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This email is why the NSA says Snowden is lying

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One of the biggest disputes between Edward Snowden and the NSA is whether Snowden tried to raise internal concerns about abusive electronic surveillance as Snowden says he did, before deciding to release details about those programs to reporters. Today, the NSA released an email that they claim proves he didn't.

NBC interviewed Snowden that night, and reported that he had sent an email raising "policy and legal concerns" about surveillance. If true, that would justify Snowden's claim that the normal channels for checking out-of-control spying were broken.

The NSA now claims to have proven him wrong. The Director of National Intelligence's Tumblr posted what they claim is the only email from Snowden that they have raising concerns about NSA intelligence collection.

But the email, sent to the Office of Legal, doesn't actually blow any whistles. Snowden was asking a technical question about his legal training: whether executive orders issued by the president could supercede statutes passed by Congress if they conflict. "Between EOs and laws," Snowden writes, "which has precedence?" That's a theoretical question about how law works, not any sort of real whistleblowing.

This is a very risky play by the NSA. If they're lying, and Snowden can prove he reached out in some way other than this email, then it's almost impossible to trust any other claims they make about their former employee.

On the other hand, if they're telling the truth, the email is very bad for Snowden. It hurts his credibility, and makes it seem like he didn't try internal channels before arguably damaging American intelligence capabilities by leaking the documents to the public.

This will play out over the course of the next few weeks and months. Here's the full text of the email: