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Former NSA Employee Leaked Surveillance Details Prior to Snowden

Former NSA Employee Leaked Surveillance Details Prior to Snowden

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.


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There are cyber techs giving away personal info that any nation can use to hack our lives. Where is congress in all this? Do they know about these spyware programs and why aren‘t we protected by our reps?Are they (the reps) just inventing new forms of government that gets them reelected?
Where is Peter king in all this? Why don‘t our reps defend our privacy?

Forget Shakespeare’s Hamlet “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”, were he still with us, the U.S. would have taken that spot away from Denmark.

As to Snowden, lists are dedicated to people that are and were brilliant and highly successful without ‘higher learning credentials’.

So a suspicious mind asks why it’s important enough for us to know about these programs to send out three different people to expose the story over time… and if they’re sent out by the Agency itself.

How the Obama Administration treats these leakers will be very enlightening.

    CBS News’ John Miller reports that according to an internal State Department Inspector General’s memo, several recent investigations were influenced, manipulated, or simply called off. The memo obtained by CBS News cited eight specific examples. Among them: allegations that a State Department security official in Beirut “engaged in sexual assaults” on foreign nationals hired as embassy guards and the charge and that members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail “engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries” — a problem the report says was “endemic.”

    Two hours after CBS News made inquiries to the State Department about these charges, investigators from the State Department’s Inspector General showed up at her door.

    The reacted to this faster than they did for Benghazi

DINORightMarie | June 10, 2013 at 9:41 am

Small question on this statement in your article:

Binney, who resigned from his job at the NSA in 2001….

(emphasis mine)

Is that date/year correct?

If Binny is 32, and was a “veteran” at NSA, how could he have resigned in 2001? That was 12 years ago, when he was 20. Should it say 2011?

[…] good folks at Legal Insurrection raised an interesting point this morning. Why didn’t the prior revelations raised by William […]

“Stellar Wind” sounds like the computer virus that showed up in Iran after “Stuxnet” computer virus, but I never heard a name attached to it.
There were reports that it would look for wireless networks, USB devices and try to give them a GPS point. Over time this would help to show patterns of movement, etc.

Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11.

The man sounds like an idiot. “Golly! It got misused! Who’d’a thunk it?”

…and just because we call ourselves a democracy…

Confirmed. He’s an idiot.

Everybody should listen to the interview of Edward Snowden.

The White House is saying that they are doing nothing illegal, but Snowden is saying that there is a new system in the works that will provide the “next President” with “turnkey tyranny.”

And so why wasn’t any of this previously reported. Because until the recent small inroads, the Obama administration not only was given a total free pass by the MSM, but it slobbered and excused and advocated for him.

And also before the election, it was more important to diss Newt Gingrich for wrongs he never committed and to carry on about Mitt Romney’s dog.

Henry Hawkins | June 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Not sure if this is one of them, but there must be dozens of stories not good for the Obama regime that the MSM spiked, never reported. Now that Obama has attacked MSM journalists, perhaps they’ll get some of these back off the spike in retribution, a serving of notice as to exactly who can and has protected you – and who can also take you out.

Thank you for this post.

Sure is a good question.

The same question occurred to me back when this river of scandals began to flow directly from Obama’s (erstwhile) PR department.

Might have something to do with having blamed the CIA for Benghazi? Maybe? Possibly?

Might have something to do with a “last straw” in failing, utterly to ram through more so-called “gun-control”?? Possibly? Maybe?

Perfect Storm generated by those and other issues we’re not even aware of?

Either way, the last several weeks of turnabout in the MSM seems almost… scripted.

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[…] thought: Legal Insur­rec­tion points out that this pro­gram was reported on three months before the last elec­tion with a dif­fer­ent fel­low. For some rea­son the MSM […]

[…] Former NSA Employee Leaked Surveillance Details Prior to Snowden […]

Phone calls, purchases, employment activity, travel, financial transactions . . . what additional business about my life hasn’t been recorded – and for decades? Marketers have access to it all the time. I’m more annoyed with them than with the government whose terrorist template would cancel out on my outline.