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News & Blog William Binney and Thomas Drake on NSA Surveillance: An Alien Form of Government


William Binney and Thomas Drake on NSA Surveillance: An Alien Form of Government

Untold History Exclusive


Photo courtesy CNN: The Lead with Jake Tapper

By Kevin Kelly

The bustling campus of West Chester University paused this week to welcome William Binney and Thomas Drake, former NSA employees whose institutional whistleblowing predates that of the exiled Edward Snowden and forces us to confront an uncomfortable truth: Snowden’s sacrifice might not have been necessary, if only we had listened. Binney, a crypto-mathematician responsible for the origination of several current NSA surveillance programs, and Drake, a Senior NSA Executive, shared their stories of decades of public service and the crisis of conscience that ultimately led to career-ending NSA revelations. Drake and Binney are joined by Kathleen McClellan, National Security and Human Rights Counsel of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) as they travel the country on the GAP-sponsored Whistleblowers Tour. The three took time to discuss with me their call to reveal government secrecy and constitutional crimes, and to offer possible solutions to counter an increasingly hostile whistleblower terrain.

Drake, an expert in sophisticated computer software and data interpretation, arrived at the NSA in 2001 after tenure as a data analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Clinton administration and work in the private sector as a defense contractor. Prior, Drake had spent 15 years in the Air Force and Navy Reserve. Binney, who had served at the NSA for 30 years and was a technical leader for intelligence, had identified in the late 90’s that the digital age and its overwhelming amount of data was rendering the NSA dangerously ineffective. To address this weakness, Binney led a team to the creation of “Thinthread,” a comprehensive computer system dedicated to the collection and analysis of the vast quantities of data produced in our technological era. To Binney and Drake, Thinthread’s superior capabilities, its availability a full 9 months prior to 9/11, and its inherent safeguards to ensure 4th amendment protection for Americans should have guaranteed its implementation prior to 9/11; however, it did not. Instead, the NSA chose to shelve the $3 million program, authorizing the defense contractor-developed $4 billion “Trailblazer” system, an exercise in mismanagement, waste and ultimate failure.  It was against this backdrop, and the discovery of the NSA’s implementation of the domestic “Stellar Wind” secret surveillance warrantless program, that Binney and Drake felt compelled to reveal violations within the NSA. For four years, they attempted to have their concerns about NSA operations recognized through the channels of government-established protocol, including Congress, the Senate, the Office of General Counsel, and the Department of Defense, to no avail.  Determined that Americans know the truth, Drake became an anonymous source of NSA unclassified information for a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and the subject of indictment under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Drake has no regrets for the NSA whistleblowing that put at risk his lucrative job, career, reputation, family life and freedom: “My primary motivation is what I witnessed. Shortly after 9/11, I [realized] to my horror that my government [was subverting] the Constitution, and if I remain[ed] silent I would be complicit in a crime, and I had an obligation, having taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution… I was staring deep into Pandora’s Box- the government had unchained itself from the Constitution, particularly with respect to the secret surveillance programs and intelligence failure of 9/11, withholding critical actual intelligence for institutional prerogatives-information is power- and then the massive, multi-billion dollar fraud… There were several moments of truth culminating in the first week of October when I confronted the lead attorney at the National Security Agency at the Office of General Counsel and when he said: ‘You don’t understand Mr. Drake- it’s all approved, the White House has authorized us as executive agent…it’s all legal. Don’t ask any more questions.’ I knew in that moment, I was looking at an alien form of government. It wasn’t just that the wheels had come off; it was an entirely different vehicle.”

Binney’s call to action was more personally motivated, given his direct involvement in the creation of the NSA surveillance system: “…I was the guy who started the program that they are using to spy on everybody, or at least some of them. I felt a bit of responsibility.”   He went on to describe his very deliberate inclusion of 4th amendment safeguards within his program to protect the rights of Americans, and that the removal of these safeguards was a defining moment for him: “…When I found out they were taking all of the AT&T data…I knew exactly what they were going to do. It was going to lay out everybody’s social network, everybody you relate to, and they could see your relationships and how you interact with people, who you are interacting with and everything…This is how you deal with political enemies. This is straight out of the Nixon times.” Binney rattled off several of the programs implemented during the Nixon era that were specifically designed to discredit and intimidate political activists, including Operation CHAOS and COINTELPRO. “All of these programs were put together to do that kind of thing. To make sure he could follow his political enemies” said Binney. “Well, that’s what is going on here… So, that immediately for me was a red flag. Plus, I had worked in the Soviet Union for so many years that I knew what totalitarian states were all about, what they did, how they controlled their population, and this is exactly what they did…”.

The conditions necessary for whistleblowing are becoming increasingly elusive. One relationship historically integral to the whistleblowing process, that of reporter and source, has become a target as government institutions scurry to do damage control and strengthen their monopoly on precious information.  “It’s absolutely affecting journalists,” said McClellan. “…I think in recent months we have seen journalists under attack. Glenn Greenwald has been called a co-conspirator, Jim Risen has been subpoenaed to testify about his source, the Justice Department has seized over 100 phone records from the Associated Press in secret, they accuse Fox News reporter James Rosen of being a co-conspirator and violating the Espionage Act simply by doing his job, and all we have from Attorney General Holder are these blanket assurances that they aren’t going to prosecute journalists, but then they qualify it with “legitimate journalism”…journalists themselves are now being attacked and being threatened with criminal sanctions, criminal prosecution, and to the extent that has a chilling effect beyond what the war on whistleblowers already had on sources is a definite threat to the First Amendment.”

Freedom of the press recently suffered further assault by way of an edict passed down by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. Intelligence Community Directive 119 now prohibits most employees of the intelligence community from discussing “intelligence-related information” with a journalist unless they have authorization to do so. “I call it… general gag order number one” said Drake. “It’s an incredibly draconian measure to literally censor, suppress any association of intelligence community employees involving the press. Period. There’s an extraordinarily expansive definition of media. It’s essentially any outlet, any outlet that publishes information that the government deems could have government information in it, and in terms of who’s authorized to speak- and this doesn’t matter if this is classified or unclassified- is only designated senior officials, which allows anonymity in essence, protecting the anonymity of senior officials to leak whatever they want, to the benefit of the administration and the national security establishment. If 119 does anything it’s saying there is no First Amendment…any illusions that there was a First Amendment and the press has the ability and responsibility to inform the public is completely dispensed in this directive. Remember, this is an Executive Directive being issued to tens upon tens upon thousands of employees.”

McClellan chimes in: “…What the government likes to forget is that there is longstanding Supreme Court precedent that says that employees do have a First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern. So, to the extent that the directive doesn’t distinguish between classified and unclassified information- it seems to at least fly right in the face of that longstanding precedent.”

While Drake, Binney, and McClellan paint a bleak picture of continuing Constitutional erosion and the whistleblower as endangered species, all agree that solutions exist to halt the catastrophic progression. Binney proposes that the success of such an initiative begins with a solid foundation established through the electoral process: “We need to get people into office who will abide by the Constitution…who will abide by their oath of office.” McClellan agrees, further advocating the creation of a public defense fund for those charged under the Espionage Act and the passage of the Freedom Act, legislation proposed to halt the collection of meta-data currently deemed legal through the Obama administration’s interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Drake nods in response to Binney and McClellan and then offers both suggestion and grave warning: “It is about looking forward, and backwards. We cannot look forward without holding the past accountable. Unless we have the equivalent of a Church Committee Special Prosecutor, wide open, exposing it to close it all, then that chapter in our history which is now going on 13 years remains unaccountable and it won’t matter what we do going forward….because that means that you’ll have a president and any number of senior officials who are complicit in crimes against the citizenry, in wrongdoing, in violation of the law of the Constitution, and were doing so with impunity…if they’re not held accountable, there is actually nothing to prevent them from violating whatever new law, whatever new restriction, whatever new statute or modified statute is placed into law going forward. So, you have to be extraordinarily careful here that we don’t get into the kabuki dance of reform, where you’ve created the conditions for reform, without holding the past accountable.”

Thomas Drake and William Binney are soldiers of a different sort—civilians on the front line of American defense. Tasked by the NSA with identifying the enemy and ensuring the protection and security of the American people, Binney and Drake found their attention drawn to a most unexpected threat—the NSA itself—and vigorously pursued its egregious violations as they would any risk to American freedom. The duo undertook this challenge in service of the American public, at great personal expense. Today, Binney and Drake continue their mission of public service, touring the country and educating others on the importance of whistleblowing in maintaining constitutional integrity against overwhelming institutional despotism.

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science.  Previously, he was a columnist for the Washinton Times Communities.  Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.

Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary and critical thought about history and current affairs.