Obama's Crackdown on Whistleblowers
According to the whistleblowers, the 2002 intelligence budget, which was signed by President Bush, included $9 million for ThinThread and an order to Hayden to install it at eighteen sites around the world considered the most critical for counterterrorism. But the NSA, they say, defied the spending directive (ironically, considering what happened after 9/11, Hayden’s general counsel told Loomis that ThinThread did not meet the agency’s FISA requirements).
Then came the shock of 9/11. With the entire intelligence community frantically working to find who was responsible, the SARC team tried to persuade Baginski to put ThinThread into operation. “With each passing day,” Wiebe e-mailed her on October 8, “more and more information is coming out regarding the facts re what Al Qaeda is using for communications, yet the only relevant weapon in your arsenal continues to sit on the sidelines 27 days after the events of September 11.” Baginski, who is now the CEO of Summit Solutions, a contractor specializing in SIGINT interception, told me, “I’m not going to talk about it.”
But she did take action. According to Drake, Baginski approved a plan to plug ThinThread’s automated analysis system into an enormous NSA database called PINWALE that included records of thousands of cellphone calls and e-mails. They found actionable intelligence—links between individuals and organizations—that had not previously been discovered or had not been shared before 9/11. Drake, who was ThinThread’s program manager by this time, still can’t talk specifics because the information remains classified; but he insists it could have alerted US intelligence to the 9/11 plot. “And that’s what caused them to finally shut ThinThread down, because of the severe embarrassment it could have caused,” he told me.
In the weeks after the attacks, NSAers became aware that Hayden had changed the rules of engagement by throwing out the warrants required for surveillance of US persons. As the public was to learn in December 2005, when the secret wiretapping was exposed in The New York Times, the NSA was sifting through oceans of cellphone and e-mail traffic from AT&T, Verizon and other carriers. This massive data-mining program was given a secret code name: Stellar Wind. It came as a shock to many NSA employees. “People came to me and said, ‘My God, they’re pointing our system toward the United States,’” recalls Drake. For Binney, the last straw came when he learned that the graphing software he had developed for ThinThread had been attached to the NSA’s database to begin the “hot pursuit” of Al Qaeda suspects—but without the privacy restraints he and Loomis had built in. “They took the graphing software and began tracking relationships on a gargantuan scale,” he told me. “They considered it domestic intelligence.”
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On October 31, 2001, seven weeks after 9/11, Binney and Wiebe walked out the NSA’s doors for the last time. “I couldn’t take the corruption anymore,” Binney told me. Loomis left too, taking a job with a nearby contractor. In September 2002, they signed an official letter of complaint to the Pentagon OIG that was joined by Roark, the House staffer. Drake, who stayed on at the NSA until 2008, testified as a material witness. When the OIG released its report in 2005, it exonerated the whistleblowers. The NSA, it concluded, was developing a “less capable long-term digital network exploitation solution that will take longer and cost significantly more to develop” than ThinThread.
After they left the NSA, Binney, Wiebe and Loomis were granted permission to form a company and sell the analytical skills they had developed for the NSA and ThinThread to other government agencies. But they quickly found they’d been blackballed. All three told me the NSA contacted every agency approached by the whistleblowers—including the Army Intelligence and Security Command and the National Reconnaissance Office—and persuaded them not to do business with the three. “We’ve been denied untold hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential income as a result,” Wiebe told me. The three are considering a lawsuit against the NSA officials responsible. But redress is going to be difficult: in late March, Binney and Wiebe were informed by the Pentagon’s inspector general that their 2012 request for an investigation into reprisals against whistleblower and a review of their clearances had been rejected. “The alleged personnel actions occurred…over a decade ago” and are “outside the scope of whistleblower provisions”of US law, the OIG said in a letter made available by their attorney, Jesselyn Radack (Drake’s complaint is still outstanding).
Meanwhile, the NSA Four watch in grim fascination as the crackdown on whistleblowers continues, and Congress and the Supreme Court approve laws legalizing the surveillance state they’ve spoken out against. They see some hope in President Obama’s recent order extending legal protections to intelligence whistleblowers. But like other observers, they are waiting to see if its implementation will have any effect. Without real protections, they say, accountability is impossible. “When you permit something like Trailblazer and no heads roll except for the whistleblowers, what kind of message does that send to the American public?” asked Loomis.
Despite the recent setback, Binney and Wiebe remain determined to speak out against the surveillance state. “I’m trying to stir shit up,” Binney told me. “I’m hoping they charge me, because that would get me into court and I could really talk about this in the open.” Drake, for his part, has become a leading voice for civil liberties; on March 15 he delivered a powerful speech about whistleblowing at the National Press Club. Speaking in the same room where General Hayden haughtily dismissed his case last fall, he slammed a government that “prefers to operate in the shadows and finds the First Amendment a constraint on its activities.” The act of “taking off the veil of government secrecy has more often than not turned truth-tellers and whistleblowers into turncoats and traitors,” who are then “burned, blacklisted and broken by the government on the stake of national security,” he said. “And yet I was saved by the First Amendment, the court of public opinion and the free press—including the strengths and growing resilience of the alternative media.” Those rights of expression, he added, “are the very cornerstone of all our liberties and freedoms.” And that may be the most important lesson of all.
No one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy—though Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it. Read Peter Van Buren on the Obama administration’s “Protecting Torturers, Prosecuting Whistleblowers” (Sept. 11, 2012; originally on TomDispatch.com).