NSA Whistleblower Speaks Out on Verizon, PRISM, and the Utah Data Center
Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with William Binney, a former employee with the NSA who after over 30 years with the agency quit and became a whistleblower, bringing to light many of their illegal activities and mass surveillance of American citizens.
Libertas Institute: Please describe your work experience with the NSA.
William Binney: For approximately 28 years, I was primarily involved in breaking codes and dealing with ciphers and data systems and solving those, and working with data, trying to do threat assessment with all of that data that we had.
After a while, I became the Technical Director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group. What that meant was that I had to expand my thinking around the world, and the major problem was data with the web and everything. That’s when I started designing programs to handle that information and be able to select out what was important and what wasn’t.
Then I started implementing those programs, and NSA took those programs and started to direct in domestic data. When they did that, that’s when I left. I couldn’t be a party to that.
LI: What actions has the government taken as a result of your whistle-blowing activities?
WB: They blackballed us for no work, they raided our homes, they tried to frame us three different times on charges. The fortunate part was that I found data that showed evidence of malicious prosecution, so they backed off all of that. If they hadn’t, they would have been exposed in court.
LI: Why do you suppose that they took those retaliatory actions against you?
WB: I was among another five people who were really complaining about NSA. Under the regulations for employment with the government, you’re required to report fraud, waste, and abuse. And that’s to be done to the Inspector General at the Department of Defense. So that’s what we did.
Specifically, with a program called “trailblazer“, they were wasting a billion dollars on that program, when all the issues with it have already been solved, and we had been part of that solution.
LI: But why retaliate? Because they were so invested in the outcome of the project?
WB: Yes, and all the companies that were involved in it. They all had a vested interest in keeping it going.
LI: Just three months ago, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee that the NSA does not collect any type of data on millions of Americans. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines also claimed that the “NSA is not an indiscriminate vacuum, collecting anything and everything.” This week’s leaks suggest that is completely false. Why do you think they lied?
WB: They’re eating crow right now. Those are lies. Those are just outright lies. Obviously they are, with that court order. They’re scooping up the metadata of everything, and the PRISM program is a scoop up of actual content. Emails, video, photographs, all of that—that’s content. So they’re collecting all of it, and it’s a big vacuum. So you know, those are just outright lies.
LI: Do you think there is a pattern of deceit within the intelligence community? Are these lies representative of more lies being fed to the public?
WB: Oh yes. I call it techno-babble. They’re outright lying to the public and are trying to hide it. That’s why everything’s a secret interpretation or secret decision. You know, and now they’re all eating crow in public. The point is that they never had to do it from the beginning. There were ways and means that I had showed them how to do it while protecting U.S. citizens. You could do that, and find all the bad guys in the world and not have to violate the constitutional rights of everybody.
LI: So why didn’t they follow your advice?
WB: Well, because they wanted to have leverage on everybody in the country, okay? That’s what Cheney wanted to do. I’m sure that was the issue. Do you want to know who’s in the tea party, and then tell the IRS who to target? Or things like that. Those are all possible things using these programs.
LI: With the Verizon leak this week, do you think that’s an isolated event, or indicative of a whole lot more?
WB: That court order was 13-80. The 80th order of just this year. It’s been going on a long time.
LI: The second leak this week was about PRISM, where the NSA appears to tap directly into Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies’ servers to access whatever data they want without a warrant. What is your knowledge of, or thoughts regarding, this program?
WB: I just saw the report, and I wasn’t aware of that program. But I figured it was going on, because they were just another source of input of information. The telecoms were giving NSA access to their communication lines. The Narus devices that the NSA put in different rooms around the AT&T fiber-optic network, or Verizon’s network, couldn’t collect everything. They could get most of it, but they couldn’t get it all. So in order to get all the data, they had to go to the service providers to fill in the blanks. That’s what the PRISM program is for—to fill in the blanks. It also gives the FBI basis for introducing evidence into court.
LI: A couple of these companies have come out and said that they don’t provide this data to the NSA. Do you suspect that they are lying?
WB: Oh, yeah. Obviously. Absolutely.
LI: How much data do you estimate will be able to be stored at the NSA facility in Utah?
WB: I simply took what was commercially available off of cleversafe.com, which is 10 exabytes in 200 square feet. Then I divided 200 square feet into the 100,000 square feet of storage that will be at the facility. Then you get 5,000 exabytes stored in that area. That’s five zetabytes. What that means is around 500 years of the world’s communications, if they used all the space for that purpose. I figure they wouldn’t have to do more than 100 years, and the rest of it they can use with parallel processors to try to break codes.
LI: Speaking of the average American citizen, how much data would you estimate the government has collected on them, and what type of information?
WB: It’s everything—phones, emails, twitter, any kind of digital communications that they’ve had. I think it’s into banking as well, but I don’t know that for sure. I do believe they’re doing it. My estimate is that there’s a little over 280 million Americans in the database, several times because one person can have a work phone, home phone, mobile phone, online banking, multiple email addresses. 280 million people are in there at least, and the ones that aren’t are babies in cribs, people in hospice, others not doing anything electronic. Each person is in there between several hundred and several thousand times. It’s aggregated data over a now 12 year period.
LI: Now that they’ve been challenged, federal officials are claiming that this massive data collection has thwarted a terrorist attack. Assuming that’s even true (not that they have much credibility right now), do you believe that preventing attacks is a justifiable reason to conduct this massive surveillance?
WB: No. You see, I left the government with a way to do it without violating the privacy of U.S. citizens. They chose not to do that. That was a conscious choice that they made.
LI: Lawsuits made against the government to obtain information regarding the surveillance of American citizens have often been tossed out because of the government’s “national security” or “state’s secret” claims. Do you think there is a valid need for the NSA to be so secretive, or do you think these roadblocks are merely to cover up their illegal activity?
WB: The roadblocks are to cover up their illegal activity. They didn’t have to do any of this because of the technologies I left them with. There were things they could have done that would have eliminated any need to spy on everybody in the country. They chose not to, and chose to collect all the data. Now they have the expense of transporting the data from where it was collected to where it has to be stored. Eventually they had to build more storage, like they are at the facility in Utah. They’re not making any decisions as to what is good data and bad data—they don’t know, so they have to store it all in the hopes of retroactively going back and analyzing it sometime in the future to figure out what’s important.
LI: Have you ever been asked to testify before Congress?
WB: No, but I’ve sure been itching to do it.
LI: If you were asked to testify before Congress and give a statement, what message would you deliver?
WB: The intelligence community is feeding you a line of babble, and since you have no capacity to figure out what is right or wrong or mediocre in any of it, you simply take them at their word and that’s the wrong thing to do.
Congress does not want me testifying. If I do testify, they can no longer claim plausible deniability. That’s one of the reasons we’re not down there, all the whistleblowers.