"Where I see it going is toward a totalitarian state," William Binney says of the National Security Agency (NSA), the place where he worked for 30 years before becoming a whistleblower and eventually quitting. "You've got the NSA doing all this collecting of material on all of its citizens-that's what the SS, the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, and the NKVD did."
Binney resigned from his high-ranking post as technical leader for intelligence in 2001. In 2002, more than a decade before Edward Snowden's NSA revelations rocked the world, he and several former colleagues went to Congress and the Department of Defense, requesting that the NSA be investigated. Not only was the super-secretive agency wasting taxpayer dollars on ineffective programs, they argued, it was broadly violating constitutional guarantees to privacy and due process.
The federal government didn't just turn a blind eye to the abuses Binney and company warned against; it accused the whistleblowers of leaking state secrets. A federal investigation of Binney-including an FBI search and seizure of his home and office computers that destroyed his consulting business-exonerated him on all charges. "We are a clear example that [going through] the proper channels doesn't work," he says. It's no wonder that Snowden went to the media first, Binney says, even if (in Binney's estimation) the now-resident of Russia was wrong to leak documents not directly related to unconstitutional NSA surveillance of American citizens.
Binney, now retired, still believes that his old employer is vital to national security, but he thinks technological advances and an expansive appetite for power have unmoored it from constitutional considerations. He sat down with reason's Nick Gillespie in January to discuss the NSA's "Trailblazer" program, his experience being raided by the FBI, and how the NSA could be reformed. For video of the interview, click here, or see the embedded video at the end of this article.
reason: In 2002 you, Kirk Wiebe, and Edward Loomis asked the Department of Defense to investigate the NSA for wasting money on Trailblazer. What was Trailblazer?
William Binney: Trailblazer was the NSA's attempt to catch up with the digital age. The problem is, Trailblazer didn't do anything. As far as I know, it didn't produce anything for roughly a little over $4 billion.
reason: You were a champion of a program called ThinThread, as opposed to Trailblazer, that would allow you to focus on information you thought was obviously important.
Binney: Yes. In fact, we had that one running on three different sites, full time, 24 hours a day. In late November 2000 we had the entire problem solved.
reason: Why would the NSA say, "Yeah that's nice, but we don't want that. We're going to go with a big program that costs more money but doesn't get any results"?
Binney: Because it helps build their empire. It adds more people to the government rolls-more contractors, more contracts, more money. You get a bigger budget. You get a bigger organization.
reason: Do you have evidence that the NSA and other intelligence agencies were actually doing mass gathering of data and surveillance on Americans?
Binney: No. In fact, that was one of their major problems. They couldn't collect enough. The phone networks were much more easy to manage because they had the telecommunications companies helping them.
But the Internet was a totally different story, so they had to build that one. That's what Trailblazer was all about. They called it a Volume Velocity Variety problem. On the Internet you get Voice Over IP, video, file transfers, chatter, email, all kinds of things. So that was the "variety." "Velocity" is going the speed of light. And "volume" means there's a lot of it. But with ThinThread we looked at those as positive things. Volume means you get more data to look through to find your targets. You get more data on your targets. Velocity means, of course, you get it faster. Variety means you get more aspects. All of that's positive. That's what we leveraged and that's what we had working before 9/11.
reason: Do you think that the U.S. should have been able to stop 9/11?