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Three Men Who Wouldn’t Let the NSA Get Away With It

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Posted on Nov 30, 2012
David Orban (CC-BY)

By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law

The trial of former CIA agent and whistle-blower John Kiriakou has prompted many Americans to strongly criticize the Obama administration and its lack of oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies. Kiriakou, who uncovered the torture program that was started under President Bush and continued under President Obama, will face 30 months in jail and lose his government pension. Since his trial began in April, whistle-blowers such as Kirk Wiebe and William Binney, both of whom worked at the National Security Agency and then left because of mismanagement and corruption, have warned that intelligence agencies are abusing the Constitution and lavishing private companies with expensive contracts in exchange for subpar data processing and analysis systems. 

Kiriakou, Wiebe and Binney, who were each presented with a Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., said that the intelligence community cares more about protecting itself and its interests than those of the public.

The NSA, for example, has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars over the past 10 years according to Wiebe, Binney and several other former NSA employees who have blown the whistle on the agency’s financial mismanagement. Spending at the NSA, they said, increased significantly after the 9/11 attacks without much regulation. The agency used the period of fear after the attacks, these whistle-blowers said, to inflate its budget and arrange high profits for corporate friends. The waste, they charged, hampered significant programs and bloated inefficient ones.

The agency wants “to fix big things with big dollars and big business,” Wiebe said over the phone.

Wiebe was a part of a group that oversaw the design of a data processing and analysis system for the NSA that worked more effectively than the system that was outsourced to the private sector. But because of the cozy relationship between corporations and the government, he says, the less efficient and more expensive private system was adopted.

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“It’s a shame that the NSA didn’t adopt the information it had at its disposal,” he said referring to a program for which he advocated called ThinThread.

Wiebe left the NSA after a dispute that began with the implementation of the private system called Trailblazer, which was designed a year before 9/11. The agency decided to adopt the private industry’s system over ThinThread, a program made with commercial, off-the-shelf equipment.

He says that the agency refused to use the program because it had committed to Trailblazer and didn’t want to walk away from such a large expenditure. Although ThinThread was a cheaper and better processing system, it did not have the capacity to generate profits for corporate donors.

“The more money you have as an intelligence agency,” said fellow whistle-blower Ed Loomis, “the more prestige you have. ... It’s the military-intelligence-industrial-complex. Congress approves the wasteful spending because all they want to do is get re-elected. They owe political favors to private sector campaign donors and thus open doors within the intelligence community to satiate their business interests. It’s just incestuous.”

A year after the World Trade Center had been attacked, Wiebe, Loomis and other NSA employees, including Binney and Thomas Drake, filed complaints to Congress and the Department of Defense Inspector General. In the complaints, they charged that the agency failed to prevent the attacks because of internal mismanagement and wasteful spending on flawed intelligence systems.

“The idea of intelligence is to prevent disaster, not to analyze it after the fact,” Wiebe said. The corruption, he said, was directly tied to the loss of life on 9/11. 

Because most of the work of the NSA is classified, it is impossible for outside auditors to inspect the intelligence agency. A report comparing Trailblazer to ThinThread was released to the public after 98 percent of its content had been blacked out, blocking any outside comparison. There are no accurate estimates of spending within the agency. And the names of data systems, such as Trailblazer and ThinThread, can be made public only by the NSA.

Wiebe and Binney remained with the NSA until the agency started using components of their program ThinThread to spy on Americans illegally. The agency, which was created in 1949 to intercept foreign communications that would put Americans in danger, was, they said, increasingly monitoring the phone calls, emails and Web browsing of U.S. citizens. The expansion of domestic surveillance, they said, is slowly strangling our democracy. The Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of whistle-blowers, unmatched in scope by any other administration in history, has been working to discourage whistle-blowers such as Wiebe, Loomis, Binney and Drake from exposing government malfeasance. (This may change under the new whistle-blower protection laws that Obama signed Tuesday.)

The NSA, Binney suspects, cannot yet replicate the program he designed with Loomis, which was able to automatically select important information. Now, he says, agents have to enter what they’re looking for manually. The search bar technique, he says, doesn’t work well for agents because of different languages, unorganized results and unknown code words.

If the NSA, one day, is able to replicate his program, Binney fears that the agency will abuse it as it abused its powers after 9/11. He said that the KGB would have been delighted to have this automated system.

“This is the greatest threat to our constitutional form of government,” Binney said about increased government surveillance. “Something the terrorists could never have done, we have done to ourselves. If we don’t do something to reverse these trends I fear we’ll slowly lose our rights and freedoms and slide into a totalitarian state.”

This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.


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