Edward Snowden “was determined to expose the extremity of NSA spying revealed by the documents, so as to enable an enduring public debate with real consequences,” columnist Glenn Greenwald says. (Barton Gellman/The Washington Post)

Edward Snowden may have created a paper trail that he could later use to say he brought his questioning of National Security Agency activities to higher authorities.

That at least appears to be the case from the short April 5, 2013, e-mail the then-contractor sent to the NSA general counsel’s office inquiring about the hierarchy of legal authorities — executive orders vs. statutes — after a mandatory NSA training session.

Government officials released the e-mail Thursday.

Snowden’s missive offered no criticism. The general counsel’s answer, three days later, said that executive orders have the force of law but cannot override a statute. Snowden was invited to call if he wanted to discuss the issue further.

He didn’t, apparently.

At an April 18, 2013, meeting with then-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras described e-mails she’d received weeks before from Snowden (who was not disclosing his identity at the time) saying he would be providing documents to her within four to six weeks, according to Greenwald’s book, “No Place to Hide.”

Snowden claimed during an NBC interview with Brian Williams on Wednesday that he’d tried to be a whistleblower and had complained through official channels before turning to journalists.

He said there were e-mails to the general counsel and oversight and compliance folks and added, “I reported that there were real problems with the way the NSA was interpreting its legal authorities. And the response more or less — in bureaucratic language — was you should stop asking questions.”

In response, the government released the April 5 e-mail.

By the time Snowden sent that e-mail, he was clandestinely collecting highly classified documents and had been working for months setting up what was to become his journalistic network.

Published reports say that Snowden, while working on an NSA contract with the Dell Corp. in Hawaii, spent “parts of 2012 downloading the documents he thought the world should see,” as Greenwald notes in his book.

Snowden also, according to Greenwald, took certain documents to show but not publish “so that journalists would be able to understand the context of the systems on which they were reporting.”

Snowden has told The Washington Post that beginning in October 2012 he took his concerns about widespread agency surveillance to two superiors in the NSA’s Technology Directorate and to two in the NSA Threat Operations Center’s regional base in Hawaii. He has not supplied material to back that up.

It was as early as Dec. 1, 2012, that Snowden — using an alias — first tried unsuccessfully to contact Greenwald.

Filmmaker Poitras told the Salon Web site that she first heard from Snowden — again anonymously — in January 2013 and that the person said she needed a secure channel because “I have some information in the intelligence community, and it won’t be a waste of your time.”

In March 2013, Snowden took his last Hawaii-based NSA contract job at Booz Allen Hamilton. He took a pay cut from the Dell position because the Booz Allen job “granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. . . . That is why I accepted that position about three months ago,” according to a June 24, 2013, article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Snowden should be asked, given all this activity, what the purpose of his April 5 e-mail to the NSA general counsel’s office was.

When NBC’s Williams asked Snowden when he decided to start clandestinely collecting the documents, he replied that “given the ongoing [federal criminal] investigation, that’s something better not to get into in a news interview, but I’d be happy to discuss these things with the government.”

Another question: Why did Snowden leak tens of thousands of highly classified NSA documents? Could 50 or 100 documents have been used to illustrate “programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up and our Constitution says we should not give up,” as he told Williams?

The first stories in the Guardian and The Post nearly a year ago covered documents involving two programs that appeared to illustrate Snowden’s point.

The Guardian on June 5, 2013, wrote about a then-secret court order authorizing the gathering and storage of all U.S. telephone toll records.

The Post on June 6, 2013, wrote about the collection on authorized foreign targets, including e-mails, photos and other data from the Internet.

Greenwald says Snowden “was determined to expose the extremity of NSA spying revealed by the documents, so as to enable an enduring public debate with real consequences, rather than achieve a one-off scoop that would accomplish nothing beyond accolades for the reporters.”

Snowden could have gone through the documents, selected fewer than the tens of thousands he leaked in order to support his allegations, and made certain they would not cause harm to national security.

Instead, Snowden turned over classified material in bulk, saying, as he did on NBC, that “the journalists have been required by their agreement with me as a source . . . to consult with the government to make sure that no individuals or specific harms could be caused by any of that reporting.”

A real whistleblower would have selected the documents to be published, made certain that they didn’t harm security and remained in the country to face the consequences of his actions.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.