Why didn’t the prior revelations cause as much controversy?
On the heels of revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone and internet data of millions of Americans as part of a controversial surveillance program, the identity of the source who leaked that information was unveiled Sunday as 29-year old Edward Snowden, a Booz Allen Hamilton defense contractor working at the NSA. But a 2012 interview that’s recently resurfaced has revealed the NSA’s activities had already been leaked by another former NSA employee.
From Business Insider:
His name is William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the secretive agency, and one of the best codebreakers in NSA history — who appeared in an Aug. 2012 video shot by Laura Poitras for The New York Times.
Binney detailed a top-secret surveillance program called “Stellar Wind” — the scope of which had never been public — which tracked electronic activities, including phone calls, emails, banking, travel records, and social media, and then mapped them to collect “all the attributes that any individual has” in every type of activity and build a profile based on the data.
“So that now I can pull your entire life together from all those domains and map it out and show your entire life over time,” Binney said in the interview.
The interview with Bill Binney is interesting because it does, in fact, parallel much of what is revealed in the interview with Edward Snowden. Both interviews were directed and produced by Laura Poitras.
Binney told the New Yorker in 2011 that he believed a program he had created, called ThinThread, to streamline the process of sifting through the overwhelming amounts of data the agency was collecting, had been misused. It was intended for use in foreign surveillance operations, but was ultimately also used domestically as a component in the Stellar Wind program.
Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” According to Binney, [Thomas] Drake took his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, became a political target within the agency.
In statements as a panelist at the DEFCON hacker conference in 2012, Binney elaborated on the original intent of the programs he created, while disputing earlier claims by NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander that the agency does not collect files on Americans.
“The reason I left the NSA was because they started spying on everybody in the country. That’s the reason I left…NSA’s charter, and it was a legitimate one, was to do foreign intelligence, and I was with that all the way and I did the best I could in that job. Unfortunately, they took those programs that I built and turned them on you. And I’m sorry for that. I didn’t intend that, but they did that.”
In listening to Binney’s entire statements during that panel, the surveillance activities he described are strikingly similar to those recently revealed by Snowden.
Binney, who resigned from his job at the NSA in 2001, first came into the public eye during the case of Thomas Drake, another former NSA official, who was prosecuted for revealing much of the same information to a Baltimore Sun reporter.
Drake favored Binney’s ThinThread program over a competing contractor product called TrailBlazer, the latter of which Drake and others believed was too costly and lacked the safeguards of ThinThread. But TrailBlazer also exposed the growing scale of the agency’s surveillance reach.
From the Washington Post in 2011:
Drake and several former NSA colleagues were concerned about what they saw as corruption in the NSA’s handling of a $1.2 billion data-sifting program, Trailblazer. He was also concerned about the launch of a massive NSA program to collect without court approval Americans’ e-mails and phone calls and run them through data-mining programs, an effort that became known informally as warrantless wiretapping.
Drake was initially charged in relation to leaking classified information and a violation of the Espionage Act, but prosecutors ultimately dropped all the charges but one, and Drake plead guilty to a misdemeanor of exceeding authorized use of a computer.
Binney has continued to speak publicly about the programs since then, having appeared with media outlets on both political extremes, including Glenn Beck and Democracy Now.
The accounts of Bill Binney and Thomas Drake brought to light the scope and scale of the NSA’s surveillance activities, long before Edward Snowden came forward.
Much like the NSA activities described in both Binney’s and Snowden’s interviews with Laura Poitras, their justification for bringing the information to the public is similar as well.
From Binney’s interview:
“It needs to be out in the open. It’s a democracy and we need to say ‘do we want our government doing this or not.’ And do we want our government to have this data or not. And if so, if we want them to have it, then what kind of controls and they have to be a little bit [inaudible] visible, it can’t all be done in secret, you can’t have secret interpretations of laws and run them in secret and not tell anybody. We can’t make up kill lists and not tell anybody what the criteria is for being on the kill list.
This is something the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo would have loved to have had about their populations. So I mean, you know, and just because we call ourselves a democracy, right, doesn’t mean we will stay that way. That’s the real danger. And we the people may have absolutely nothing to say about it. We haven’t had anything to say so far.”
From Snowden’s interview:
“These things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who’s simply hired by the government…This is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs or policies are right or wrong.”
This most recent leak of classified intelligence documents has many comparing Snowden to Bradley Manning, the Army private who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010. But Snowden, while a supporter of Manning, says his own case is different.
Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden’s leaks began to make news.
“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” he said. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”
With Manning’s trial having begun just this past week, attempts to tie in the two narratives haven’t gone unnoticed. Wikileaks has been driving that narrative, and outlets like Russia Today, among others, are calling Snowden “Manning 2.0.”
Interestingly, one of the last frames in Laura Poitras’ video interview with Bill Binney thanks, among others, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.