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Did Snowden raise his concerns inside the NSA? It doesn't matter.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Ed Snowden says that he raised concerns about the legality of the NSA's programs internally before he began leaking documents to journalists at the Washington Post and the Guardian. On Wednesday, the NSA tried to undermine Snowden's credibility by releasing what it says is the only email Snowden sent to his superiors about the legality of the NSA's programs. That email didn't raise substantive concerns about NSA spying programs, but instead asked a narrow legal question.

Given the agency's history of making claims that turn out to be not quite accurate, it's worth taking the NSA's claim with a grain of salt. But the NSA's response to Snowden also has a deeper problem: it wouldn't have made a difference if Snowden had raised his concerns more forcefully through internal channels.

Remember, the NSA's position is that it hasn't done anything wrong. The agency claims that its domestic surveillance programs comply with the law, and that it gets plenty of oversight from both the courts and Congress. The NSA has stuck to this position despite a year of pressure from Congress and the public. Why would it have been any more receptive to the concerns of a lowly contractor?

Maybe Snowden should have brought his concerns to sympathetic members of Congress? That wouldn't have done any good either, because key members of Congress already knew about the program. And some of them were outraged about it!

Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, was already telling anyone who would listen in 2012 that voters would be "stunned" if they knew how the government was interpreting the Patriot Act. But Wyden couldn't disclose the details without jeopardizing his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so his comments didn't get much attention.

On the other hand, raising concerns more forcefully within the chain of command could have jeopardized Snowden's career. Employees of intelligence agencies don't enjoy the same whistleblower protections as other federal workers, so his superiors likely could have retaliated against him if he pressed his case against NSA programs too forcefully.

So it's a bit unreasonable for the NSA to fault Snowden for failing to raise concerns internally. If the NSA's programs are legal, as the NSA brass claims, then there was nothing to blow the whistle about.