NSA pushes back: Snowden's email doesn't show him complaining about surveillance
NBC News video frame grab shows an NBC News Exclusive interview with Brian Williams and Edward Snowden, excerpted from a May 28, 2014 primetime special [AFP]

By Warren Strobel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An email exchange released on Thursday shows that 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.

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.

The undramatic email exchange appears to be the first internal communication by Snowden, while he was working for the NSA, to be publicly released.

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."

Snowden accessed what U.S. officials say is roughly 1.5 million classified documents and leaked many to news media. The documents exposed highly classified eavesdropping programs, including one to collect details of, but not the actual content of, Americans' telephone calls.

Snowden left the United States for Hong Kong last May, before he was granted temporary asylum by Russia. He was later indicted in the United States under the Espionage Act.

Reuters reported in August that Snowden began downloading secret documents while working for Dell Inc in April 2012. [ID:nL2N0GF112]

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

[Image via NBC News/Agence France-Presse]