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AUDIO: Robert Scheer Talks With William Binney About the iPhone and Blowing the Whistle on the NSA

Posted on Mar 11, 2016

  William Binney, a whistleblower and architect of key National Security Agency programs. (Jacob Appelbaum / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this week’s Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer sits down with William Binney, a former National Security Agency official turned whistleblower, to discuss the fight between Apple and the U.S. government over access to Americans’ cellphone data.

Binney spent over 30 years at the National Security Agency as a high-ranked official and left in 2002 after criticizing the agency’s system for collecting data on Americans.

In their conversation, Binney explains why he thinks the government is overreaching with Apple in its attempt to access data from a cellphone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Binney talks about how the NSA is now overwhelmed with data, doesn’t need nearly as much as it is collecting, and how there are other ways to get the data it is looking for without invading most Americans’ privacy.

Binney also discusses the ThinThread data collection system that he helped create while at the NSA, which ended prematurely, and why he believes the agency chose instead to implement the more expensive and bulky Trailblazer, later widely considered to be a failure.

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Read the transcript:

Robert Scheer: Hello, this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence, conversations with people who are actually the source of this intelligence. In the case of today’s interview, it’s with William Edward Binney, a major figure in the U.S. intelligence apparatus, where he worked for more than 30 years with the United States National Security Agency, the NSA. He developed a program for going through all sorts of data, electronic data, called ThinThread; it was considered a privacy-sensitive program, one that people thought had some great effectiveness, and yet it got trampled in the pursuit to spend more money. This was all before 9/11. And instead, a program called Trailblazer was put in, and that was not efficient. And Bill Binney blew the whistle on government waste and fraud and was visited with a stark encounter with the FBI and the threat of imprisonment. But none of that came to anything; he’s fortunately a free man today and a major commentator on security issues. Bill, are you there?

William Binney: Yes, I am. It’s good to talk with you again, Bob.

RS: Hi. Listen, what I’d like to begin with is, you know, [at] the moment Apple and Apple CEO Tim Cook are being scapegoated for endangering the national security because they would not do whatever the FBI wanted in breaking their encryption code and providing access to one of these San Bernardino killers. What do you make of this whole controversy? Is it real? Is it, does our national security require breaking into our personal codes on our phone, and what’s your assessment?

WB: Yeah, first of all, I think the FBI got into the phone and changed the password and they messed it up in the process, [Laughs] and so they’re asking Apple to fix up their mistake. So, but that’s part of the problem; the real issue, though, is they want Apple to generate software that would let them go into the phone and basically figure out, do a mass attack and get the password to break in and get all the data off the phone. The problem with that is—and this is in the background—it’s really NSA and GCHQ and other intelligence agencies that want this to happen. Because what they’ve done over the years if they’ve—and recently, I think it came out a few months ago about the theft of SIM cards from a manufacturer in the Netherlands; they were stealing billions of SIM cards every year. What that means is they have, now, the little cards that you insert into your computers and phones that give you, identify you and also give you access codes. So in other words, by having that information they can access your device wherever you are, and they work worldwide. So if Apple did that, and put that code together and gave it to the government or got hacked by some other government or some hacker or something, and the code got out, then those people could access any device, any iPhone in the world anywhere through the network and attack it. So really, the whole idea here is that the FBI wants to know everything about you, and you’re not supposed to know anything about them. Now, as I recall, you know, back when our founders created this nation, I mean, I thought the whole idea was the reverse relationship was supposed to be [Laughs] what we had. That is, we were supposed to know what our government was doing on our behalf, and they were supposed to not know what we were doing unless they had probably cause to do so.

RS: Well, you know, it’s interesting you bring up the founders. Because the cheap argument that’s made by the national security establishment, in terms of security, is that the founders never faced threats that we do today. And it’s an argument that I personally find absurd; I mean, the founders, the people who wrote in the protections of the Fourth Amendment and the other amendments, you know, had just fought a war against the powerful crown of England; they would be attacked again by that same crown; they had other enemies around the world. And here was this struggling little enterprise in self-rule in the colonies, and they knew that if things went wrong, they would be hanging from the nearest tree. And yet they enshrined these protections saying, why? Because power corrupts, and even though they were going to be the power in the new government, they were worried about their own corruption by it, and they wanted the citizens to be armed against their own lying and distortion. And we get, now, we’re the most powerful nation in the world—you know that; you worked in the military ever since you were a young Pennsylvania State University graduate. You were drafted during the Vietnam era; you’ve worked in analysis and code-breaking, you know, going way back to 1965. And I think you would recognize, as I do, that this government now that spends almost the same amount as the rest of all of the world’s nations on national security is certainly in a far, far stronger position than the founders were. And maybe, you know, no government has ever been more secure, and yet they claim we can’t afford the freedoms that the founders enshrined.

WB: Yeah, that’s true. In fact, if the capacity that they had to spy on people existed back then, our founders wouldn’t have made it to first base. [Laughs] They would have been picked up right away. So, but the real point is, and one of the reasons why we have successful terrorist attacks both here and around the world, is because they’re taking in too much data. What that means is, their analysts are so buried in the data that they can’t figure out any threats. This has been published by The Intercept in May of 2015, they published an article where they were listing different—and they had the backup documents for the articles written by NSA analysts, inside NSA—this was Edward Snowden’s material. And some of the titles of it were, “killed by overflow,” or “data is not intelligence,” you know, and “buried in intercept,” and you know, all kinds of things. The “praising not knowing,” and things like that; all talking about analysts can’t figure things out because there’s too much they’re asked to do. In other words, the—

RS: Too much hay has been [collected]—you can’t find the needle—

WB:—exactly, yeah, exactly. But the consequence of that, Bob, is people have to die first before they find out who committed the crime. Then they focus on them, and they can do real well. But if you’ve noticed, every time that’s happened, they’ve always said, oh, yeah, we knew these people were bad people, and we had data on and information on them, and they were targets. Well, if that was true, why didn’t you stop them? You should have been focusing on them, instead of looking at everybody on the planet.

RS: Well, you know, that’s an important point you make that people very often ignore or don’t know about. Every single one of these cases, whether it’s the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, whether it’s the Boston marathon, whether it’s the nineteenth hijacker in San Diego of the 9/11, who was living at an FBI informant’s home and was clearly on the radar of both the FBI and the CIA. In every one of these situations, the perps were known. They were known. So it wasn’t a question—it was a question, really, of not—not that you didn’t have enough access; you had plenty of access, you just didn’t do the old-fashioned police work of knocking on the door or checking out where they are. And I want to, the reason I wanted to talk to you about this thing—this whole magic land of encryption—is that the FBI, when it wants to break into the system, forgetting that the lessons we had under—they’re speaking from the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, and people should be reminded, it’s the same J. Edgar Hoover, when he was head of the FBI, who tried to destroy Martin Luther King, and planted false information on him, and was tracking him all the time. So we know that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI have been symbols of major intrusion on freedom. But it’s interesting, their argument that comes back is oh, you don’t know how bad the enemy is, how devious they are, and we need—what did they say? Apple is acting as some kind of a terrible watchdog and not letting us at the code. You have been one of the pioneers in encryption; you’re a mathematician, you know all about breaking codes, you know all about protecting people’s freedom. And you’ve been inside the belly of the beast, if you like; you’ve spent most of your life in the national security establishment, and you’ve been praised at having functioned at a very high level, and being one of the most effective in understanding encryption and code-breaking and so forth. What do you make of this current attack on Apple, that their effort to protect their consumers, which they have to do all over the world because they’re in China, they’re in Egypt, they’re everywhere—what do you make of the argument that Apple has prevented the FBI from doing its work?

WB: Well, I just think that’s a false issue. I mean, very simply, they could go into the NSA bases, which they have direct access to, and they can go in and query the data that they want out of those bases. I mean, or they could go into any of the ISPs, telecommunications companies, and get the data there. Or they can actually go into the, scrape the cloud, the Apple cloud that they use as a backup. So there’s many ways they can do that; I mean, other than that, they could give the phone to NSA and let them hack it. You know? Or, for example, they can copy the phone thousands of times and just start trying things, and do a brute force over thousands of copies. You know, there’s any number of ways they can do things; they just, they want to make it easy on themselves, and they want to claim a false issue to get everybody to believe what they’re telling them.

RS:  Well, that’s the real threat here; that’s the Orwellian threat. I mean, here’s Apple basically saying, look, we can’t function as a multinational corporation selling these phones around the world if we let you guys crack our encryption codes in this really, basically, minimal protection of the privacy of individuals. They’re going to want to do it in China and then, you know, they’re going to want to do it everywhere else where we sell phones, so you know, we have to be loyal—this is the great obligation and, indeed, contradiction of being a multinational corporation; you have to protect your consumers all around the world from their governments. Therefore, you can’t let your government just, you know, go willy-nilly into the codes. And yet those of us who have not spent our life as you have dealing with encryption, dealing with code-breaking, dealing with secrecy, tend to be intimidated by the argument that when Apple does this, they are preventing the FBI from doing its work. And you’re basically saying that’s, that’s nonsense.

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