Snowden in a recent interview with NBC News argued that he is a legitimate whistleblower because he followed government protocols on registering his complaints about the government surveillance programs through the proper channels before leaking the information to the press.
The ODNI and supporters of the U.S. government's surveillance practices say the email exchange shows only that Snowden posed a question about the relative authority of laws and executive orders and did not register concerns about the NSA's intelligence gathering activities, as Snowden suggested in his interview with NBC.
In the email dated April 5, 2013, Snowden asks whether presidential executive orders have the same precedence as law.
“My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statute, but EOs may not override statute,” Snowden wrote. “Am I correct in this? Between EOs and laws, which has greater precedence?”
“Similarly, between DOD and ODNI regulations, which has greater precedence?” he added. “Could you please clarify? Thank you very much, Ed.”
The general counsel responded by affirming that Snowden was correct in his interpretation — that executive orders have the “force and effect of law.”
“That said, you are correct that E.O.s cannot override a statute,” the counsel wrote.
“In general, DOD and ODNI regulations are afforded similar precedence though subject matter or date could result in one having precedence over another,” the counsel offered. “Please give a call if you would like to discuss further.”
The focus on whether executive orders trump federal law is critical because federal law provides privacy protections for U.S. citizens and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama approved of sweeping surveillance programs that Snowden exposed through executive orders.
According to a release from the ODNI, the NSA has searched its records and has only found the one email exchange asking for an explanation “that was in a training course he had just completed.”
“The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse but posed a legal questions that the Office of General Counsel addressed,” the release said.
“There was not additional follow-up noted,” the release continued. “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.”
When asked about Snowden's whistleblower claims and his desire to return to the United States, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the NSA would release the email exchange.
Snowden, he said, "is welcome to return to the United States" to face several charges of espionage.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said the NSA gave the email exchange to her panel on April 10.
She too said she believes it shows only that he had a questions about the relative authority of laws and executive orders — not a broader complaint that the government's surveillance methods violated the Constitution.
Feinstein also pointed out that Snowden in June told the South China Morning Post that he accepted employment as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor for the NSA in March 2013 because it “granted [him] access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked.”
“That is why I accepted that position about three months ago,” he told the paper at the time.
Feinstein went on to applaud the government for declassifying and releasing “significant information” about the NSA spying program in an effort to be “more transparent with the public.”
“I believe this transparency is important and should also be applied to the communication that Snowden referenced in his recent interview,” she said.