The National Security Agency has acknowledged it retains a record of e-mail communications from former contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, but says those records are exempt from public disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In a letter responding to a June 27 FOIA request from The Desk, the NSA’s chief FOIA officer Pamela Phillips wrote that while the agency has retained records related to Snowden’s employment as a contractor, they are being withheld from public examination because, among other things, releasing the records “could interfere with law enforcement proceedings, could cause an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, could reveal the identities of confidential sources or would reveal law enforcement techniques and procedures.”
Other records are being withheld because those documents were “also found to be currently and properly classified…and remains classified TOP SECRET, SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL.”
The letter marks the first time the NSA has publicly acknowledged retaining communication and employment records related to Snowden’s time as a contractor.
The Desk‘s original FOIA request was for “and and all e-mails sent by Edward Snowden using the e-mail address email@example.com to any and all NSA officials, including officials at the Office of General Counsel, for the time period between January 1, 2013 and June 1, 2013.” Though the request did not specify records related to Snowden’s claim that he raised concerns about the legality clandestine NSA surveillance programs, Phillips wrote that “there are no e-mails indicating that Mr. Snowden contacted agency officials to raise concerns about NSA programs.”
The agency has made similar statements in the past: Last December, the NSA told Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman that Snowden raise no questions about surveillance programs with superiors during his time as a contractor.
“After extensive investigation, including interviews with his former NSA supervisors and co-workers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden’s contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention,” an agency official told Gellman.
But the NSA walked back this claim after an NBC News broadcast in May in which Snowden asserted the agency had e-mail records in which he repeatedly raised concerns about secret spy programs. Shortly after the interview was broadcast, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence de-classified one e-mail record in which Snowden writes to a superior with a question about legal authorities.
That e-mail, the NSA claimed, proved that Snowden did not act as a whistleblower. The agency clarified its position to say it had no records of Snowden raising direct concerns about the legality of NSA spy programs, something Snowden has refuted.
“The NSA’s new discovery of written contact between me and its lawyers — after more than a year of denying any such contact existed – raises serious concerns,” Snowden told NBC News in a follow-up e-mail. “It reveals as false the NSA’s claim to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post in December of last year.”
Snowden is currently holed up somewhere in Russia under temporary political asylum. He fled to Hong Kong shortly before the first set of stories were published based on thousands of classified documents he took during his time as an NSA contractor. He was en route to a different location when the U.S. government suspended his travel visa, stranding him in Russia.
The NSA informed The Desk that the agency has a process for appealing FOIA requests that are denied or to challenge the withholding of certain records. The Desk will be taking advantage of this process.