Interview with Whistleblower Bill Binney
Bill Binney resigned from his job as technical director of the NSA in October 2001. The data-monitoring tool he had developed, ThinThread, had been shelved and, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush-Cheney administration chose dragnet monitoring instead. He spoke to Kade Crockford in February of this year.
Kade Crockford: You, Bill Binney, are a mathematician. You built a tool, ThinThread, that would enable the NSA to filter the world’s Internet traffic, but only wiretap the communications that likely contained information about threats to U.S. security, is that right?
Bill Binney: Yes, based on probable reasons to look at people.
K.C.: The NSA killed your project and opted to conduct dragnet monitoring instead. Do you think that your program could have provided the NSA with information that might have prevented 9/11?
B.B.: We know that’s true, because Tom Drake, the former senior executive of the NSA and whistleblower, got permission to run it against the whole day-to-day of the NSA in February, I think it was, of 2002. He found that they had material there that should have alerted them to all these people, what they were doing, and allowed them to connect the dots for them to prevent it.
K.C.: The dragnet monitoring program that the Cheney-Bush administration imposed in place of your program, ThinThread, failed to stop the terrorist attack, but yours would have.
B.B.: That’s right. Our program didn’t cost enough money, that was the problem. It only cost probably a little less than 1 percent of what the bulk acquisition system they put in place does.
K.C.: The implication there being that the private security companies that contract with the NSA wouldn’t have made as much money?
B.B.: We knew at the time, in 2001, that the companies were down in Congress lobbying against our program because of all the money at stake. We’d hear this from so many staffers in the House Intelligence Committee.
K.C.: And do you know the names of these companies? Are we talking like Lockheed or—?
B.B.: All the big boys, yeah. By the way, if you drive up National Business Park, right across the parkway from the NSA, you’ll see all their names right there. They put up these big buildings now, since 9/11.
K.C.: Oh boy. So if the goal of the security state is to keep Americans safe, why did the NSA throw your program out? I guess that the question sort of answers itself. The goal of the NSA is not to protect public safety.
B.B.: That’s right. I’ve accused them publicly of trading the security of the people of the United States and the free world for money. All you have to do is look at what’s happened since 9/11, even before. Attacks happen, people get killed, and then they focus in on the people who did the attack. And they say, “Oh yeah, we knew about them beforehand.” Well, if you knew about them beforehand, why weren’t you targeting them to stop it?
The answer is pretty simple. It’s a feeding process. Every time an attack happens, they say they need more money. I keep saying that the NSA vision statement is “Keep the problem going so the money keeps flowing.” So every time an attack happens and people get killed, they say, “We need more money.”
K.C.: There’s a remarkable comment in a film about some of the FBI’s entrapment operations against Muslims (The Newburgh Sting), where a former FBI director, Thomas Fuentes, says that in a different way. He says, “If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that ‘We won the war on terror and everything’s great,’ cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’—it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.”
B.B.: That’s right, fear mongering is what they’re operating on. That keeps everybody feeling that they’re totally dependent on the government to protect me, protect me, you know—when in fact they’re not really doing the job properly. That’s not a professional disciplined approach they’re using, by any means.
K.C.: Years before the Snowden revelations, you blew the whistle on dragnet surveillance at the NSA. But despite your long tenure with the agency, your disclosures did not provoke nearly so loud a response as Snowden’s. Is this because you didn’t steal documents as Snowden did? What’s your take on why your reception was so different from his?
B.B.: Well yeah, I didn’t have any irrefutable evidence. What they did to discredit me was say I was a disgruntled employee because they didn’t take my program and use it. The point is pretty simple: What they’re doing is failing every time. Common sense will tell you if you keep failing, you must be doing something wrong. Well, what they’re doing wrong is bulk acquisition. The whole idea is, maybe there’s a new marketplace. It’s state and local law enforcement, drugs and crime, and international crime.
K.C.: You were at the NSA in the 1970s, the early 1970s, correct?
B.B.: Yes, I joined the NSA as a civilian in 1970.
K.C.: At that time, the NSA was operating Project Shamrock, which many people don’t know about. It was a dragnet surveillance program targeting Americans. The NSA under Shamrock was intercepting all the telegraphic messages entering and leaving the United States. What the NSA is doing today, it was doing back then in the sixties and seventies: passing on information of interest to domestic security agencies. Were you aware of the project back then? And if so, why didn’t that very similar project cause you to blow the whistle, as similar dragnet monitoring did decades later?
B.B.: The Shamrock program went back to World War II, when they wanted to monitor if there were any fifth columnists inside the United States sending telegrams back to Germany, through Portugal or Spain or something like that. But they kept going with it after the war, up until Nixon instituted several other programs. One was Minaret, which targeted a few thousand people that were anti-war, anti-government policy, things like that—including Martin Luther King. Parallel to that, the FBI ran another program called COINTELPRO. And then the CIA entered their program, CHAOS. Those three programs and those three agencies are basically the same ones running it today, but it was a much more finite effort then, because they didn’t have the capacity to do the bulk acquisition and monitoring that they do today. So, you know, ten thousand people, at most, would be a part of those programs. But today, with the electronic age and all of the monitoring capabilities and capturing data electronically, and storing and mining, everybody that uses a telephone, or an Internet computer, or a credit card, or anything else that produces an electronic signature, wherever you are in the world or whatever you’re doing—is involved.
Internally, in the United States, the major program they use is the Fairview program. It’s got over a hundred fiber-optic paths across the United States, distributed basically with the population, so it’s targeting U.S. citizens, not foreigners. If they wanted to get foreigners, they’d have all the paths along the coast, where all the transoceanic cables surface. But instead, that program is collecting tens of billions of U.S. citizens’ transactions every day. That’s why they have to build another storage facility to replace the Utah facility that they built a few years ago. They’re planning it on Fort Meade. It’s 2.8 million square feet, almost three times the size of the one in Utah—that’s where they’re headed.
Now when I first came into the NSA in 1970, I was working on the Soviet Union. That was basically a separate group, and I didn’t know about this other group doing the Shamrock program. Any time you have a program that spies on U.S. citizens, violating the Constitution and the laws of the United States, they compartmentalize it and have only a very few people involved. So there was very little knowledge of it inside the agencies at the time.
But after 2001, when they expanded to monitor basically the entire population of the U.S., they had to use the programs we developed, at the Signals Automation Research Center to do that, because no other program they had would handle that kind of volume of data. It indexed it and everything, built timelines of everybody in the database, every transaction they did could be timelined. And it was all done by software, automatically.
At that point, they came and told us—the people I had under contract, and Ed Loomis—what they were doing. It was clear that I couldn’t be a part of it because it was a direct violation of the constitutional rights of everybody in the United States, as well as of any number of laws that existed at the time.
Why did you blow the whistle while literally millions of others in the National Security Complex do not?
K.C.: So what separates you; Thomas Drake, your fellow NSA whistleblower; Dan Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers; and Ed Snowden—people who risked their lives, their freedom, their careers to tell the American public what was really going on in the NSA—from your former colleagues? Why did you blow the whistle while literally millions of others in the National Security Complex do not?
B.B.: Because we were senior responsible people who took an oath to defend the Constitution, and we were in a position to know what was going on. Others were not, necessarily. So it was really up to us to take action. We had to stand up and be citizens of the country and defend the founding principles of this nation. Everybody involved in this, from the White House all the way down, is committing treason against the founding principles of this country. And it should be ironed out in court, as in the ruling the Second Circuit Court of Appeals made last year, against the secret interpretation of the Patriot Act Section 215, for them to get business records on everybody in the country. It was clearly unconstitutional, that’s what I knew about from the very beginning. But they finally ruled that! The reason that the whole thing was kept secret was because even the people committing the crime knew that it was a crime.
K.C.: When Snowden said, for example, that he had access to the President’s email—a claim that he made to demonstrate the breadth of his access as a systems administrator at Booz Allen, and as a contractor for the NSA, to the huge quantities of information that the NSA collects—how many other people have access to that kind of information? Is the NSA so compartmentalized that most analysts don’t have that kind of access?
B.B.: Yes, that’s correct. Most do not. There are sets of rules that govern who has access to what, and Snowden being an assistant administrator, he had “SuperUser” powers, so he had access to vast files. That’s where he could get the things where others could not.
K.C.: Part of the reason I immediately believed you when I heard your first public comments about ThinThread and what the NSA did prior to and after 9/11—and again, this was years before Snowden—was because I knew the history of NSA dragnet monitoring. I knew about Minaret, I knew about Shamrock, I also fundamentally don’t trust spy agencies to do anything but accumulate as much power and money as they can, and then lie about it.
You’ve said previously, and again in this interview, that the NSA’s main motives are money and power—that it’s a totalitarian agency. In your view, what is the role of the U.S. Security State? Politicians, Jim Comey the director of the FBI, the directors of the NSA, James Clapper, the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, tell us again and again, every day, that they have to spy on us because terrorists will kill us otherwise. They say they don’t conduct economic espionage, that they’re not interested in people’s political views, that they don’t blackmail internally . . . Is any of that true? Or is the purpose of all of this something entirely different from what the public is told?
Everybody involved in this, from the White House all the way down, is committing treason against the founding principles of this country. And it should be ironed out in court.
B.B.: That’s nothing but a series of lies. You could look at the attacks on the Tea Party by the IRS. They had access to the NSA’s reconstructed networking of everybody in the country. They knew who to tag in terms of who’s applying for 501(c)(3), who to slowroll to keep from being politically active, and so on. They used that kind of activity against the Occupy group. They also used it against people like General Allen and General Petraeus. How could they go into their emails? It was Director Mueller of the FBI who testified on March 30, 2011, at the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had a database that he set up with the DoD, where he could, with one query, get all of a person’s past and future emails. This is the situation that’s been created.
People look up at the government as somebody who’s going to defend them and keep them safe. We’ve had a government here with no dictators for 240-some years, and so we tend to trust our government to do the right thing. Well, in fact, they’re turning very ugly now, and they have been since Dick Cheney said, “We have to go to the dark side.”
We were trying to do to make the government honest. We started out internally, going through the Inspector Generals of the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, and to House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and to other members of Congress, trying to get them to realize there was a constitutionally acceptable way. But they all refused because the highest levels of the government in every department were a part of this thing. They were all covering up for one another. It’s a matter of cleaning house. I think we have to vote everybody in Congress out and get new people down, to try to fix this problem.
K.C.: Saying that we need to throw everybody out and reelect new leadership in Congress makes it sound like you think that the elected leadership in the country still exercises power over the security agencies.
B.B.: They could, but they don’t right now. They’re all afraid because they don’t really understand the intelligence. They figure if they try to do anything radical, they would break the systems, and we would be vulnerable. The point is that we’re more vulnerable now than we’ve ever been because this bulk acquisition means they can’t figure out anything in advance. And there’s been a number of articles written internally in the NSA and published by The Intercept showing that they’re overloaded by overflow, and they’re inundated by data. They’re so buried, they can’t figure anything out in advance. You can’t break them, they’re already broken.
K.C.: Okay, we’re in a presidential election year. Some people have joked that if Bernie Sanders were elected president, he would immediately be assassinated or be removed by a CIA coup. This joke speaks to the sense among a growing number of Americans that the security state not only acts independently from elected leadership, but sometimes counter to the demands of that elected leadership. There’s a guy called Michael Glennon, a former career State Department employee, who wrote a book called Double Government about exactly this separation between what he calls the Madisonian government, which is elected officials, and the Trumanites, who are the career employees of security agencies who, in his view, actually set and enact U.S. national security policy no matter what elected officials think. Do you believe in this view of a double government? And if so, how do we eject the Trumanites from power?
B.B.: Well yes, the military industrial complex has really become the military industrial intelligence complex. Ever since Bush and Cheney, the government has repeated the narrative coming out of these agencies. There are no checks and balances. What we call an oversight group is a joke at best. Even Reggie Walton, the former head judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, shortly after the Snowden revelations started to break, came out in a CNN interview and said he and the court has a very limited capacity to verify anything NSA or CIA or FBI even tell them.
Well, I’m here to say he had no capacity to validate, because whatever they tell him, he can’t challenge. He can only make sure that the “i”s are dotted, the “t”s are crossed, and all the forms are filled out. He can’t challenge the data that they’re telling him. Nor can the Intelligence Committee, they don’t know either. All they do is go out to these intelligence agencies and get briefed by them; they get the story from those agencies, and that’s what they know. It’s all being done in secret, in computer rooms and things like that, in the back, in very isolated places inside these agencies.
People in the United States seem to think that political blackmail is something done in other countries, not here.
K.C.: There’s one other NSA whistleblower, Russell Tice, who almost nobody in the media talks about, part of the reason being that his allegations about what the NSA has been doing are really explosive. So he says that the NSA has special dark operations, dedicated to spying on the Supreme Court, the State Department, high-ranking military generals, members of Congress, and other powerful officials in Washington. People in the United States seem to think that political blackmail is something done in other countries, not here. Do you think what Tice says is true?
B.B.: I don’t have any doubt that what Russ is saying is true. If you go back to J. Edgar Hoover, he did the same thing but on a much smaller scale. There’s nothing new here. Remember Senator Feinstein’s complaint about the CIA looking into the Intelligence Committee’s private files, and also look at some of the recent material that came out about some of the spying they were doing on communications with our allies by our members of Congress.
K.C.: This has made me think, over the years, that Ron Wyden, who’s one of the only members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who actually tries to hold the intelligence agencies accountable, that he must be the cleanest guy in the world, right? Ron Wyden has never watched one pornography movie in his life, because if he had, the NSA would know about it.
The USA Freedom Act is thus far the only major piece of reform to come out of Congress since your disclosures and Snowden’s. Do you think it makes any difference?
B.B.: Fundamentally no, because it doesn’t address Executive Order 12333, which authorizes intelligence community work. That’s really the one that’s running, that’s doing all the spying on U.S. citizens, that they’re depending on, in secret, to do this. Until they address that executive order and actually terminate this collection, they’re not going to succeed at doing anything.
K.C.: One of my greater concerns, and something Snowden has spoken about a couple times publicly, is the possibility that information collected by the NSA is going to start to trickle down to state and local police departments where it will be used to prosecute people in routine criminal investigations.
B.B.: It’s something that’s been going on since 2001. Even Director Mueller of the FBI said in his interview with Barton Gellman in March, 2011, he admitted that the FBI had been using the Stellar Wind program, the domestic spying program, since 2001. Reuters reported in 2013 that they’re certainly dealing with the Drug Enforcement Administration. They look in the data, they find some planned criminal activity with drugs, and then they alert local police to go out to a certain point, wait for somebody to come and set up the deal, and then go arrest them when they’re there, and then bring in the drug dogs. After that, they do a “parallel construction,” where they substitute information arrived at through normal policing techniques for the NSA data, because NSA collected data is not admissible in court, because it wasn’t acquired with a warrant. So they do a “parallel construction” with a false statement in court. I call it perjury.
K.C.: Well not just that, they’re putting due process, the most fundamental tenet of U.S. justice, on its head. So you’ve said that Executive Order 12333 needs to be reformed or repealed. But is making rules enough, or do we also need to start cutting budgets?
B.B.: Yes, that’s the other way to get to them, cut their budgets. In January we (we meaning the NSA whistleblowers that I’m a party with) suggested twenty-one ways to fix NSA to the president, Congress, and members of of the EU. One of the main things was a targeted approach to selecting data and forwarding that selected data, much like what we had running in the nineties, in ThinThread. Also to have a technical group that was responsible to all of the courts, not just one, not the FISA Court. And all of Congress, not just to the Intelligence Committee. These committees are now advocates for spying on U.S. citizens, whereas they were formed to prevent it, so they’re violating their own charter of existence.
Instead, you need a system where knowledge of activities of these intelligence agencies cannot be funneled and controlled. You have to have a technical group that has the authority and the clearances to go through any agency, at any point, look at any database, look at every program, look at what they’re doing, and monitor them for a period of time. That way, these agencies couldn’t feel that they were secure. At the moment, all the money that’s given to the NSA is never audited by the General Accounting Office, nor is it audited by anybody independent. The Inspector General of NSA can look at certain programs and certain times (like he did with Trailblazer), but he can’t monitor the entire budget, and how it’s spent in the NSA. That’s a setup for corruption. Wouldn’t you like to have a job where somebody hands you $10 to $15 billion a year and says, “Here, do what you think you need to do. And I’ll come back next year and give you another $10 or $15 billion”?
K.C.: So this is all very bleak. What do you expect ordinary Americans to do when they hear this kind of information?
B.B.: Elect people into office who will cut their budget. Get them to force through law these kinds of actions like having a technical group monitor the security agencies, and actually enforce it—if they violate the laws, we should put them in jail. That’s the whole point. You need to have teeth in your laws. Right now, we don’t put anybody who does anything in jail. We put people who blow the whistle on them, like, for example, John Kiriakou, who exposed the name of a torturer. He goes to jail, and the torturer is granted immunity. You know, this makes a lot of sense. What kind of country have we become, where we protect people who violate human rights all over the world and put people in jail who expose it?