On the morning of May 29, 2014, an overcast Thursday in Washington, DC, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Robert Litt, wrote an email to high-level officials at the National Security Agency and the White House.
The topic: what to do about Edward Snowden.
Snowden’s leaks had first come to light the previous June, when the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman published stories based on highly classified documents provided to them by the former NSA contractor. Now Snowden, who had been demonized by the NSA and the Obama administration for the past year, was publicly claiming something that set off alarm bells at the agency: Before he leaked the documents, Snowden said, he had repeatedly attempted to raise his concerns inside the NSA about its surveillance of US citizens — and the agency had done nothing.
Some on the email thread, such as Rajesh De, the NSA’s general counsel, advocated for the public release of a Snowden email from April 2013 in which the former NSA contractor asked questions about the “interpretation of legal authorities” related to the agency’s surveillance programs. It was the only evidence the agency found that even came close to verifying Snowden’s assertions, and De believed it was weak enough to call Snowden’s credibility into question and put the NSA in the clear.
Litt disagreed. “I’m not sure that releasing the email will necessarily prove him a liar,” Litt wrote to Caitlin Hayden, then the White House National Security Council spokesperson, along with De and other officials. “It is, I could argue, technically true that [Snowden’s] email… ‘rais[ed] concerns about the NSA’s interpretation of its legal authorities.’ As I recall, the email essentially questions a document that Snowden interpreted as claiming that Executive Orders were on a par with statutes. While that is surely not raising the kind of questions that Snowden is trying to suggest he raised, neither does it seem to me that that email is a home run refutation.”
Within two hours, however, Litt reversed his position, and later that day, the email was released, accompanied by comment from NSA spokesperson Marci Green Miller: “The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse.”
Five days later, another email was sent — this one addressed to NSA director Mike Rogers and copied to 31 other people and one listserv. In it, a senior NSA official apologized to Rogers for not providing him and others with all the details about Snowden’s communications with NSA officials regarding his concerns over surveillance.
The NSA, it seemed, had not told the public the whole story about Snowden’s contacts with oversight authorities before he became the most celebrated and vilified whistleblower in US history.
Hundreds of internal NSA documents, declassified and released to VICE News in response to our long-running Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, reveal now for the first time that not only was the truth about the “single email” more complex and nuanced than the NSA disclosed to the public, but that Snowden had a face-to-face interaction with one of the people involved in responding to that email. The documents, made up of emails, talking points, and various records — many of them heavily redacted — contain insight into the NSA’s interaction with the media, new details about Snowden’s work, and an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the efforts by the NSA, the White House, and US Senator Dianne Feinstein to discredit Snowden.
The trove of more than 800 pages [pdf at the end of this story], along with several interviews conducted by VICE News, offer unprecedented insight into the NSA during this time of crisis within the agency. And they call into question aspects of the US government’s long-running narrative about Snowden’s time at the NSA.
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The Obama administration spent the spring of 2014 engaged in highly classified talks centered around three events: Snowden’s testimony to European Parliament in March, the release of a 20,000-word April 2014 Vanity Fair story about Snowden, and his first US television interview, with NBC News’s Brian Williams, in May.