Blowing the Whistle on the NSA

04/17/20131 Comment

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by James Corbett
April 16, 2013

In last week's report we examined the stories of just a handful of the dozens of courageous insiders who have stepped forward over the past 11 years to blow the whistle on the lies at the heart of the official story of the September 11th attacks. Although we now know that the 9/11 Commission and other congressional and media investigations into those attacks were whitewashes that obscured the truth about what happened that day, there is one thing that we were told in those early days of terror, confusion and grief that has proven all too true: that September 11, 2001 was a day that 'changed the world forever.' At the very least, it changed the American cultural conversation about the role of intelligence agencies like the NSA in “protecting” the US from such attacks.

The modern-day National Security Agency was officially born in 1952 from its predecessor, the Armed Forces Security Agency, itself created in 1949 to direct the electronic and communications surveillance capabilities of the U.S. military intelligence establishment. One of the earliest mentions of the agency in the public record came in a government organization manual from 1957, where it was described as "a separately organized agency within the Department of Defense under the direction, authority, and control of the Secretary of Defense [...] for the performance of highly specialized technical functions in support of the intelligence activities of the United States."

For the next four decades, however, references to the agency and its work were maddeningly few and far between. Other than a few vague references, little was known about what the agency did. Although reporters were occasionally able to pierce the official secrecy surrounding the organization to reveal such programs as the ECHELON system, so little was known about the agency that for a long time it was half-jokingly referred to as “No Such Agency.”

In the wake of 9/11, however, that was to change radically. Suddenly the NSA and its activities were being portrayed as vital to the security of Americans in an increasingly technologically sophisticated “war on terror.” The seeds of this idea were implanted within the first few days of 9/11, with CBS broadcasting an interview with then-NSA Director Michael Hayden claiming that the agency had been unable to track Osama Bin Laden's off-the-shelf American satellite phone.

We now know that this story is itself completely false. The groundbreaking work of investigative journalist James Bamford, for instance, has detailed that the NSA not only had the technology to track and surveil all of the communications of Osama Bin Laden and his contacts, but were doing so for years before September 11th, although they often deliberately refused to share the information from their surveillance activities with other branches of the American intelligence apparatus. As with other “incompetence theories,” however, Hayden's NSA incompetence theory with Osama Bin Laden established a convenient narrative: that the NSA was not powerful enough to do its job properly. Framed in these terms, the solution to this problem practically presents itself: the NSA needs more funding, more authority, and more leeway to act in contravention of US laws to carry out its task of “protecting” the American public from the terrorists.

As numerous whistleblowers from the agency, the telecom industry and elsewhere have demonstrated time and again over the past decade, the NSA used that narrative to blatantly cross the line into open, acknowledged, illegal surveillance of the American population itself in outright contravention of long-established laws, and even the Fourth Amendment itself. [See this and this and this and this and this.]

Thanks to these insiders, we not know that the NSA has consistently and systematically broken the law in its surveillance activities, and in fact that these programs started before 9/11, which served merely as a justification for bringing them into the public spotlight. So what has been the reward for their bravery in stepping forward to blow the whistle on this government abuse? The gratitude of the government? Public acclaim? Widespread media coverage of their stories?

Sadly, if unsurprisingly, these whistleblowers have not been recognized as the heroes that they are. Quite the contrary, they have been shunned, marginalized, swept under the rug, and even prosecuted for attempting to shine the light on the NSA's illegality, fraud, waste and corruption.

In return for blowing the whistle on the Stellar Wind program and giving key details about the NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping and data collection of American citizens, longtime NSA veterans William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe were aggressively retaliated against. Binney was demoted and Wiebe was passed up for career-advancing assignments. Both chose to accept early retirement packages in October 2001 rather than to continue to cooperate with an agency that was now blatantly breaking the law.

In 2006, five current and former NSA employees spoke out about the agency's practice of labeling whistleblowers as 'delusional' or 'psychotic.' The group included Russ Tice, one of the sources for the New York Times story that first exposed the NSA's illegal surveillance program, who was labeled as “paranoid” by an NSA-appointed psychologist, stripped of his security clearance and eventually fired, despite multiple neutral psychologists confirming that he did not manifest paranoid symptoms and exhibited no evidence of mental problem.

Perhaps most egregiously, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake was one of only four people ever to be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 with the crime of “willful detention” of “national security information.” The charges were widely condemned as the most obvious and worrying example of the Obama administration's ongoing war against whistleblowers and the charges were eventually dropped in return for Drake's agreement to plead guilty to the misdemeanour of “misusing the agency's computer system.”

In some ways, it is easy to look at the plight of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake or a Russ Tice and to blame the various branches of government or the complicit corporate media for the treatment they have received. Undoubtedly, the attempts to silence and prosecute these whistleblowers reveal a fundamental rot at the heart of the system.

But in some ways it could be argued that the treatment these whistleblowers have received at the hands of the general public is even worse. After all, what have all of the would-be whistleblowers within the agency learned from watching their more courageous colleagues stepping out on a limb to stand up to corruption and illegality over the past decade? If anything, the moral of the story so far has been that such whistleblowers will become footnotes in the never-ending torrent of noise coming from Washington, D.C. these days, and the majority of the public will not even bother to learn the names of these whistleblowers, let alone the information they are attempting to expose.

The NSA is currently constructing its new spy center in Utah, an unprecedented complex that will in the words of James Bamford, be capable of collecting “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'” The complete secrecy surrounding the technical capabilities of the center and even its official mission is par for the course for the NSA, but anyone who is not concerned about the complete invasion of privacy that the center represents is simply ignorant of the stories of the whistleblowers who have exposed the agency's fraud, corruption and outright illegality over the years.

Now more than ever we need insiders to step forward to reveal details about the NSA and the activities it is engaged in to further undermine the American public guaranteed Fourth Amendment right to privacy. But given the governmental persecution and public apathy that has greeted previous NSA whistleblowers, what incentive do any would-be insiders have in stepping forward with this information?

In the end, there is little the average man or woman can do to directly influence the workings of a bureaucratic behemoth like the NSA. But in this age of instantaneous, worldwide communication, each of us has the ability to help disseminate the information of the NSA whistleblowers and to generate public interest in their stories. And, given the gravity of the situation that the people of the United States and others around the world face in this era of total communications surveillance, it would not be hard to argue that that ability to spread this information is in fact an ethical imperative.

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