‘Further exchange with NSA compliance officials about indefensible collection activities has been omitted’

An intensifying spat surrounding e-mail exchanges between the U.S. government and Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned whistleblower, broke out this week, with the NSA arguing that Mr. Snowden’s messages to agency officers more than a year ago had only inquired about certain legal authority rather than challenging the very legality of it — the mass global surveillance programmes.

Rebutting these allegations in an e-mail to the Washington Post on Friday, however, Mr. Snowden described the official release of his e-mail on an intelligence agency website as “incomplete,” adding that it omitted his further correspondence with NSA compliance officials about “indefensible collection activities.”

The e-mail from “ejsnowd,” at an “nsa.ic.gov,” which the NSA released after Mr. Snowden alluded to its existence in an interview with NBC television in Moscow earlier this week, was a query to NSA legal counsel regarding “The Hierarchy of Governing Authorities and Documents.”

Mr. Snowden lists the order of legal authorities in order: “U.S. Constitution,” “Federal Statutes/Presidential Executive Orders (EO), “Department of Defense (DoD) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) regulations,” and “NSA/CSS Directives and Policies.”

The question that Mr. Snowden posted was regarding the second authority on the list, because “it seems to imply Executive Orders have the same precedence as law.”

However within days an NSA officer replied in an e-mail that begins “Hello Ed,” saying, “Executive Orders have the ‘force and effect of law.’ That said, you are correct that EO’s cannot override a statute.”

According to unnamed officials quoted in the New York Times, Mr. Snowden may have been “trying to determine whether some espionage activities may have been conducted under executive orders instead of laws passed by Congress.”

Mischaracterisation

Yet, this week, Mr. Snowden hinted at a deliberate mischaracterisation of his complaints about the NSA’s spying while he was still an employee there, saying, “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.”

Mr. Snowden fled the U.S. last summer after passing on a trove of confidential NSA documents to media outlets.The exposé also sparked off sharp criticism among privacy advocacy groups here and in the U.S. Congress.

The exposé also sparked off sharp criticism among privacy advocacy groups here and in the U.S. Congress, which went on to grill intelligence chiefs over the legality of the covert snooping on Americans and U.S. President Barack Obama promised to introduce more transparency into “dragnet” surveillance.

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