US politicians run secret illegal schemes behind closed doors - NSA whistleblower Bill Binney
It’s a year since Edward Snowden first came out with revelations that turned the world upside down. What once sounded like Orwellian conspiracy theory turned out to be true – we all are being watched over by the Big Brother in Washington. Innumerable questions arise. What now? Has something changed 12 months later? Should we forget about privacy and safety when we are online? Sophie asks NSA veteran and whistleblower, the precursor of Snowden, Bill Binney.
Sophie Shevardnadze:I just want to go a little bit backward – before the program was exposed by Edward Snowden, ‘The Stellar Wind’ , there was something called ‘ThinThread’, which you helped create. But it was overlooked in favor of what the NSA has now. Why so, what was wrong with it?
Bill Binney: I think the main problem was that it didn’t cost enough money. In other words it didn’t support a large operation, a large set of contractors, a larger organization. So if it was cheap and efficient, why wasn’t it the thing they wanted to do? They wanted to build an empire, and build an industrial base.
SS:But it also had something to do with privacy of your citizens?
BB: Oh yes, we built-in privacy and capacity to get privacy, not just for US citizens, but everybody in the world, and that was something, I guess, they didn’t particularly care to have. So in other words it was one of the first things they eliminated from that program when they adapted part of it. What that meant was that they now had the capacity to look into all their political enemies internally, in the country, or anybody in the country that they wanted to. So it’s a very useful program for law enforcement in particular, who would be looking at the entire population and see if everybody is doing anything that was illegal, and they could use that data then to go after them. That’s what they’ve been doing.
SS: Alright, so you are saying the internet’s purpose was to monitor what people are doing and so that would be possible to nip out anybody’s life with all the collected data, and you are one of the creators… now, surely you saw the dangers – did you suspect it could be abused?
BB: Yes, and that’s why I’ve built in those protections to make that impossible to happen, and that was the whole idea for encrypting the information that that would identify individuals, and in fact, filter out any data that wasn’t relevant, any targets that you weren’t interested in. So we had a focus to tack in terms of collecting only information that was relevant to targets of interest, and we let everybody in the world go by. Plus, we encrypted all the information about the individuals so that until we had provable cause on them, we did not know their true identities, so that made it impossible to have, say, NSA analysts go in and do the love intelligence, that they are or have been doing at NSA, which is looking at their wives and girlfriends and seeing if they are cheating on them.
Well, you could do that if didn’t encrypt the information and didn’t collect it, or if you collect it and don’t encrypt it. But if you did what we did, which was filter it out right up front and then encrypt any attributes that came through, you could achieve that, and it would be possible for law enforcement to use that data either.
SS:So once you’ve thought it was something awfully wrong with the whole thing, you went through official channels to fight the NSA, and you failed. Now, could you have done the same thing that Snowden did?
BB: Yes, I suppose, I could have, but that’s not the… I, at the time, thought that if I raise these concerns internally, in the intelligence committees and also in the courts or in the Inspector-General’s Office, the Department of Justice or Department of Defense, that those would be addressed, because it’s an obvious violation of our Constitution and constitutional rights of the citizens, all the citizens of the US. That’s what our laws would cover. We didn’t have laws that would cover intelligence operations against foreigners, but we did when we are talking about looking at domestic intelligence. So I thought that by going to those particular points, that would be a way to turn it around.
SS:But Snowden was also saying that he sent a couple of letters to the senior officers and he didn’t get any reaction – seems like you didn’t get any reaction either, right?
BB: Well, yes, we did get a reaction, they sent the FBI at us to intimidate us and otherwise keep us quiet, and also they’ve blacklisted us and things like that, so the entire system attacked us. He saw that too, and I think that was part of the review that he was doing on what happened to whistleblowers before him, that’s what helped him make his decision.
SS:When Snowden went public with the revelations, what did you feel? Was it a relief for you? What did you think to yourself?
BB: Well, I thought there was another whistleblower who was actually taking documentation of the abuses outside of the government, and releasing them publicly, I already basically knew all this staff happening, and that was basically what I was trying to oppose internally, in government channels initially. So he saw that, he saw what happened to us, he saw what happened to Tom Drake and what happened to Chelsea Manning and also Julian Assange, so I think he said to himself, and I think he said this publicly that what helped him make the decision to take documentation of the allegations he was going to make outside of agency and expose them publicly.
SS: But what did you feel as someone who was fighting the same thing he was fighting – he went public with it, he made this known to the world, that everyone is being surveilled. He changed a world in a way, for better or for worse, I don’t know.
BB: Well I think he has exposed the dangers of this mass surveillance, this is the, if you want to call it ‘The Stasi’ on super-steroids, or J. Edgar Hoover on super-steroids, being able to monitor and have leverage and knowledge about everybody’s life in the world. That’s a very powerful set of knowledge to have and to trust to government, to any government, really.
So his whole concept was to show that documentation, and to me, when he showed that documentation, that simply gave me leverage to say “You see, this is what I’ve been talking about,” and now we can point to it in the public domain as direct evidence, and it’s governments evidence, so it’s direct evidence of what the government was doing.
SS:Like you’ve said, we all remember what happened to Chelsea Manning, Snowden is living in an exile… Now do you feel like the harsh punishments will actually stop future whistleblowers from speaking out?
BB: I think that’s exactly what’s happening now, I mean, even when it comes to reports trying to get information from the intelligence officials, they would usually give things off the record to them, or talk to them off the record, they won’t even do that now – because they are afraid of prosecution and persecution by the government. They’ve build in this tactic of fear into all people working for the government, so that they are now afraid to do this and they are intimidated by the government from the things they’ve with Tom Drake and Bradley [Chelsea] Manning, and Julian Assange and others, so they’re showing what they intend to do to you if you become a whistleblower.
SS:People, I guess, they wonder, how come you got away with it, and Snowden didn’t and neither did Bradley Manning. I mean, you got raided and investigated by the FBI, but its nearly not as much as what happened to Manning or Snowden, who is an exile.
BB: Yes. The reason that happened was because they attempted to indict myself plus others, the other whistleblowers from NSA and what we’re doing was fabricating evidence and trumping up a charge of conspiracy and various other charges that they were going to file against us. As part of that process, I also had that material – they probably thought I didn’t, but I had it, because I’ve shared it with other people and got it back from them after they raided us.
That gave me all of the expiatory data and the data that showed malicious prosecution on the part of the Department of Justice. So I made sure they understood that I had all this evidence and if they wanted to court and trial, I would expose them for this malicious prosecution and do a counter-charge against them. So they dropped all those charges at that point. That’s how I stopped them.
SS:So you got lucky. But in his last interview Snowden said that he really wants to go home, like there’s no other place he would rather be, and John Kerry told him to man up and return. But the best-case scenario would be he goes to jail, right? Do you think Snowden could trust the system of Justice, as Kerry said he should?
BB: If he can get a fair trial, yeah.
SS:Do you think he can trust the system?
BB: I don’t believe he’d ever get a fair trial here, no. He can’t trust the system at all.
SS: Why not?
BB: I think what John Kerry was saying, plus other officials in the in the row, because they manipulate things in the court. Because of national security they make it impossible for you to raise evidence, or they make it impossible for you to say things about certain things they were doing – because they claim “national security” or they claim they don’t have standing or some other reason, to keep it out of the court. So you can’t address the real issues. So you can’t get a real fair trial under those conditions.
I will also point out that John Kerry and all the other people in the US government is talking about the accountability, they need to own up to it too, they need to be accountable for their actions of violating our Constitution and rights and privileges under the Constitution to the citizens of the US. They are hiding behind secrecy and lies, and secret interpretations, and secret courts, to build a secret government with secret laws, to cover themselves. That’s what they are doing, and they need to own up to that, and they’re not doing that.
SS:James Clapper from national intelligence called on Snowden to return and expose documents. Do you think he should?
BB: I don’t believe he can. My understanding is that he turned over all those documents to reporters and no longer has them. So I don’t believe that would be possible for him to return them.
SS:But nobody knows how much exactly he took. Snowden said that himself as well. Why was security so vulnerable at the NSA as to allow this?
BB: There is a story behind that. I’ll tell you what the story is. I, basically, proposed that we - back in early 90s, 1992-93, somewhere in there - that we do a program that would monitor all the activity on the network that NSA had anywhere in the world. So we ended up with two opposing camps when we made that proposal. One was the analysts that said “I don’t want you monitoring me and what I’m doing.” They didn’t want anybody looking over their shoulder – basically what they were saying. The other camp was all of the managers in the NSA, because they didn’t want anybody watching what they were doing with the money, because they are playing a shell game with money. They keep moving money from one program to another, to try to prop up failing programs and things like that. But also they didn’t want anybody giving any kind of assessment on return of investment on any of the programs they were running, because they wanted the freedom to do things the way they wanted without any interference.
So given those two camps of opposition, that meant we were absolutely not going to do that kind of monitoring program. And when you didn’t do that, that meant that Snowden, for example, could go on the network, download anything he wanted to, and nobody really was following him. So he could take anything he wanted, and they are still trying, I guess, to find out what he took, because they don’t really know, because they didn’t monitor that log.
SS:Do you know what I never understood? The NSA collects so much information about everything and everybody – what do you guys do with it there? Surely it is just too much to analyze it all, no?
BB: Yeah, see, that’s one of the major problems they are having at that point; it is that by taking all this data, what they are doing is burying their analysts in the mound of massive amounts of data, so that they can’t figure out real threats or anything of significant intelligence. That’s basically why the White House issued their White House Big Data Initiative – I think in early 2012 – which was soliciting companies and private industry to come up with algorithms that would go through the large datasets to try to figure out what was important in that data for people to look at.
Well, that was primarily what we did with our program ‘Thin Thread’. The point was that that was that focus to tack, and that’s really what they are asking for now, because they are beginning to realize that they are buried in data and their analysts are dysfunctional because of it.
SS:Now the latest Snowden leak suggests that NSA is taking facial recognition tech to a whole new level, sorting out images from personal emails, texts, Facebook, even video conferences. Why does the NSA need a massive photo database of people who are just minding their own business? I mean, millions of people who are not representing any threat to anybody or anything.
BB: Well, again, that’s that idea of taking in this bulk acquisition of information, so you have it in case you need it. That’s the point that they are taking. But the real issue was to use it for law enforcement. So if they use it for law enforcement, then it does become useful. That is especially if they can map a picture of you to your name and all your attributes and all your activity. Then that adds that dimension to your profile for the law enforcement people.
SS:Another interesting thing that Snowden said in the interview was that his former colleagues at the NSA were shocked by the agency’s activities once he actually shared his concern with them. Is that something that you also encountered, do people inside the agency really don’t understand what’s going on?
BB: Yes, I think that’s true of a large number of them. Even Ed Loomis, who was one of our co-whistleblowers here, didn’t realize that this domestic spying was going on until just a few years ago. He didn’t realize that this was happening. He basically also didn’t want to believe that, because he thought we wouldn’t do that as a country. But in fact, we are and that is going on, and now he realizes that’s true. But up until just a few years ago, he didn’t believe it.
SS:Now, just a bit more about Snowden. I don’t know if you watched his last interview, but with all this new attention he is getting right now, there is a feeling that Snowden is no longer seen as an enemy only, and according to recent polls most Americans are actually supportive of his revelations about government’s surveillance programs and everything. Could Snowden become a hero figure?
BB: I think he is probably drifting that way anyway in terms of public opinion over here in this country anyway, because what people are looking at after all this materials coming out is that they are now realizing how invasive the surveillance is that the US government is doing on the population here in the US, as well as around the world.
For us, though, it’s a particular invasion, because it is a violation of our 1st, 4th and 5th and even, to a degree, the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. I guess our people are starting to get concerned in it and irritated by it, simply because it is a clear violation of the foundation of our country and the laws that we have through government, and all of our law enforcement, and all of our government officials. The oath of office that they take is to protect and defend that Constitution and they all violated it. In fact, in the Reuters article, which talked about law-enforcement using this material, they said - one of the Federal officers said - “This is such a great program. I hope we can just keep it secret.” Well, having a secret operation in a secret court, making a secret interpretation of laws and doing all of this in secret is not compatible with a democratic republic. That is not compatible with democracy at all, and that’s what the problem the public here in the US is really seeing.
SS: I want to take this issue and broaden it a little bit to international scale, because NSA spying isn’t only a domestic issue. US relations have been hurt with key allies and also with China, for example. They are very strained over this whole spying allegations. We know that both are snooping at each other, we know that. What now? What do you think is next?
BB: It’s hard to tell. I think a lot of this is for public show, but negotiations are going on in secret, part from one to another one country, they’ll show what the difference is. I mean, if they start raising tariffs and things like that, that can show what’s going on behind the scenes, but what they are saying in public is primarily for public consumption.
SS: But just because you know how it works, really quickly, who do you think is doing a better job of spying at each other, or it is pretty much on the same level?
BB: No, I think the US is much better at it than anybody else, simply because they basically own the fiber optic network of the world, or at least 80 percent of it. So that’s like the home-team advantage, giving you advantage of having the access to all of that fiber around the world. It gives you that extra access to information that others don’t have.
SS:Some of the most recent revelations say that NSA plants bugs in technical equipment shipped overseas. Is there a way for the receiving side to actually detect those bugs?
BB: Yeah, certainly you can have technicians go through and look for extra hardware, you can have people scanning the software – it takes a lot to do that, but it is possible to do. You just have to have smart technical people doing it. Only other alternative, by the way, is to buy your own…
SS:Is to buy all your equipment not in America. Too bad Americans are really good at all the technical stuff, and you guys always have all the advanced technologies, so that’s why people are buying it there. That’s a point of advantage for you, but yeah, we’ll make sure to detect the bugs once we receive it over here.
Another thing is that John Chambers, the head of the tech giant Cisco that produces the equipment, asked Obama to stop NSA’s illegal modifying of the company’s products. Do you think he will be heard?
BB: I think, obviously, it’s an economic decision that has to be made by the countries around the world, but I think that that is stimulating others to start up their own businesses as a counter or a competitor to US industry around the world. So I think they all are getting hurt, and I think it was a bad decision on everybody’s part to do this kind of thing, weakening systems and giving back towards the systems, reducing the security of individuals around the world. That basically was, in my view - even the PRISM program participants, or the Telecoms and their participation in the phone network, exchanging the information – was basically a short-sighted decision, that was made without consideration of being exposed to ramifications of that around the world, in terms of business and business transactions.
SS: I know that you’ve also said that NSA is vital to US security, and many people will agree with you. But, is it possible to reform the NSA so that it serves the greater good, or is spying on citizens something inevitable?
BB: I think, to a certain degree, spying is inevitable, but you can certainly control, there are ways and means to do that. We suggested some ways to make that happen, and make it effective, to the President and to Congress, and also to the EU, and it’s published on the web – the recommendations that we made. We made 21 recommendations to that.
SS:Now Obama appointed a review board that criticized the domestic data collection. In March, the president recommended ending the bulk domestic meta-data collection and last week, the House passed a bill to end it – is that an effective step, in reality? Will the NSA abide by it?
BB: I think the moves that have been made so far, is to basically transfer the storage of the information to the telephone companies or to telecoms, and that to me simply means absolutely nothing, it is simply a distributed storage query– in other words, if you are making a query into the database, instead of going to your local storage inside NSA, you’re going to the one at the Telecom. That’s like a distributed network storage like Google does, when you make your Google queries, that gets distributed across eight different storage places, and they give every response from those eight different places, and you get it listed on your computer to look at. So it’s very similar to that. It’s just like distributed storage network – you’re using the Telecom storage instead of NSA storage. I don’t really see any difference here.