Page 1 of 2 Snowden and the three wise NSA whistleblowers
By Peter Lee
Whistleblowing is a risky business. I expect that, as they planned their course of action over the four months, Edward Snowden and his main media minder, Glenn Greenwald, paid very close attention to what happened to three past whistleblowers who crossed the NSA. And looking at these three men gives an idea of the interests, principles and powers that are being contested beneath the superficially simple tale of a young analyst who fled to Hong Kong to tell the world about runaway US government surveillance.
There is no evidence to suggest that the three whistleblowers, who convincingly say that they live under the closest US
government surveillance, had any prior knowledge of Snowden's exploit; but there are considerable indications that his situation and the information he holds are the focus of their concern and, in turn, Snowden was guided by their example and experiences.
There are three well-known NSA whistleblowers: Bill Binney, J Kirk Wiebe, and Tom Drake. They were whistleblowers in the legal sense - they reported to the Inspector General of the Department of Defense and, subsequently, oversight committees of the US Congress that a multi-billion dollar NSA data collection program known as Trailblazer was ineffective and wasteful and another one, Stellar Wind, had been programmed to strip out procedures that prevented acquisition of the data of US citizens (and assured the constitutionality of the program).
These three gentlemen were not, with all due respect to Edward Snowden, pimply-faced junior techs with pole-dancer girlfriends. Drake had spent 12 years at NSA and, before that, 10 years in the Air Force specializing in intelligence.
Bill Binney had worked for the NSA for 30 years and had risen to the position of Technical Director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group.
Wiebe had worked for the NSA for 30 years, was awarded the NSA's Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and finished out his career as senior analyst.
Pure organization men, Binney, Wiebe, and Drake followed the chain of command and the procedures for whistleblowing - and passed no classified information to the press. Yet they were undone by the hostility of the NSA.
The NSA, under Michael Hayden, is generally considered to have blown it by not picking up the 9/11 conspiracy. Binney and Wiebe rubbed salt into the wound by telling Congress that the NSA's decision to go with Trailblazer was responsible.
Hayden, fulminating, sent out a memo declaring that "individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow ... Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform NSA, and I cannot tolerate them."
Binney, Wiebe, and Drake's complaints became public knowledge in 2007, after the Bush administration searched for the sources of an unrelated leak to the New York Times' James Risen for his expose of illegal NSA surveillance of US citizens.
Well, they came in, and there were like 12 FBI agents with their guns drawn, and came in. My son opened the door, let them in, and they pushed him out of the way at gunpoint. And they came upstairs to where my wife was getting dressed, and I was in the shower, and they were pointing guns at her, and then they - one of the agents came into the shower and pointed a gun directly at me, at my head, and of course pulled me out of the shower. So I had a towel, at least, to wrap around, but - so that's what they did.
And then they took me out and interrogated me on the back porch. And when they did that, they tried to get me - they said they wanted me to tell them something that would be - implicate someone in a crime. ... I said I didn't really know about anything. And they said they thought I was lying. Well, at that point, "OK," I said, "I'll tell you about the crime I know about," and that was that Hayden, Tenet, George Bush, Dick Cheney, they conspired to subvert the constitution and the constitutional process of checks and balances
Wiebe and Drake's experiences were similar. None of them were implicated in the leak.
In 2010, Binney and Wiebe finally received Letters of Immunity from the Justice Department confirming their whistleblower protection. Drake, however, was less fortunate. After being threatened with spending "the rest of his natural life behind bars" if he didn't provide information on the source of the leak to the New York Times, and several years in the NSA/Department of Justice wringer, he was finally indicted and put on trial.
In the same year Drake - having by now left the NSA to work in the local Apple store - rejected two plea deals
offered by the government and finally settled for no admission of sharing classified information and one year of probation and community service for "exceeding authorized use of a computer".
This reminds me of a cartoon strip about Dilbert accepting a misdemeanor plea of "lewd conduct with appliances" after being falsely accused of stealing a computer.
As to the question of whether Snowden should have worked within the system as they had, the three NSA men were strikingly straightforward in an interview with USA Today:
Q: Did Edward Snowden do the right thing in going public?
William Binney: We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or - we couldn't get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general's office didn't pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.
Q: So Snowden did the right thing?
Binney: Yes, I think he did.
Q: You three wouldn't criticize him for going public from the start?
J. Kirk Wiebe: Correct.
Binney: In fact, I think he saw and read about what our experience was, and that was part of his decision-making.
Wiebe: We failed, yes.
Looking at what happened to the NSA's three wise men, it would appear very unlikely that Snowden, a wet-behind-the-ears grunt in the infowars, could get a private or public hearing in the United States for his complaints about the NSA before he disappeared beneath an FBI dogpile ... or worse, in the opinion of the three:
Q: What should Edward Snowden expect now?
Binney: Well, first of all, I think he should expect to be treated just like Bradley Manning [an army private now being court-martialed for leaking documents to WikiLeaks]. The US government gets ahold of him, that's exactly the way he will be treated.
Q: He'll be prosecuted?
Binney: First tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed.
Wiebe: Now there is another possibility, that a few of the good people on Capitol Hill - the ones who say the threat is much greater than what we thought it was - will step forward and say give this man an honest day's hearing. You know what I mean. Let's get him up here. Ask him to verify, because if he is right - and all pointers are that he was - all he did was point to law-breaking. What is the crime of that?
Drake: But see, I am Exhibit No. 1. ...You know, I was charged with 10 felony counts. I was facing 35 years in prison. This is how far the state will go to punish you out of retaliation and reprisal and retribution. ... My life has been changed. It's been turned inside, upside down. I lived on the blunt end of the surveillance bubble. ... When you are faced essentially with the rest of your life in prison, you really begin to understand and appreciate more so than I ever have - in terms of four times I took the oath to support the Constitution - what those rights and freedoms really mean. ...
Believe me, they are going to put everything they have got to get him. I think there really is a risk. There is a risk he will eventually be pulled off the street.
There is another reason to pay attention to Binney, Wiebe, and Drake.
Binney and Wiebe are experts in - perhaps even invented - the automated surveillance techniques Snowden is talking about. Binney, in particular, is described as a brilliant crypto-analyst - "regarded as one of the best code breakers and mathematicians in the NSA's history", according to a documentary film by Laura Poitras - who came up with the automated distributed data analysis solution, ThinThread, that correlated data to targets in real time and only forwarded relevant hits to the NSA mothership.
This is in contrast to Trailblazer, which vacuumed up everything and sent it home in the hope that the data could be mined retroactively, but in time to reveal some dangerous plots.
Binney's opinion that ThinThread could have stopped 9/11 - if Hayden hadn't stopped ThinThread in 2000 and proceeded with Trailblazer instead - certainly contributed to the rancor with which the NSA pursued Binney.
Jane Meyer reported in the New Yorker that, in one of life's little ironies, as Trailblazer was headed to the intel boneyard post-9/11 as an unworkable, over-budget boondoggle, the NSA allegedly picked up Binney's ThinThread, stripped out the code which encrypted the data of US citizens until a warrant was obtained, and started running it under the codename Stellar Wind for targeted and unwarranted surveillance of US citizens as well as foreign subjects. Thereby adding "violation of the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure" to "fraud, waste, and mismanagement" on Binney's menu of grievances against the NSA.
Daily Caller: But what universe of information are we talking about that's available to the NSA?
Binney: The former FBI agent, Tim Clemente, says they can get access to the content of any audio, any phone call. He says that there are no digital communications that are safe or secure. So that means that they were tapping into the databases that NSA has. For the recorded audio, and for the textual materials like emails and phone.
Daily Caller: All textual material?
Binney: Any kind of textual material is relatively easy to get. The audio is a little more difficult. Now I don't think they're recording all of it; there are about 3 billion phone calls made within the USA every day. And then around the world, there are something like 10 billion a day. But, while they may not record anywhere near all of that, what they do is take their target list, which is somewhere on the order of 500,000 to a million people. They look through these phone numbers and they target those and that's what they record.
Daily Caller: There's been some talk about the authorities having a recording of a phone call [alleged Boston marathon bomber] Tamerlan Tsarnaev had with his wife. That would be something before the bombing?
Binney: Before the bombing, yes.
Daily Caller: Then how would they have that audio?
Binney: Because the NSA recorded it.
Daily Caller: But apparently the Russians tipped off the FBI, which then did a cursory interview and cleared him. So how were they recording him?
Binney: Because the Russians gave a warning for him as a target. Once you're on a list, they start recording everything. That's what I'm saying.
Daily Caller: So why didn't they prevent the bombing?
Binney: Once you've recorded something, that doesn't mean they have it transcribed. It depends on what they transcribe and what they do with the transcription. ... They can do textual processing at a rate of about 10 gigabits a
second. What that means is about a million and a quarter 1,000-character emails a second. They've got something like 10 to 20 sites for this around the United States. So you can really see why they need to build something like Utah to store all of this stuff. But the basic problem is they can't figure out what they have, so they store it all in the hope that down the road they might figure something out and they can go back and figure out what's happening and what people did. It's retroactive analysis. The FBI is using it that way too.
Daily Caller: Can you do that for audio? Can they retroactively put together the conversation we're having right now? Suppose nobody from the government is taping this conversation right now. Is there any way they can go back and reconstruct it?
Binney: Well I think I'm on a target list, so anybody that my phone calls, they will be recorded. So yeah.
Daily Caller: Does this mean that my phone number is now going to be on a list?
Binney: You are now part of my community, so you can assume you are now going to be targeted, too.