An email thread between Edward Snowden and the Office of the General Counsel has been made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In the thread, a pre-leaks Snowden asks whether lawful restrictions supersede privileges granted by executive orders. According to the ODNI, this is Snowden’s only documented effort to raise concerns with National Security Agency overseers before collecting and distributing secret documents in June 2013.
Some, like Ars Technica and Marcy Wheeler, view the email thread as proof that the NSA’s overseers deliberately mislead their employees so they wouldn’t question the legality of their actions. Others, like the Hill, note that this email falls far short of Snowden accusing the NSA of wrongdoing — it reads more like a question any employee would ask after some training. (Snowden says he sent multiple emails to the NSA’s overseers to try and voice his concerns.)
The release of this email thread will serve as a sort of Rorschach test for how someone views Snowden’s actions. Those who believe that he did the right thing will herald it as proof that he tried to go through other channels before leaking documents. Those who think him a traitor will use it as proof that Snowden didn’t really raise concerns with the NSA’s activities until after he shared those documents with the world.
The truth is that we don’t know, at least not yet. Snowden might have streaked through the NSA’s offices with a “Fuck tyranny!” sign tied around his neck while screaming about the programs revealed in the documents he was prepared to leak if the stunt didn’t attract enough attention. He might also have sent this single email to the NSA’s lawyers and then decided that he wasn’t happy with the response, so he would leak documents to blow the whistle on all of these programs.
That ambiguity doesn’t change the effect that revealing these programs has had on national discourse. It doesn’t change the fact that intelligence agencies, from the NSA and beyond, are compromising our fundamental right to privacy and justifying it with half-hearted mentions of “terrorism.” And it doesn’t change anything about the argument we are having about the NSA’s freedom to do seemingly whatever it wants. In the abstract, it’s an interesting email thread. But not that interesting.