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NSA, Snowden clash over 2013 internal email release

A parade float depicting President Obama throwing the switch of Edward Snowden. Reuters/Ina Fassbender
A parade float depicting President Obama throwing the switch of Edward Snowden. Reuters/Ina Fassbender

By Warren Strobel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An email exchange released on Thursday shows Edward Snowden questioned the U.S. National Security Agency's legal training programs, but provides no evidence the former contractor complained internally about vast NSA surveillance programs that he later leaked to the media.

Snowden responded in an email to the Washington Post that the release by U.S. officials "is incomplete."

The release of the April 2013 emails between Snowden and the NSA's legal office is the latest round in a battle between Snowden, who casts himself as a crusading whistleblower, and U.S. security officials, who say he failed to report his concerns to superiors before acting.

In an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, Snowden said he had raised alarms at multiple levels about the NSA's broad collection of phone, email and Internet connections.

"I have raised the 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," Snowden told the network.

"Many, many of these individuals were shocked by these programs," Snowden said, adding that he was advised: "If you say something about this, they're going to destroy you."

The emails were first released by the office of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In a statement, the NSA said: "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."

"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," it said.

Snowden told the Post there were other emails "and not just on this topic. I’m glad they’ve shown they have access to records they claimed just a few months ago did not exist, and I hope we’ll see the rest of them very soon." The email exchange appears to be the first internal communication by Snowden, while he was working for the NSA, to be released publicly.

'INCOMPLETE LEAK'

In an April 5, 2013, email to the NSA's Office of General Counsel, Snowden questioned the contents of a mandatory legal training course.

The course, he wrote, cited the U.S. Constitution as the nation's top legal authority, followed by "Federal Statutes/Presidential Executive Orders (EO)."

"I'm not entirely certain, but this does not seem correct, as it seems to imply Executive Orders have the same precedence as law," Snowden wrote. "Could you please clarify? Thank you very much, Ed."

An unidentified official in the General Counsel's office wrote back three days later that executive orders, issued by a U.S. president, "have 'the force and effect of law.' That said, you are correct that E.O.s cannot override a statute."

Asked by the Post on Thursday if he had been was wrong in saying he reached out to many colleagues and supervisors to express his concerns, Snowden replied: "No, not at all.

"The bottom line is that even though I knew the system was designed to reject concerns raised, I showed numerous colleagues direct evidence of programs that those colleagues considered unconstitutional or otherwise concerning. Today’s strangely tailored and incomplete leak only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide."

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Peter Cooney; Editing by David Storey and Mohammad Zargham)

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