The Thin Thread: William Binney and the NSA

In July, 2007, F.B.I. agents banged on William Binney’s door, pushed his son out of the way and demanded to know who leaked confidential information about U.S. surveillance programs to the New York Times.  Mr. Binney was just stepping out of the shower. “They went right upstairs to the bathroom and held guns on me and my wife, right between the eyes.” William Binney from “The Secret Sharer,” The New Yorker, 5/23/11 Mr. Binney was allowed to put his clothes on and they all went onto his back porch for a chat.

Here he is, the culprit. Photo NYT/Laura Poitras

What was that all about? Government spying. Think your phone calls are private?  Your electronic billing? There is a flood of fantastical material on the Internet, in books and magazines about Big Brother spying on us.  It’s hard to pick out what to be concerned about, and tempting to tune the whole thing out. What can an ordinary citizen do? Hope for the best and go back to updating Facebook?  Don’t tune out.  Ordinary citizens are about to get a peek behind the curtain, thanks in part to Mr. Binney and a few other brave whistle blowers.

William Binney worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 36 years, and was one of the best code breakers and mathematicians the NSA had.  He supervised 6000 employees who analyzed intelligence, and in the years just before 9/11 helped design a program to streamline data, making it easier to pick out communications between bad guys.  That was the idea anyway, to ferret out bad guys.

In order to comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which prohibits spying on citizens, Binney’s program encrypted data that originated in the U.S.  Unless a warrant was obtained, communications from from ordinary citizens, phone calls, e-mails, bills, etc., was protected.  Binney’s program was code-named ThinThread. It cost about $3 million.

At first (this was pre-9/11 after all), NSA worried that ThinThread, despite its protections, was too invasive of privacy. Agency officials were also concerned that it wouldn’t work on a large scale (although tests indicated it would); so, in 2002 the agency signed a $280 million agreement with defense contractors to develop another program to do the same thing.  The project was code-named Trailblazer.

In 2006 this new coding program, operation Trailblazer, was declared a flop and abandoned. It cost $1.2 billion.

Then, along came 9/11, putting the fear of God into the Bush Administration, and the might of millions of dollars from taxpayers willing to put up with anything to prevent another such horror. The NSA got the go-ahead to spy on everyone, everywhere, including U.S. citizens, without a warrant. They created an agency, called it (George Orwell would be proud) Total Information Awareness.

Binney is pretty sure the NSA revamped the ThinThread program, cut out the encryption that protected U.S. citizens, and then used the raw technology to mine data, domestic and foreign, like never before.   Private communications companies AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth got in on the act, too, and secretly opened the electronic records of U.S. citizens to the government.  Against the law, but this was an emergency, right?

Several people along the way tried to warn the Bush administration, the Supreme Court and the NSA that spying on people without a warrant is a violation of the privacy laws, but most of our leadership, it appears, was swept along in the drama and fear of the moment.

Alarmed, Binney quit his job.

The NSA barreled on, building one big “intercept center” after another as part of a monumental spying project dubbed “Stellar Wind.”  The largest of these facilities, the “Utah Data Center,” is still under construction in Bluffdale Utah.  When completed, the center will have a 10-to-the-24th yottabyte storage capacity.  (A yottabyte, reportedly named for the Star Wars character, means a unit of information equal to one quadrillion gigabytes, so we’re talking a quadrillion, quadrillion gigabytes.)  This center is scheduled for completion in Sept. 2013. Confused? Here’s a timeline:

  • Shortly after 9/11: “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) project established by the Bush Administration
  • 2002 Binney and two others signed a private complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General alleging that the NSA was wasting money on Trailblazer because an existing, less expensive prototype already existed (ThinThread). A three year investigation ensued. The final report was heavily classified. When a public report was issued, 90% of it was redacted. The complaint did not go unnoticed however. See 2006, below.
  • 2003 Congress voted to dismantle Total Information Awareness because it violates privacy rules.
  • 2004 Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that the NSA’s spying on citizens without a warrant was illegal.  The Bush administration tried to get him to change his mind a couple of days later when he was in the hospital with pancreatitis, but to no avail. Bush reauthorized the program anyway.

    March, 2004, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales paid a late night visit to John Ashcroft’s hospital room
  • 2006, the New York Times published an article reporting that the government was illegally wiretapping citizens.  The Bush Adminstration was outraged about the leak, and initiated an investigation to find the source. The F.B.I. was brought in to help.

That’s how the F.B.I. ended up at Binney’s house, and the homes of the two others who signed the 2002 complaint. It was payback time. Although Binney and the cosigners did not spill the beans to the New York Times, and apparently there was no evidence that they did, they had tried to blow the whistle on NSA waste, fraud and abuse, and if you do that, the FBI might just show up at your shower door and put a gun to your head.

Binney remembers telling the agents that if they were looking for criminal conspiracy, they should go after President Bush and NSA chief Michael Hayden for illegally wiretapping U.S. citizens.  One of the agents said that kind of thing doesn’t happen in America. Binney replied, “Oh really?”

  • 2008, Congress amended FISA to expand NSA’s authority to wiretap without warrants.

Many hoped that President Obama would put a stop to warrantless wiretapping. He has not. He has also gone after whistle blowers as aggressively as Bush did.

President Obama and his Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper

Still, the issue is winding its way through the system at its own patient pace.  At the end of this month, the Supreme Court will consider whether government has the authority to spy without a warrant on US citizens.  OK, technically, the Supreme Court is considering whether the parties who brought suit have the right to challenge the government’s spying, but  the real issue is the spying itself.  See Clapper v. Amnesty International U.S.A. In December, F.I.S.A. is due for renewal, and the amendments allowing warrantless wiretapping will be reconsidered. And Mr. Binney?  He’s retired and still living near the NSA headquarters, not far from Baltimore.  He suffers from diabetes and has lost a leg to the disease, but he decided last year to speak out publicly.  He says, the issue is “too serious not to talk about.”  On the use of his code to spy on citizens he says, “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” OK, I know the new 007 movie is due out this month, but hey, we’ve got our own national cloak and dagger going on, and it debuts at the Supreme court, just a week later.  Get out your popcorn.

Watch for Laura Poitras’ new film due out in 2013 which features Mr. Binney’s story.  Poitras recently received the MacArthur Genius award for her trilogy of films about American, post-9/11. 

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