Inside the Puzzle Palace

A Reason interview with NSA whistleblower Russell Tice

(Page 2 of 3)

REASON: Do you see a shift in signals intelligence toward more intensive computer filtering, so there's more and more information processed, but less seen by human beings?

Tice: I've thought about this for a while, and as I said, I can't tell you how things are done, but I can foresee it, especially with what we've seen now. We're finding out that NSA conducted surveillance on U.S. citizens. And FISA could have been used but wasn't, was sidestepped. No one even made the attempt to see if they had a problem they could have fixed through FISA.

That would lead one to ask the question: "Why did they omit the FISA court?"

I would think one reason that is possible is that perhaps a system already existed that you could do this with, and all you had to do is change the venue. And if that's the case, and this system was a broad brush system, a vacuum cleaner that just sucks things up, this huge systematic approach to monitoring these calls, processing them, and filtering them—then ultimately a machine does 98.8 percent of your work. What you come out with from a haystack is a shoebox full of straw. Once you have that, you have people that can look at it.

Now here's an interesting question: If this approach was used, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of communications were processed in that manner, and then if and when the truth ever came out, a lawyer—and I think lawyers are going to be arguing semantics in this case—the argument could be made, well, if a machine was doing the looking and the sucking in, it doesn't matter because that's not monitoring until a human looks at it.

REASON: What prompted you to step forward now?

Tice: Well, I've known this for a long time and I've kept my mouth shut...

REASON: You're referring to what James Risen calls "The Program," the NSA wiretaps that have been reported on?

Tice: No, I'm referring to what I need to tell Congress that no one knows yet, which is only tertiarily connected to what you know about now.

REASON: What aspect of that, within the parameters of what you're able to talk about, concerned you?

Tice: The lack of oversight, mainly—when a problem arose and I raised concerns, the total lack of concern that anyone could be held accountable for any illegality involved. And then these things are so deep black, the extremely sensitive programs that I was a specialist in, these things are so deep black that only a minute few people are cleared for these things. So even if you have a concern, it's things in many cases your own supervisor isn't cleared for. So you have literally nowhere to go.

REASON: So there's a problem of inadequate channels of communications to raise concerns?

Tice: Yeah, zero channels of communication because you're talking about information so closely held that even within a large organization like the Agency, only a handful of people may know. The director would know, maybe the deputy director, the chief of security, maybe one level-supervisor, maybe my own supervisor—and these are all management people. And then you have one person, me, the worker bee who does the work, writes the reports, goes into the field, does the liaison work, makes the phone calls. I was the nitty-gritty detail guy.

REASON: What about the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act?

Tice: The interesting thing about the ICWPA that came up in my case, the NSA put it right in bold print: They said even if Mr. Tice made a protected disclosure under the ICWPA, there is no provision in the ICWPA to punish or hold responsible the agency doing the retaliation, in this case the NSA. So even though the law says it's protected, there's no teeth in the law to do anything to the NSA. So they can screw you over with impunity, and even if someone did determine you had a claim, there's nothing there to punish them. In the writeup I had, they showed their contempt for that in the way they wrote up the piece of nonsense in their defense. The ICWPA as far as I know has only had something like two disclosures in the years it's been in existence. You know why? Because any intelligence officer knows if you do this, your career is done. They will find something to use to revoke your security clearance, which is what they did with me, which destroys your career in the intel field, makes you unemployable forever. I will never be an intelligence officer ever again; I will never be able to work as a contractor for a firm that does intelligence community contracts.

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