President Obama's administration and a key senator on Thursday rebutted Edward Snowden's claim that he expressed concerns about the legality of government surveillance programs to his superiors at the National Security Agency before he exposed the programs and fled the country last June.
Snowden, a former contractor with the NSA who now resides in Moscow as a fugitive from the U.S. government, has been called a whistleblower by supporters who believe he exposed real wrongdoing in his leaks of classified programs. But the U.S. government has disputed that characterization, saying Snowden never raised concerns about the programs through any channels available to genuine whistleblowers.
Not so, Snowden told NBC News in an interview that aired Monday.
"I actually did go through channels and that is documented," Snowden said. "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 its legal authorities."
"Now, I had raised these complaints not just officially in writing through email to these offices and these individuals but to my supervisors, to my colleagues in more than one office," he continued. "I reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities and the response, more or less, in bureaucratic language, was 'you should stop asking questions.'"
In response, the NSA released the email exchange in question on Thursday. In a statement, the agency said Snowden "did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed. There was not additional follow-up noted."
In the email exchange, Snowden questions the NSA's legal department about whether an executive order supersedes federal statute, or vice versa. An unnamed official with the NSA's general counsel explained, "Executive Orders (E.O.s) have the 'force and effect of law.' That said, you are correct that E.O.s cannot override a statute."
Beyond that brief discussion, the NSA said it could not uncover any further attempts by Snowden to express concerns. "There are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations," the agency explained. "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."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., backed up that assertion, with a release from her office saying the email "does not register concerns about NSA's intelligence activities, as was suggested by Snowden in an NBC interview this week."
And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney similarly said on Thursday that Snowden "did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse but posed a legal question that the office of general council addressed. There was not additional follow up noted."