Edward Snowden said in a recent interview he tried to go through internal channels to raise his concerns about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs before he slipped out of the country with a trove of secret documents. The NSA disagrees and says it has the email exchange to prove it.
“I actually did go through channels, and that is documented. The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks from me raising concerns about the NSA’s interpretations of it – legal authorities,” Snowden told NBC News in a wide-ranging interview. “I reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities. And I went even further in this, to say that they could be unconstitutional, that they were sort of abrogating our model of government in a way that empowered presidents to override our statutory laws. And this was made very clear. And the response was, more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, ‘You should stop asking questions.’”
In the interview, Snowden called on Congress to verify that the communications exist.
Today the NSA posted online the email exchange to which the government agency says it believes Snowden is referring. The exchange released by the NSA took place in early April, months after Snowden reportedly contacted journalists in preparation to expose the secret programs.
According to the documents posted online, Snowden wrote to the NSA’s Office of General Counsel on Friday, April 5, 2013 asking for legal clarification about whether Presidential executive orders can supersede federal statute, and whether Department of Defense (DOD) or Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) regulations get “greater precedence.”
The response from the General Counsel’s office, dated Monday, April 8, says that while executive orders have the “force and effect of law,” they cannot override a statute. The response also said that DOD and ODNI regulations are afforded “similar precedence” and one may have more depending on subject matter or date. The respondent invites Snowden to “give [him or her] a call if [he] would like to discuss further.”
The NSA said in statement that Snowden’s email “did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed.”
“There was no additional follow-up noted,” the NSA 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 told NBC News that he also raised his concerns with his co-workers and superiors, many of whom he said were “shocked” at the programs he described. In December 2013, Snowden similarly told The Washington Post he brought his misgivings to four supervisors in two departments.
“I asked these people, ‘What do you think the public would do if this was on the front page?’” Snowden told the Post. “How is that not reporting it? How is that not raising it?”
In the Washington Post report, an NSA spokesperson said the agency had not found “any evidence” to support Snowden’s claims about raising concerns internally. Then, the NSA did not note the email it published online today.
Late today, The Washington Post reported that Snowden sent the paper an email saying the NSA's release was "incomplete" and did not include correspondence with NSA compliance officials and concerns he had raised about "indefensible collection activities."
"If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA's clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA's improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities," Snowden said, according to the Post. "It will not take long to receive and answer."
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and legal adviser to Snowden, dismissed the controversy over Snowden’s internal efforts as a “red herring” to the larger issue of mass surveillance.
“The core, the main substance of Snowden’s complaint was not some instance of fraud or misconduct that he stumbled upon that was unknown to inspectors general or Congress. It was an entire system that had been deemed legal by the… oversight mechanisms,” Wizner told ABC News. “The problem was the failure of democratic consent – that an entire system of mass surveillance had been constructed and deployed without [the] consultation of the American people. So, what was he supposed to do?... There wasn’t anyone to tell who didn’t already know it and hadn’t already approved it… There was no channel through which Snowden could have effectively raised his core concerns.”
Wizner also said the NSA has chosen to release a “single part of a single exchange” and said since the NSA didn’t have much credibility in his mind – noting the agency left the email exchange posted online today out of its statement to the Post in 2013 -- he would take Snowden’s word over the NSA’s if Snowden said he did more to raise the issue internally.
Elsewhere in the NBC News interview, Snowden, who has been living in Russia under temporary asylum, denied that he had any relationship with the Russian government, as some critics have alleged, and said that he would most like to come home. He wouldn’t do it without a deal, though.
“I don’t think there’s ever been any question that I’d like to go home. I mean, I’ve from day one said that I’m doing this to serve my country… [But] what has been lain against me are not normal charges. They’re extraordinary charges,” Snowden said, referring to his charges under the Espionage Act and the restrictions that he says would be put on a possible legal defense against them. “And so when people say ‘Why don’t you go home and face the music?’ I say, ‘You have to understand that the music is not an open court and fair trial.’”
Snowden said he would not “walk into a jail cell to serve as a bad example for other people in government who see something happening, some violation of the Constitution and think they need to say something about it.”