How far did Edward Snowden go to voice his concerns about NSA surveillance within the agency before leaking classified documents? That's the latest question triggering a dispute between the two sides.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News aired Wednesday night, Snowden told Brian Williams that he did go through channels to raise complaints about the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authority. He said he raised such complaints to oversight and compliance staffers, supervisors, and colleagues, and not just through email.
The former NSA contractor became famous, or infamous in the eyes of the government, after leaking documents from the National Security Agency that detailed surveillance activities both in the US and abroad. The documents revealed an NSA program for the bulk collection of the phone records of Americans, a revelation that triggered concern and criticism from privacy advocates, ordinary citizens, and even those in Congress.
Snowden said many of the individuals were shocked by the NSA programs that he disclosed to them but cautioned him not to speak out. He also told Williams that the official response from the agency was: "You should stop asking questions." According to Snowden, his complaints were documented.
However, the NSA tells a different tale.
On Thursday, the agency released a copy of just one email exchange between Snowden and someone in the agency's Office of General Council, a department that provides legal advice. In the April 2013 email, Snowden asks whether executive orders (E.O.s) have the same precedence as federal statutes, with the response that E.O.s cannot override statutes.
However, the email itself "did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse," the NSA said, but "posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed." Otherwise, the NSA said it found no other evidence that Snowden had brought up concerns or allegations within the agency.
"There are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations," the NSA said in a statement. "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."
And Snowden's response? In an email interview with the Washington Post published Thursday, Snowden countered the NSA's claim that no other evidence exists, calling the agency's release a "strangely tailored and incomplete leak" that "only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide."
Snowden said that the NSA's release did not include an exchange with the Signals Intelligence Directorate's Office of Compliance, which asserted that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress. Further, the release did not include his concerns over how such activities as breaking into the backend communications of Internet companies are sometimes concealed to avoid any accountability to Congress.
"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," Snowden said. "It will not take long to receive an answer."