Page 2 of 5 Secret information: The currency of power
By Lars Schall
It's the "what if" scenario that if there's any chance and if it's only a 0.0004% [chance], "Well, you know, we'll sacrifice the 99.99% for the sake of security and if we forsake some liberties and rights and freedoms along the way so be it because the price is worth it." I think what you're seeing is that people are really beginning to question whether or not that price that we're paying is worth it, and you have people now really asking the question, serious questions about government perhaps and [in] many cases even asserting government has clearly over-reached its own bounds.
As much running room as we gave the government to pursue the threats - and I'm the first to acknowledge there are legitimate threats to international order and stability and the need for
partnerships and agreements between nations to blunt, stop and prevent acts against international order and stability both within nations and across nations, even trans-national threats to us, you know - there are limits. You can't just toss aside rights, freedom and liberties simply for the sake of security. One of the founding fathers in the United States, Benjamin Franklin, actually said words to that effect.
LS: Related to the recent revelations regarding the global surveillance programs of the NSA; have you seen any credible piece of evidence so far that these programs are doing any good in the so-called "war on terror"?
TD: Well, that's been the government meme for a long time, that this all to prevent that and it is true; one of the paradoxes in this space is that most of the intelligence operations and activities are covered, or take place under the cover of secrecy and many of those for completely legitimate reasons. I used to be part of those operations myself both during the Cold War and after in terms of my own government career - in the military, air force and navy respectively, as well as my time with the CIA, and of course my knowledge when I was a senior executive at NSA. I will be the first to tell you that the extraordinary efforts on the part of people I used to work with have in fact prevented threats or blunted threats or have exposed threats.
But here's the thing, and I will give you a more recent example. If you go back to the summer, there is testimony that was given by General Alexander, the director of NSA and the commander of the cyber command. He himself and they actually had a public release - 54 terrorist events were detected, exposed by these secret surveillance programs. Well, it turns out, and this is more recent testimony, that when under questioning before Congress in a public hearing, he could only ultimately admit to one. One that might have been exposed, and that was the al Shabaab, the several thousand and eight thousand dollars plus that was wired to al Shabaab in Somalia in terms of "material support". There's even an open question as to whether that could have been detected by traditional law enforcement means, again the zero-sum game.
LS: Recently Al Jazeera America published the talking points of the NSA related to the revelations by Edward Snowden, and very prominent was the talking point related to 9/11.  What's your comment on this?
TD: Invoking 9/11 as the specter, continuing to roll out the fear mongering that is engendered when 9/11 is mentioned, and using that as justification for ensuring the continuance of these programs just in case. We have to remember 9/11 was a systemic failure of the United States government - under the preamble to the Constitution, its two primary purposes are 1) to provide for the common defense and 2) to provide for the general welfare. Well, it utterly fails in terms of the former, providing for the common defense.
We do, we sometimes forget that, and so that failure is [the] trigger [for] this vast, vast set of activities and operations and surveillance as well as any number of other secret operations - the extent of which we don't fully know to this day; many of them still remain in extremely dark shadows all because of 9/11 that somehow this "existential threat" as a result of what happened on 9/11 means that we have use all means necessary. The very thing that former vice-president Cheney said was, five days after 9/11, on September 16, 2001, "We're going to have to go to the dark side." I don't think people fully appreciated what that meant.
The United States has invested, and when I say invested it's in quotes, but it has spent literally trillions of dollars, when you sum up the totals over the last 12 years, related to national defense, national security, intelligence, homeland security. It's just an extraordinary redistribution of US treasury and wealth to "deal with an existential threat". Because it spent so much money it becomes a significant flywheel. You're not going to be able to stop it very easily, and it continues to justify itself by saying we have to have America secure and we have to keep people feeling safe.
So we have 12 years of response and much of that was done in the shadows outside of any kind of public discussion or debate. It was simply done in secret, and it's the secrecy and the overreach and all the activities that go far beyond the balance of, I think, what people actually were expecting. I mean, we have to remember a lot of room was given to the government after 9/11. People understood that 9/11 happened and legitimately needed to go after the perpetrators. I'm the first to acknowledge that, but it became far more than that.
It became the excuse. It became justification for fundamentally setting aside rights and freedoms as it now turns out, not just US citizen rights that are protected under the Constitution, but also the rights and freedoms of the sovereignty of citizens in other countries as well - on a scale, again, far beyond their purpose of just dealing with threats to international stability to include terrorism, and I think what we're now seeing is people are asking the legitimate questions. "Is this a price worth paying? Do we really want to have everything being 'tracked' and 'monitored' just in case?"
Another example: for all of the powers of the surveillance apparatus even within the United States, it didn't stop the Boston Marathon bombings. There was extraordinary surveillance that had been put into place there, including large numbers of cameras. It did not stop those bombings. But what I find interesting is that usually it has the inverse effect. Meaning when there's a failure like the Boston Marathon bombings and that is not stopped although there was lots of indicators and including, ironically enough, warnings, formal warnings given to the United States by Russia regarding the Tsarnaevs - it not, it's not just taken seriously but it, because of the failure it leads to further calls and cries for even more surveillance. So, you have this sort of this interesting incentive, this pathological incentive of when there's a failure you actually [use it as] justification for even more surveillance.
I think people are really asking the question about what is it doing to who we are as a society, the corrosive effect that this has on society at large, and is the price that we're paying worth it. I think many people are beginning to answer the question that it's not. It's not worth it, and we do have to accept some risk.
There is no such thing as no risk because to say risk [free] we would have to have the perfect surveillance state, and I don't think anybody, even those who would let the government pretty much have unfettered access to almost anything, would want to go to the logical conclusion to simply let the government build the perfect surveillance state - what someone called the constant gaze upon society. History is not kind when it comes to these kinds of societies, and yet that power, that technology, is now very much in the hands of those who hold the levers of power in our country as well as others.
LS: As you have suggested the nexus 9/11 - War on Terror is also an excuse to expand programs that were existing pre-9/11, for example Echelon.  Could you tell us about the development of Echelon, for example, after 9/11?
TD: Well, Echelon, to be more accurate, I mean, I'm very familiar with what's called the Five Eyes community. There were long-standing agreements between the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain - we call it the Five Eyes - and the Five Eyes developed a system called Echelon which in many respects was a precursor to a worldwide linked surveillance sensing system. It had extraordinary reach based on the traditional apparatus, the surveillance security apparatus put into place to monitor many parts of the world, but we also have to remember that the era was the Cold War, but it certainly had reach into other places.
That was the foundation, and so although you don't hear people referring to Echelon by name today, clearly many follow-on programs either relied on Echelon ... or expanded upon it after 9/11. This was the system that was in place. That infrastructure that is behind Echelon did not go away. That infrastructure was certainly used and leveraged post-9/11 and in many cases for completely legitimate purposes in detecting threats to stability and order within and without nations and across nations. Very legitimate and again, some people will point to abuses, but this is one of the paradoxes of secret power.
Even when it has a legitimate purpose in providing for the common defense not just within a nation but even across nations or through agreements with other nations it is right for abuse, and there's what we call mission creep or requirements creep, that you will take on additional activities under the cover of the legitimate activities for other purposes because you can and it's in secret, and to recast a phrase from Catch 22 … the Joseph Heller novel, you know, when you have this power, who's going to stop us?
LS: I have a couple of questions regarding the use of legendary software PROMIS [Prosecutor's Management Information System], which was developed by my friend William A Hamilton, the founder of the US information technology company Inslaw Inc, and he was also a programer for NSA. Do you know anything about NSA's use of unauthorized copyright infringing copies of Inslaw's PROMIS software for at least 25 years as the software it sold to banks in support of its "follow the money" SIGINT mission?
TD: I don't have any specific knowledge of it. I am certainly aware of the program. I was not part of it. I have heard about it and am aware, had become aware of it over the years, and ... I've had people who've had the history of that program who have actually contacted me over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, it is an example - though I don't have, I can't validate or verify it - not any of the allegations or assertions, any of the history that's been revealed and disclosed regarding PROMIS, none of it surprises me and here's why. It's unfortunate but it is, and I had the direct experience at NSA that NSA would either abscond with or would cast aside really powerful technology and then use it for their own purposes.
I'll give you the example that I'm intimately familiar with, that was ThinThread, the extraordinary program in which I was the executive program manager during late 2001 and 2002 before it met a summary death at the hands of NSA leadership and placed in the Indiana Jones digital warehouse never to be seen again, in direct violation of congressional legislation signed into law to deploy ThinThread to the 18 most critical counter-terrorism sites.
Well, there's one part of ThinThread that was actually used by the secret surveillance program called Stellar Wind, the very program that I blew the whistle on - they abused that program to by-pass the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. There were many crypto-mathematician brains behind the algorithms of ThinThread and this one particular sub-program. He's actually apologized to the nation for it because he never intended that it be used in like manner. They stripped all of the protections off of it.
This pattern is unfortunate. You also have a pattern where large companies will do everything they can to ... let's say they have a company working for them, a sub-contractor. It will actually take intellectual property and then will re-package it for their own use and sell it to the government or in partnership with the government, so none of this surprises me. I just can't speak directly to the specifics of PROMIS, but I'm certainly well aware of program and what NSA did with it.
LS: Understood, but I would like to ask you, nevertheless one more question related to this. This would be, once NSA controlled the software used by banks to process wire transfers or money and letters of credit it could in theory add, delete and/or modify the amounts of funds in accounts because the funds are just data like any other kind of data. Have you ever heard that NSA or other intelligence agency exploited the banks surveillance version of PROMIS towards such an end?
TD: I've certainly heard of it, I just don't have any proof nor can I verify or validate, but I will tell you one of the aspects that has not been fully disclosed although I blew the whistle on it early on when I, within the system, had gone to key people within the government particularly congressional intelligence committees regarding Stellar Wind. One of the things that Stellar Wind did was actually without, again, without warrants, was gain direct access to financial transaction information at the bank level, credit card level, and this is extraordinary - these secret agreements were put into place regarding the flow of money.
This is shrouded in all kinds of secrecy ... but I was well aware what would that mean if there were those within the system who chose to abuse it, you know far beyond the purpose of tracking money laundering and things of that nature because this is all hidden; ... the life blood of any economy is the money, the money flows, the money deposits, the investments. I can't speak specifically to the allegations or assertions that you mentioned, but I can tell you that I would not be surprised at all that it was used in that manner given my knowledge of other abuses of information and systems that people in secret would use or have access to.