News Column

NSA Releases Snowden Email Trail

May 30, 2014

Dan Roberts, The Guardian, Washington

The National Security Agency has disputed Edward Snowden's insistence that he made efforts to raise his concerns about its surveillance practices internally before he decided to go public.

Releasing an email exchange it claimed to be the only record it could find of such an effort by Snowden, the agency said yesterday that he was merely "asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had completed".

The email exchange with the NSA's Office of General Counsel, dated April 2013, emerged after Snowden repeated his claim to have attempted an internal whistleblowing during an interview with NBC that aired on Wednesday night. Snowden told interviewer Brian Williams: "I actually did go through channels, and that is documented. The NSA has 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 its legal authorities. The response, more or less, was: 'You should stop asking questions.'"

Snowden's description appears to match parts, if not all, of the newly released email, which was made public via the Senate intelligence chair, Dianne Feinstein. "Hello, I have a question regarding the mandatory USSID 18 training," writes Snowden to a redacted address that appears to be in the Office of General Counsel. He goes on to cite a list that ranks presidential executive orders alongside federal statutes in the hierarchy of orders governing NSA behaviour.

"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 "My understanding is that EOs may be superceded by federal statute, but EOs may not override statute. Am I incorrect in this?"

In a reply copied to several addresses, Snowden is told by an unnamed individual he is "correct that EOs cannot override a statute" but they have the "force and effect of law". The issue is important in the context of whether NSA surveillance activities were permissible, as it addresses possible conflict between laws passed by Congress and White House orders.

Senate intelligence committee members Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have long argued that the administration may have been in breach of surveillance statutes in its activities. They were prevented from raising many of their concerns in public due to confidentiality requirements.

The NSA, however, disputes that this email exchange is proof of Snowden raising concerns about "interpretations of its legal authorities". "The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed," the agency said yesterday.


Original headline: NSA insists Snowden did not raise concerns over abuses

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Source: (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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