Whistleblower William Binney made headlines when he told the German parliament that the NSA, his former employer, had become “totalitarian.” DW spoke to him about NSA overreach and the agency’s power.
DW: In your testimony, you described the NSA as “totalitarian,” and many commentators say that Germany’s Stasi history has made the country more sensitive to NSA revelations. But others have suggested this comparison is too easy. After all, the Stasi also targeted intellectuals and general writers opposed to the East German regime.
William Binney; Sure, they haven’t gone that far yet, but they tried to shut down newspaper reporters like Jim Risen [who is fighting legal action by the Department of Justice to testify against an alleged source – the eds.]. Look at the NDAA Section 1021, that gave President Obama the ability to define someone as a terrorist threat and have the military incarcerate them indefinitely without due process. That’s the same as the special order 48 issued in 1933 by the Nazis, [the so-called Reichstag Fire Decree]. Read that – it says exactly the same thing.
These were totalitarian processes that were instituted. And it’s not just us – it’s happening around the world. Totalitarianism comes in the form first of knowledge of people and what they’re doing, and then it starts to transition into using that power against people. That’s what’s happening – in terms of newspaper reporters, in terms of crimes. That’s a direct violation of our constitution.
But surely the difference is that there was an ideological regime behind the Stasi and the Nazis.
You mean like putting people like John Kiriakou in prison for exposing torture [the former CIA officer was the first to discuss waterboarding of terrorism suspects with the press. He is serving a 30-month prison term for leaking the name of an undercover agency operative to a reporter – the eds.], and giving the torturers immunity? That’s what our country’s coming to. That’s what we did. That’s disgraceful. The motives of totalitarian states are not exactly the same every time, but they’re very similar: power, control and money.
What’s changed in the NSA’s methodology since you were working there, until 2001?
We’re focusing now on everyone on the planet – that’s a change from focusing on organizations that were attempting to do nasty things. When you focus on everybody, you’re moving down that path towards population control.
But is that the intention, or just a consequence of the new methods?
Well, otherwise you don’t have secret interpretations of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, or Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, nor do you use Executive Order 12333 in a general way, which says you can collect and keep data on US citizens if you’re acquiring them in the process of investigations for terrorism or international dope-smuggling. And they’re collecting this data incidentally, but they’re allowed to keep it according to their interpretation of that executive order. Which means they copy everything in the pipe. That means everybody and all their content.
You argue that mass data collection is a very inefficient way to catch terrorists, but can’t the NSA legitimately argue that mass data collection works?
They’ve had it for 13 years and they haven’t done it [caught terrorists]. Not in the mass domestic collection – in the targeted approach, yes. If you separate out all the targeted individuals, what did the rest contribute to anything? The answer is zero. It contributes to law enforcement, not intelligence against terror. That’s the whole point. When you do the things that they do – dictionary select, like a Google query, you throw a bunch of words in and get a return. And if you do that for terrorism, you get everything in the haystack that has those words. So now you’re buried – by orders of magnitude worse than you used to be. So you don’t find them.
So why do they keep doing it?
Money. It takes a lot of money, you have to build up Bluffdale [the location of the NSA’s data storage center, in Utah] to store all the data. If you collect all the data, you’ve got to store it, you have to hire more people to analyze it, you have to hire more contractors, managers to manage the flow. You have to start a big data initiative. It’s an empire. Look at what they’ve built! Have you ever looked around all the buildings they’ve built up because of 9/11?
So that’s what it’s all about, expanding the budget for the intelligence community?
If you have a problem, you need money to solve it. But if you solve that problem, you no longer have the justification to get money. That’s the way they view it – keep the problem going, so the money keeps flowing. Once you build up this big empire, you have to sustain it. … Look at the influence and power the intelligence community has over the government. They [the government] are giving them everything they want, they’re trying to cover up all their tracks and their crimes. Look at the influence and power they’re gaining.
This was presumably the reason why you left the NSA. How long did it take you to decide to leave? You left very quickly after the new programs were introduced following 9/11.
The acquisition of data was such that it was pretty clear that I couldn’t stick around at that point, but the slow process, starting in 80s and going into the 90s, was seeing the focus more on acquiring money to get contracts to build up the empire, as opposed to actually doing the mission. I watched that evolution from an organization that was unified – all skills were unified, then in the late 60s/early 70s they separated them – operations was here, technology moved over here. That created two separate camps with two different motives. One motive was to answer the questions in real life and deal with crises – that was the operations. On the other hand, you had the technology people who wanted to play around in the lab and build things. But the focus became getting money, because you need money to get contracts to buy equipment.
As someone who was instrumental in designing the NSA’s programs, do you sometimes feel like the man who invented the atom bomb?
No, because I designed it to do a proper job. These people subverted it. They corrupted it to violate the law and the constitution. The design I did followed all that … and I was open with Congress about what I was doing. … These cowards downtown in DC are changing our constitution – they’re scrapping the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments primarily. If you want to change the constitution, there’s a process to do that. That process means putting a proposal in Congress, get Congress to pass it and then you pass it around all the states, and if 75 percent of the states ratify it, then it’s a Constitutional Amendment. That’s the process. These cowards are doing it all in secret.
William Binney had a 30-year-career at the National Security Agency, which culminated in becoming its technical director. He resigned from the agency in October 2001 and became an outspoken critic of his former employers.