email asks generally whether Executive Orders take precedence over laws in reference to agency protocols, and cites an NSA training manual.
The replying office official, whose name was redacted in the release, said Executive Orders “cannot override a statute,” appearing to clarify and agree with Snowden’s concern in the affirmative.
In December, the signals intelligence agency said it found no evidence of Snowden’s attempts to go through proper channels and highlight his concerns.
“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,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told the Washington Post.
The agency wouldn’t comment on whether Thursday’s release was a contradiction of its previous statement.
“NSA has now explained that they have found one e-mail inquiry by Edward Snowden to the Office of General Counsel asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had just completed,” the Thursday statement said.
“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.”
Snowden legal representative and ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project Director Ben Wizner said the agency’s email release was nothing more than “a red herring” according to Mashable.
“The problem was not some unknown and isolated instance of misconduct. The problem was that an entire system of mass surveillance had been deployed – and deemed legal – without the knowledge or consent of the public,” Wizner said.
“Snowden raised many complaints over many channels. The NSA is releasing a single part of a single exchange after previously claiming that no evidence existed.”