Did Snowden Try To Blow The Whistle?

In his interview with Brian Williams on Wednesday night, Snowden claimed that he had tried to raise concerns within the NSA about the legality of its intelligence programs while he was working there, but to no avail. Yesterday, in an effort to prove him wrong, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released what it said was Snowden’s only e-mail to the agency’s legal office:

“NSA has now explained that they have found one e-mail inquiry by Edward Snowden to the Office of General Counsel asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had just completed,” the agency wrote. “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.” The ODNI went on to say that there were “numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations.”

However, Snowden tells the WaPo that the release is “incomplete”:

He said it did not include his correspondence with NSA compliance officials and concerns he had raised about “indefensible collection activities.” He repeated claims that he had shown colleagues “direct evidence” of programs that they agreed were unconstitutional.

“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,” Snowden said in response to questions from The Post. “It will not take long to receive an answer.”

Beauchamp calls this “a very risky play by the NSA”:

If they’re lying, and Snowden can prove he reached out in some way other than this email, then it’s almost impossible to trust any other claims they make about their former employee. On the other hand, if they’re telling the truth, the email is very bad for Snowden. It hurts his credibility, and makes it seem like he didn’t try internal channels before arguably damaging American intelligence capabilities by leaking the documents to the public.

But Timothy Lee contends that it doesn’t matter whether Snowden raised concerns through internal channels, because he wouldn’t have been listened to either way:

Remember, the NSA’s position is that it hasn’t done anything wrong. The agency claims that its domestic surveillance programs comply with the law, and that it gets plenty of oversight from both the courts and Congress. The NSA has stuck to this position despite a year of pressure from Congress and the public. Why would it have been any more receptive to the concerns of a lowly contractor?

Maybe Snowden should have brought his concerns to sympathetic members of Congress? That wouldn’t have done any good either, because key members of Congress already knew about the program. And some of them were outraged about it! Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, was already telling anyone who would listen in 2012 that voters would be “stunned” if they knew how the government was interpreting the Patriot Act. But Wyden couldn’t disclose the details without jeopardizing his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so his comments didn’t get much attention.

The Williams interview touched on a few other subjects. Max Fisher calls bullshit, for instance, on Snowden’s claim that he has no relationship with the Russian government:

It would be pretty difficult for Snowden to avoid having a relationship with the Russian government when its security services are physically surrounding him and “circumscribing his activities” at all times. Most famously, in April, Snowden appeared on Russian state TV alongside Putin, of whom he asked a softball question about whether or not the Russian government spies on its citizens (there is abundant evidence that it does, Putin said they do not). Snowden asked his question via video, so the two were not physically adjacent, but surely to have engineered his public question on Russian state media, of the Russian president, there would have been some sort of negotiation with the Russian government, some sort of relationship.

And Benjamin Wittes doesn’t buy Snowden’s claim that his actions were harmless:

Show me the evidence, he protests, that anyone was really hurt by anything he did—and Williams does not call him on the point. But it’s a mug’s game to acquit oneself of doing harm by simply defining all of the harms one does as goods. If one calls democratic debate and sunshine the blowing of sensitive intelligence programs in which one’s country has invested enormous resources and on which it relies for all sorts of intelligence collection, the exposure is of course harmless. If one regards as a salutary exercise the exposure of one’s country’s offensive intelligence operations and capabilities to the intelligence services of adversary nations, then of course that exposure does no harm. And if one regards the many billions of dollars American industry has lost as merely a fair tax on its sins for having cooperated with NSA, then sure, no harm there either.

Snowden is too smart to actually believe that he did no harm to the U.S. What he means, rather, is that he regards harms to U.S. intelligence interests as good things much of the time and that he reserves for himself the right to define which harms are goods and which harms are real harms.