The full episode of VICE on HBO’s ‘State of Surveillance’ is available to stream for free on VICE News.
When NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked details of massive government surveillance programs in 2013, he ignited a raging debate over digital privacy and security. That debate came to a head this year, when Apple refused an FBI court order to access the iPhone of alleged San Bernardino Terrorist Syed Farook. Meanwhile, journalists and activists are under increasing attack from foreign agents. To find out the government’s real capabilities, and whether any of us can truly protect our sensitive information, VICE founder Shane Smith heads to Moscow to meet the man who started the conversation, Edward Snowden.
On June 4, VICE News published more than 800 pages of declassified NSA documents that shed new light on the contentious issue of whether Edward Snowden raised concerns about the agency’s surveillance programs while he still worked there. Since then, Snowden has alleged there’s additional evidence that has not yet been made public.
The former NSA contractor has long maintained that his 2013 leak of a trove of highly classified documents was a last resort after his efforts to sound the alarm about the agency’s secret spy programs went largely ignored.
The NSA, meanwhile, has rejected Snowden’s narrative, insisting that the closest he got to raising concerns was sending a single email asking a question about the interpretation of legal authorities.
The documents published over the weekend were released in response to a long-running Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by VICE News. Heavily redacted, they include an assortment of NSA emails from officials at the NSA, Department of Justice, and the White House, along with talking points about how to respond to the media in the wake of the leaks and subsequent public comments by Snowden.
The documents show that the NSA’s narrative about Snowden’s one email left out nuance and details about the nature of the question he raised, and didn’t disclose all of the relevant contacts he had with people at the NSA. Snowden also had an in-person conversation with an Oversight and Compliance officer around the time he sent the email, though that meeting apparently wasn’t documented at the time. The NSA had never publicly revealed that the interaction took place, nor had the agency disclosed that Snowden’s former coworkers described “discussing the Constitution” with Snowden.
Snowden declined to comment to VICE News for our story. His attorney, Ben Wizner of the ACLU, said Snowden was “ambivalent” about discussing matters contained in the NSA documents because he believes the agency is “still playing games with selective releases.”
Snowden has since responded to our story in a series of tweets, which include claims that the NSA is still withholding pre-2013 email discussions, testimony from his colleagues, and chat logs or transcripts from communication platforms like Jabber, IRC, and Lync. The absence of these files, Snowden contends, is “intentionally deceptive.” (VICE News has since submitted FOIA requests for these records.)
“Interesting that this still shows an incomplete history of the concerns I expressed,” Snowden wrote. “Simple incompetence, or did NSA destroy records?”
The NSA released Snowden’s single email after a heated back and forth between officials at the NSA, DOJ, and White House about the merits of releasing the email and whether it effectively undermined his credibility. In the email, which Snowden sent in April 2013, Snowden asked about the NSA’s apparent assertion on a training test that presidential executive orders carried the same legal weight as laws.
The email was released to the public in May 2014, and in the lead-up to that and even in its aftermath, internal communications at the NSA show that officials were concerned about overlooking other relevant communications from Snowden while he was at the agency. In one instance, an unnamed NSA staffer described waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about whether the agency had “checked the right places for any potential surprises.”
Days after Snowden’s email was released, an unnamed official wrote to NSA director Mike Rogers, cc’ing 31 other NSA officials and one agency listserv. The official apologized for failing to provide Rogers with all the information regarding Snowden’s communications with NSA officials related to his concerns. The official acknowledged leaving the NSA’s leadership “insufficiently informed,” and promised to “correct that going forward.”
During testimony to the European Parliament on March 7, 2014, Snowden was asked whether felt like he had “exhausted all avenues before taking the decision to go public.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I had reported these clearly problematic programs to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them.”
The documents don’t confirm that assertion, but they do reveal information about something else Snowden discussed: The lack of protection for contractors like him who wished to act as whistleblowers, and the absence of a clear protocol for how contractors could voice concerns or file complaints with the agency.
By Tess Owen