Soundbite: Inside the Puzzle Palace


Last December The New York Times revealed that the super-secretive National Security Agency (NSA) had listened in on Americans' international communications without a warrant. That has already inspired a lot of controversy. But Russell Tice, a former NSA employee who acted as a source for the Times exposé, says there's far more potentially illegal intelligence activity that hasn't been disclosed—and that Congress needs to learn about.

Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Tice in January. A longer version of this interview is online at

Q: What concerned you about the activities you saw at the NSA?

A: The lack of oversight, mainly. The extremely sensitive programs that I was a specialist in are so deep black that only a few people are cleared for them. If you have a concern, in many cases your own supervisor isn't cleared to hear about it. You have literally nowhere to go.

Q: What about the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act?

A: There is no provision in the ICWPA to punish an agency retaliating against a whistleblower. The act 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.

Q: What about claims that reporting on NSA surveillance may have harmed national security?

A: In my case, there's no way the programs I want to talk to Congress about should be public ever, unless maybe in 200 years they want to declassify them. But that same mechanism that allows you to have a program like this at an extremely high, sensitive classification level could also be used to mask illegality, like spying on Americans. And spying on Americans is illegal unless you go to a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court. With [New York Times reporter James Risen's book, State of War], someone has come across, and basically reported, a crime. It just so happens that somebody put some super-duper clearances on it to mask the fact that a crime was being committed.

Q: Some polls suggest that most citizens aren't terribly concerned about these programs.

A: People think it's not going to affect them. But if those people find out it was hundreds of thousands or millions who were swept up into it and the government was listening to their conversation with their doctor—now all of a sudden it affects them personally.

Even if it were just a few thousand people, nonetheless it's wrong. There's no reason the 2,000 warrants could not have been done through the FISA court. The question is: Why wasn't it done?