Empire Files: NSA Whistleblower: Government Collecting Everything You Do

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Abby Martin interviews former Technical Director of the National Security Agency, Bill Binney, who blew the whistle on warrantless spying years before Edward Snowden released the evidence. They discuss the US empire’s mass surveillance program and dangers of the Intelligence Industrial Complex.

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Today, the mass surveillance of all Americans by the US government and its corporate partners is a totally normalized reality. Despite its widespread acceptance, it is an outrageous, blatant violation of our constitutional rights.

It’s difficult to ascertain how the “chilling effect” of dragnet spying has changed society in the post 9/11 world.

However, many insiders in the intelligence community understood the dangers of these programs from the beginning.

Edward Snowden is celebrated as a hero for bringing proof of NSA’s mass spying and bulk collection to the world.

But years prior, Bill Binney had blown the whistle on this very same program. A 36-year NSA veteran, Bill Binney was the technical director, responsible for developing and overseeing the agency’s spying technology.

He even developed Thin Thread, the data monitoring program that was later hijacked by the Bush administration to implement widespread warrantless surveillance.

Mounting pressure caused Obama to pass the USA Freedom Act in 2015, which only outsourced it’s bulk acquisition to telecom companies, using the secretive FISA court as an intermediary.

And nearly 20 years after 9/11 these unaccountable agencies are using new fears, like of Russian cyber-warfare, to grow their power and operations.

I caught up with Binney in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, where he received the Allard Prize for International Integrity, to talk to him about blowing the whistle and the fight against the surveillance state today.


Abby Martin:   So you were the technical director at the NSA for many, many years. Talk about what you were trying to do with the creation of THIN THREAD.

Bill Binney:    It was basically to try to solve technical problems that the analysts were having. There were about six thousand analysts involved in analyzing all the data from all the countries in the world. So, the biggest problem I saw was the basically ballooning information from the digital world.

The point was there was too much data, even back then in the nineties, when there wasn’t anywhere near the capacity they have now to collect data.

So even then they were buried. I mean they got ten, to twenty or thirty thousand items every day from the day’s take. They’d start through them – if they ran into something they had to report they’d go report it and stop. Then at the end of the day they’d leave and all the rest of it wasn’t looked at. So then the next day came in, the same, another twenty thousand or so items came down on them to look at. So they started the same process again. So even internally in the NSA they were saying ‘we are over burdened by overload’.

I said ‘Well, if you look at the data itself, you’re doomed. Because there’s just too much of it’. So the metadata was the key to be able to pull out what was relevant and let the rest of it simply go by and don’t let your analysts look at it. Just don’t take it in.

AM:     And the haystack just keeps getting bigger, Bill. I mean give us a sense of how much data we’re talking about in 2019.

BB:    Probably a couple of petabytes a day. Which is like a million terabytes.

AM:    Several billion messages, right?

BB:    I think they were getting all the emails, so yes it was about 90 billion a day for emails alone. I mean I estimated 12 billion phone calls in a day. About 3 billion in the US alone. And by the way, I did have evidence of them using transcription algorithms to transcribe the phone calls, which meant they could do millions and millions and millions of them. And then they used algorithms to go through the transcripts.

AM:   So they’re actually doing transcriptions?

BB:   Yeah. And then refer it to humans to transcribe. They have like two thousand, (they’ve had since 2002 or 2003), about two thousand transcribers at Fort Gordon, Georgia, that they refer them to. All these calls are indexed by number and they can call up any number and then listen to it.

AM:   THIN THREAD was in direct competition to TRAIL BLAZER of course, the program that former NSA director Michael Hayden was shopping around to private intelligence firms. Why did they go with this program, Bill, considering the encryption that was available within THIN THREAD, and the fact that it was far cheaper?

BB:   The basic things they removed from THIN THREAD before they used it to create STELLAR WIND, the filtering up front. We were selecting based on the deductive, inductive, and abductive criteria for looking at people either as known, or suspected terrorists, or criminals of any sort. Dope smuggling, all of that. So, the filtering then just let everything else go by. That’s not what Cheney wanted. Cheney wanted everything. That way he had knowledge about everybody.

So that filtering was removed. So, everything came in. And then beyond that, if we pulled you in and you weren’t known to be a terrorist and they didn’t have a warrant on you, we encrypted your attributes so that nobody could tell who you were, even inside NSA.

So, the FBI couldn’t come into the NSA database to randomly search for crimes by known persons because it wasn’t equivalent, you know, it was an encrypted version. So, we were protecting the identities even at that point.

But the final one was the real kicker for them. That was the one that basically analyzed the network log, and when we said that we would monitor all of this and keep track of all of it and show a return on investment.

Management in NSA said, ‘you mean Congress could come in and see all this and know what we’re doing?’. And we said sure they could do that. There answer was you are never going to do this.

So we did it secretly in the lab and incorporated it back into THIN THREAD and that was another thing they got rid of. Because they didn’t want anybody to know what they were doing.

So, getting rid of the filtering they took in everything, getting rid of the encryption meant they knew who everybody was and getting rid of the auditing program meant that no one could find out what they’re doing.

AM:   And this was a fire sale, kind of opening it up to private intelligence firms to capitalize on TRAIL BLAZER not THIN THREAD, because it was far more expensive. What was the incentive, though, because this was before the fire sale that opened up after 9/11?

BB:    The CEO of QUEST, Joe Nacchio, was approached in late February of 2001, six months before, seven months before 9/11, to turn over all the data on all his customers. And the person, they were from NSA to do that. So, this is like, the intent is there to collect data on US citizens and everybody and bulk acquisition was their motive. And the reason was because in order to do that it’s going to cost an arm and a leg.

AM:    How many other companies are we talking about here and how much money are we talking about here?

BB:   Well my estimate of the budget for NSA is around 15 billion dollars a year and that means – about 70 % of that goes to the companies, for contracts.

AM:   So we’re talking about 75 % or so that’s outsourced.

BB:   Yeah. Yeah and I think it’s grown. The outsourcing has grown even further since I left.

AM:    I’m sure it has. In WATCHDOGS DIDN’T BARK, immediately after 9/11, it tells the story about you and your colleague. Your colleague was told by higher-ups at the NSA to not embarrass large companies affiliated with the intelligence failure, and that ‘if you do your part – you’ll earn your share’, and saying that they could ‘milk the cow’ for fifteen years. Now Bill this seems like a very odd thing to say in the immediate wake of the most devastating terrorist attack on US soil.

BB:   Well you see the focus is on getting money and that’s the reason they say those kinds of things. It’s not to fix the problem. The point is to keep the problem going so they keep asking for more money.

AM:    There wasn’t a moment of reckoning?

BB:    Not among greedy people. No. That includes the management of NSA.

AM:    I mean, what was your response to this.

BB:    My response is testimony, in various places, that they traded the security of the people of the United States and the free world for money.

I mean they still have the same problem. They haven’t changed a thing. So, what it means to everybody in the world is people keep dying from these attacks that they could stop. I mean look at every attack that’s happened. Every one is basically done by people who are already known to be bad. Well the issue is why aren’t you focusing on them and reduce your problem and get rid of all the other people in the world.

AM:   Paint the scenario that you’re talking about. About preventing terrorism with the 9/11 attacks. You talk about how THIN THREAD could have prevented this. You were looking at these centers in late December 2000.

BB:    Right. Before 9/11, yeah.

AM:   So, elaborate on that.

BB:  That’s why I came up with the vision statement for all these companies working for NSA. They all fail, to some degree, on every program so they can keep it going. So, originally I thought their vision statement was, ‘aim low and miss’. Because they failed at everything. But it really is, ‘Keep the Problem Going so the Money Keeps Flowing’.

AM:  Let’s talk about just about one center, the Yemen facility that the hijackers were communicating with. This was a heavily monitored facility from the NSA. What went wrong there?

BB:   Again, you know, I can’t really explain it. I mean all that data was in the NSA data as it happened. So. And this is what (General) Alexander says. We could not tell who it was in the US. That’s false. That’s in the data that the analyst gets to see. That’s a minimalization process that occurs when he pulls the data. The real data is all in the collection database, and that data was there, and it was the people in San Diego.

AM:   And one of them was a perpetrator of the USS Cole bombing.

BB:   Yeah. And in fact we knew those people before they, you know, I mean we knew the entire Al Qaeda network worldwide from about 1996 on. So, if NSA didn’t want to publish anything that I thought was important to get to people in any agency, I used what was called the gray phone, you know, it’s the encrypted line. I would just call somebody on it, and just tell them – ‘this is happening’. So, I would go around it.

AM:   Why did no one do that?

BB:   See, that’s the real problem. That’s why a lot of people at NSA were really depressed after it because they knew that what they did not do, contributed to the failure. At the working level they couldn’t understand management not wanting to report things.

AM:   And at that point Bill, I mean after 9/11 of course you and your colleagues had to make a choice. You had to make a choice to protect the constitution against the government that you were serving for decades. Talk about what you did. You went to your management and you described the scenario. You ended up resigning in disgust.

BB:   When I first learned about the spying on everybody in the country, US and Canada and then spreading to the world. When I first learned about that was the second week in October of 2001. That’s when we saw all this equipment coming in and they were moving it down the hall. When they were setting it up and then starting to take in data, it was about the second week in October.

See they had to use our software to do it because they couldn’t manage large scale data inputs. So, we had the only program that worked.

AM:    They still needed you!

BB:    But they didn’t want me to know because they knew I would never put up with this. You know, this is not something I would be quiet about. And I wasn’t alone. Most of the people in leadership in [SART?] were people, – were straight laced people – you obey the constitution; you follow the law. It’s all of that.

And so, they did this down the hall from us separately and they were building it up, and then they started using our contractor to set up the software, take the inputs and started running.

 And then when they did that one of the contractors came to me and said ‘you know what they’re doing down there. Their taking in all the data on US citizens.’ Everything that AT&T has they’re taking in. All the transmissions and calls – to, from, duration, date, time – all that. So, all that was being taken in and that’s a direct violation f the fourth and first amendments – the constitution.

AM:   So, what happened when you guys resigned? Why did you make that final decision?

BB:   Three of us, Ed Loomis, Kirk Wiebe and I, were already eligible for retirement, so we retired real quickly, you know. ‘Course I went directly Diane Roark on the House Intelligence Committee. So, she managed all the write ups of all the money requests from NSA and all the programs and everything.

So, I went there, and I said you know what they’re doing here, taking in all this data and she said that’s obviously a violation of the constitution And my assumption was very simple. Hayden would never have done that unless he had approval from higher up – meaning the White House.

It made sense to me at the time that Cheney, being the Vice President, was directing this, and with the approval of Bush. And Bush said, ‘Cheney you take over’, but the problem is he took a lot a lot of people with him and now they’re… he took a lot of countries with him now, so they’re all doing this. And it’s all fundamentally violating their constitutional human rights issues.

AM:   We’ve gone so far with the bulk acquisition it seems impossible to start to roll it back.

BB:   Actually, that’s not true. You un-fund them. When you cut their budget, they can’t do it.

AM:   Yeah, but isn’t there a kind of intelligence-security complex that’s – you can argue that it’s just operating on its own?

BB:   I call it the Praetorian Guard. Those who want to manage who is President and leader and what they do. They can control what they do by simply modifying, selecting, only certain information and making it available to them. It kind of gives them the ideas – what would give the President the idea of doing this? So, you select the data that would influence him in making a decision to do that.

AM:   In 2007 Bill, the FBI raided your home alongside colleague Kirk Wiebe. What was that experience like for you guys and were you surprised at the aggressiveness of the response?

BB:   Yeah well, I was in the shower at the time and they broke in and pushed my son out of the way at gun-point, came up and pointed guns at my wife, came in the shower and pointed guns at me. And I said, ‘why am I a threat?’

So the point was, and I’m pretty sure that Attorney General Gonzales sent them there to keep us quiet because he’d just testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the President’s terrorist surveillance program where he only talked about the tapping of phones when someone in the US is talking to a foreigner.

That was the part they talked about. They didn’t talk about any of the rest of it which was total bulk acquisition of everything that everything  every US citizen does on the internet, on the phone network, and in financial transactions. Anything in financial transactions. Credit card use – everything. So, all that they didn’t talk about.

They were afraid. They knew we had experience of going to committees in the Congress. They didn’t want that to happen and so Gonzales said, ‘you better hit them now’, and so they did.

AM:    They were desperate.

BB:    Yeah. They were. They wanted to keep this out of court – no public exposure on the surveillance program so – concoct something about it. And they were doing that to us two, and they tried three separate times to indict us.

At the same time I was accumulating evidence of malicious prosecution on the part of the [Department of ?] Justice and, also the FBI. When it came time to do that I got the information to them that I was preparing to charge them with malicious prosecution when they took us to court for this fabricated conspiracy charge they were manufacturing.

AM:   The NSA says that none of this data that you’re talking about is used maliciously against US citizens. Talk about why that’s not true and, also the parallel construction, of retroactive framing of how you can use this.

BB:   When they say that, they’re speaking for analysts in NSA. That’s the only people they’re speaking for. But they don’t tell you that they left taps in for CIA and FBI and DEA, and they also didn’t tell anybody that the FIVE EYES, GCHQ in Britain, Canadians, Australians and New Zealand also had direct access to that database.

This is the collection of bulk acquisition of data all piled into the, I assume it’s all basically in the Utah 1 million square foot storage facility. And they (have) direct access to interrogate it and that’s all done without any oversight whatsoever. And then they use it against Jim Rosen, the Associated Press and…

AM:   So, they have already used this data to spy on activist groups and whistle blowers and groups like Occupy Wall Street?

BB:   Right. And reporters of all sorts.

AM:   They’re already using it and the DEA has access, all these other agencies have access. And, also what you and Snowden have frequently talked about, which is the retroactive prosecutorial aspect of this.

BB:   Yes. That’s the next step. Once you’ve got the data and access to it, you can search, target people. For example, if you get a tip from the streets – somebody’s a dope dealer – go into this data and look at everything that person’s doing, assemble evidence for prosecution, and you could say ‘go arrest these people’.

So that’s the way they originally arrest people. Then, when it comes to going to a criminal court, they actually do the parallel construction. Which means they use standard policing techniques to look for data that will implicate them in the crime. And it helps that they know where the data is.

AM:   But they pretend it’s not from the NSA that they acquired it?

BB:   Right. They substitute that for the NSA data in a court of law and say here’s the evidence we used to prosecute them, or to arrest them. That’s basic perjury. And this is policy of the Department of Justice of the United States.

And they use the two-hop principle that Obama thought was really the way to do it. We told him it wasn’t. He needed to add some restrictions. Because it meant that, like if I called Google, that’s one hop, or if I got into email with Google. That’s one hop. The next hop is Google out.

That’s to 1.5 billion people a day, roughly. So, within a few days you had virtually everybody in the network on. So that means you can spy on anybody.

NSA was happy with that. Once NSA is happy you know there’s something wrong. It’s real simple.

AM:   Bill, we didn’t hear much about Vault Seven and the Wikileaks revelation about that. The CIA spying apparatus that’s potentially more unaccountable than the NSA. Talk about how far reaching that is.

BB:   Actually, I think what they had in Vault Seven was a contribution from NSA and GCHQ and the other FIVE EYES combined.

‘Here’s all our attacks. See what you can do with it’. And they may have developed some of their own by actually capturing them from foreign countries.

The ability – once you acquire it – to manipulate it, change it, make it look like someone else is doing a hack or something like that. It was a set of programs that would allow them to make it look like the Russians did it, or the Chinese.

All those kinds of things are possible too. They could even go in and attack your computer, look into your files and change and modify what you have there. So, they can make it look like you’re guilty of any crime.

AM:   Before Snowden’s revelations, before 9/11, Americans had a different mentality, where we had the memory of the Stasi, Nazi Germany. Where you could ask people – (they’d say) Oh God I’d never support something like that. Right?

Why this mainstream complacency, the mantra now where, ‘I have nothing to hide, so why should I have anything to fear?’.

BB:   The great quote from Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler. You know? Those are great quotes. That’s exactly how totalitarian states operate.

That’s the point. This is a totalitarian based slide. This is where we’re going. I think they’ve done it by basically generating fear in the population. The fear that something‘s going to happen unless they do this. When in fact we knew that was a fraud from the beginning. You don’t have to give up any privacy to have security.

AM:   Let’s move on to the allegations of Russian hacking into Podesta’s email account and the DNC. Can you first go over the evidence that Mueller claims to have to prove that it’s Russia?

BB:   Well you see I really don’t (know) of any evidence that Mueller has because he never made it public. The only evidence I have is what’s made public and from that it went into the Rosenstein indictment, the Guccifer 2.0 and DC leaks data. And they talked about that, the evidence for the indictments and so on.

They claimed that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian. But the time stamps that we have on the programing inside the data that was published by Guccifer 2.0, shows time stamps that are consistently inside the United States.

But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is with the data itself and how quickly it was downloaded. I was incompatible with a transfer across the net to anywhere, over any distance. If it went beyond the high-speed line that you had dedicated to you then it slowed down.

AM:   Explain that in layman’s terms. Why you think this was an inside leak as opposed to a hack.

BB:   OK. Well the fastest download speed that we had was a 49.1 Megabyte rate. Which meant that the hacker was taking the data out at that rate across the network, wherever they were, they could be local, they could be anywhere.

So, we said, ‘OK, what is the capacity of the lines going across to Europe?’ And at that point everything failed. You couldn’t get it across that fast. But you could do a thumb drive, or something local.

Some of our people disagreed with that. They said they thought it could. So, we said OK we’re going to try it. So, we got hacker friends in Europe and a friend in the US trying to put up a Gigabyte of data and said, ‘Here try to pull it across. See how fast you can get it’. And the fastest they could get was from a data center in New Jersey to the UK, in London. And that was 12.0 Megabytes/sec. Less than one fourth the necessary capacity to transmit the data alone.

AM:   What about the time stamps? Do you think that Russia could have been throwing off analysts by planting false time stamps?

BB:   Well, first of all, you have to understand the massive surveillance that’s involved. Everything is captured – by NSA. So, NSA should have some of that evidence somewhere, and they have failed to come forward.

Even in the Intelligence Community Assessment, (that Russia hacked it), the NSA had moderate confidence.

AM:    Right. What does that mean?

BB:    That means, we have no evidence.

AM:   Because the other intelligence agencies said they had confidence, but the NSA said they had moderate confidence.

BB:   But you see they aren’t relevant. When it comes to communications, NSA is the only one that matters. The rest of them don’t.

AM:   And did they explain what the moderate confidence that they had meant?

BB:    No. To me that’s language for ‘I have no evidence.’

AM:   So, look. I wanted to get this out of the way because it’s always interested me. Because you claim that British diplomat Craig Murray corroborates this. That he claims that he handed over a drive to someone.

BB:   Well. He talked to somebody who was involved in transferring the data.

AM:   So, he himself talked to someone.

BB:   Even from the forensic evidence based on the Wikileaks exposure of data that they published, there were multiple ways that they got it.

AM:   And who else has corroborated your findings?

BB:   A number of technical people. People in the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and others – around the world, by the way.

AM:   You’re not hesitant to call people in the US government criminals, co-conspirators. Are there any enforcement bodies that are still doing their job and following the constitution at this point?

BB:   Ah, actually it’s getting hard to find them. Even the Rutherford Institute, looking at the application of law around the world – local and state people – are seeing the idea that they have scrapped the Fourth Amendment, in terms of arresting and searching people and things like that.

AM:   What about the CIA? Should that agency be abolished?

BB:   (Laughs) – Actually I think they do perform a function that’s meaningful to keep. But the rest of it, sure, there’s a big chunk of it that should be eliminated. So for NSA, also.

I think we can cut the intelligence budget, which is probably over 100 Billion Dollars a year – and they’re really trying to defend us? But have failed every time an attack occurs.

AM:   As you mentioned there’s barely anyone in Congress who has a different view on foreign policy, on curbing the surveillance state, curbing the police state.

What is going on here? Why is no one able to see what we’re seeing, Bill?

BB:   Well because were not members of the military-intelligence complex or the shadow government. We’re not members of that.

Everybody in that environment is in their own bubble.

AM:   Everyone in Congress?

BB:   A good many of them, yes. You must at all costs protect the program. Because if you don’t we lose power control and, eventually money.

AM:   I know that you said you don’t link up to wireless networks and surveillance technology but, what do you say to the audience who just feels completely disillusioned at this point, saying ‘look, we have to incorporate some of our lives on line’, what are they supposed to do?

BB:   It’s a matter of, don’t put anything out there that you don’t want someone else to read.

AM:   But even speak, at this point.

BB:   That too. That too. Don’t say anything you don’t want anyone else to hear.

AM:   That’s a pretty stark reality, isn’t it?

BB:   Now, I say everything because I want them to hear. Because I want them to know what I’m going to do in court.

AM:   But what about people who want to protect their privacy?

BB:   Then you invent your own encryption. And don’t pass it through [NISS?] because then the NSA will have it. So, you don’t use anything publicly because they’ve already got that.

AM:   The encryption methodologies that are available now – the NSA was involved in constructing themselves.

BB:   They also know the algorithms, all of them, they have the software for it. Because it has to run through NISS to do testing. They do the testing and then they approve it for public use.

So, I say, ‘hey, if you’re talking to your little community, make your own encryption.’ You’re not doing this publicly, we’re just doing it amongst ourselves. That would cause them a real problem.


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