Obama's Crackdown on Whistleblowers
James Bamford, the world’s foremost authority on the NSA, said Americans should take Binney seriously. “Remember, he was the equivalent of a general because of his rank” at the NSA, he said. “In terms of going public with their names and faces,” the NSA Four rank as the most important whistleblowers in NSA history, he added. “Obviously, I think they’re very credible.” Because of their experience in some of the NSA’s most secret programs, the NSA Four are “indispensable” to understanding the agency’s unconstitutional operations, said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the ACLU. “NSA is an extraordinarily powerful agency with sophisticated technology that is poorly understood by many experts. It operates behind a veil of secrecy that is penetrated only occasionally by whistleblowers like these.”
In 2011, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) declassified parts of its 2005 audit of Trailblazer and ThinThread, which was triggered by the NSA Four’s complaint. Its report severely admonished the NSA for “wasting” its resources on Trailblazer (the amounts are redacted). It also found that the agency had overlooked fraud and abuse and “modified or suppressed” studies that put ThinThread in a positive light.
The NSA, the Office of the Inspector General concluded, “disregarded solutions to urgent national security needs.” And in a chilling comment that foreshadowed the government’s persecution of the whistleblowers, the OIG noted twice that some of the NSAers and contractors who came forward were in great fear of retaliation. “Many people we interviewed asked not to be identified for fear of management reprisal,” it stated.
The OIG report is the government’s only public response to the extraordinary charges made by the whistleblowers. The NSA would not comment on any aspect of this story. Neither would SAIC or any of the other contractors involved with Trailblazer. Eventually, one intelligence source responded to the most serious charge, but only if promised anonymity. “Essentially, what they’re saying is that we missed 9/11,” said a former high-ranking government official with intimate knowledge of the NSA’s SIGINT capabilities. “That’s absolutely bizarre. I mean, how hard is it to prove a negative? The only way I can respond is to violate a sacred oath I take very seriously, and I won’t do that.”
In fact, none of the whistleblowers were convicted of leaking classified information. Yet all have paid dearly for speaking out. “This is all about retaliation, reprisals, revenge and retribution,” said Jesselyn Radack, the Government Accountability Project lawyer who represents the whistleblowers before the OIG. She describes the charges against Drake as ludicrous. “Tom was not charged with disclosing classified material but retaining information for possible disclosure,” she told me.
In 2010, Eric Holder’s Justice Department indicted Drake on ten felony counts, including five under the Espionage Act, based primarily on Drake’s conversations with a single reporter. Those charges were dropped in 2011 after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of exceeding the authorized use of a computer. The FBI’s investigation of the other three ended at the same time. But like Drake, they lost their security clearances and thus their ability to work in intelligence.
None of the whistleblowers have any doubt about who is responsible for the intelligence failures. “No NSA director did as much damage to the agency as Gen. Michael V. Hayden,” Binney told me. Hayden is now a principal with the Chertoff Group, the intelligence advisory company led by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. His primary job there is advising government agencies and corporations about cybersecurity, which keeps him in constant contact with the NSA. The press office at the Chertoff Group never responded to my requests to interview Hayden, so I tracked him down myself. In February, after he made an appearance at George Washington University, I asked Hayden if the NSA would have been better off not wasting “hundreds of millions of dollars” on Trailblazer and going with its in-house system, ThinThread. In his first public comments on Trailblazer since 2005, Hayden admitted that the NSA and its contractors “overreached.” The agency “outsourced how we gathered other people’s communications,” he said. “And that was a bridge too far for industry. We tried a moonshot, and it failed.” But he wouldn’t comment on ThinThread (which, as Drake wryly pointed out to me, “did get to the moon”).
Last October, at a conference on cybersecurity at the National Press Club, I asked Hayden about the whistleblowers’ charges regarding the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. At the mention of the term “whistleblowers,” he suppressed a smile. “As a former NSA director, I can tell you there is no workforce in the federal government more conscientious” about privacy and Fourth Amendment rights, he told me, avoiding any direct mention of his critics from the agency. “But that’s a trusting sort of thing, and I realize it doesn’t have much purchase in America.” The public, he added, must understand that the agency “has a problem. To be good, NSA needs to be powerful, and frankly it needs to be a bit secret.” The message was clear: people like the NSA Four should stay quiet.
But here’s the irony: Even though Trailblazer failed, the massive enterprise it created set the model for the wholesale privatization of national security work after 9/11. As I described in my 2008 book Spies for Hire, this tsunami of taxpayer largesse reached into every nook and cranny of the intelligence-industrial complex that had slowly been built over the 1980s and ’90s to service the vast CIA and Pentagon needs for surveillance, reconnaissance and advanced IT. In the end, a handful of contractors earned at least $1.2 billion from Trailblazer, and probably several billion more, since huge amounts were squeezed from other parts of the NSA, including its detachments in the Army, Navy and Air Force. “It was a feeding frenzy,” recalls Drake.
One incident in particular crystallized the greed and hubris that gripped the NSA’s top officials at the time. It happened right after the 9/11 catastrophe, when Samuel Visner, a former SAIC executive who ran Trailblazer for the agency’s SIGINT division, held a meeting with contractors working on ThinThread (one of them still works inside the NSA; he is the source for this anecdote). Now that Trailblazer was the NSA’s chosen SIGINT project, the contractors were worried that they would be cut out of the money loop. But Visner assured them that, in the wake of the attacks, their worries were gone.
“We can milk this thing all the way to 2015,” he said, according to separate accounts by Drake, Binney and Wiebe, who heard it directly from the contractor. “There’s plenty to go around.” In 2003, Visner returned to SAIC as a director of its Intelligence, Security and Technology Group. Visner is now a vice president in charge of cybersecurity policy at CSC, one of the NSA’s most valued contractors (neither CSC nor Visner would comment).
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