An aerial view of the NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers and gathering data from tech companies including Apple, Microsoft and Google. The Obama Administration defends the National Security Agency’s need to collect such records, but critics call it a huge over-reach. Photo: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
BY JAMES BAMFORD 06.12.13 6:30 AM Wired.com
Physically, the NSA has always been well protected by miles of high fences and electrified wire, thousands of cameras, and gun-toting guards. But that was to protect the agency from those on the outside trying to get in to steal secrets. Now it is confronting a new challenge: those on the inside going out and giving the secrets away.
While the agency has had its share of spies, employees who have sold top-secret documents to foreign governments for cash, until the last few years it has never had to deal with whistleblowers passing top-secret information and documents to the press because their conscience demanded it. This in a place where no employee has ever written a book about the agency (unlike the prolific CIA, where it seems that a book contract is included in every exit package).
As someone who has written many books and articles about the agency, I have seldom seen the NSA in such a state. Like a night prowler with a bag of stolen goods suddenly caught in a powerful Klieg light, it now finds itself under the glare of nonstop press coverage, accused of robbing the public of its right to privacy. Despite the standard denials from the agency’s public relations office, the documents outline a massive operation to secretly keep track of everyone’s phone calls on a daily basis – billions upon billions of private records; and another to reroute the pipes going in and out of Google, Apple, Yahoo, and the other Internet giants through Fort Meade – figuratively if not literally.
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But long before Edward Snowden walked out of the NSA with his trove of documents, whistleblowers there had been trying for years to bring attention to the massive turn toward domestic spying that the agency was making. Last year in my Wired cover story on the enormous new NSA data center in Utah, Bill Binney, the man who largely designed the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping system, warned of the secret, nationwide surveillance. He told how the NSA had gained access to billions of billing records not only from AT&T but also from Verizon. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he said. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” Among the top-secret documents Snowden released was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order proving the truth to Binney’s claim and indicating that the operation was still going on.
I also wrote about Adrienne J. Kinne, an NSA intercept operator who attempted to blow the whistle on the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on Americans following the 9/11 attacks. “Basically all rules were thrown out the window,” she said, “and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans.” Even journalists calling home from overseas were included. “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families,” she says, “incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” She only told her story to me after attempting, and failing, to end the illegal activity with appeals all the way up the chain of command to Major General Keith Alexander, head of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command at the time.
Without documents to prove their claims, the agency simply dismissed them as falsehoods and much of the mainstream press simply accepted that. “We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens,”Alexander said in a talk at the American Enterprise Institute last summer, by which time he had been serving as the head of the NSA for six years. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made similar claims. At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee last March, he was asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper responded, “No, sir.” The documents released by Snowden, pointing to the nationwide collection of telephone data records and not denied by government officials, prove the responses untrue.
The deception by General Alexander is especially troubling. In my new cover story for Wired’s July issue, which will be published online Thursday, I show how he has become the most powerful intelligence chief in the nation’s history. Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.
The article also sheds light on the enormous privatization not only of the intelligence agencies but now also of Cyber Command, with thousands of people working for little-known companies hired to develop the weapons of cyber war, cyber targeting, and cyber exploitation. The Snowden case demonstrates the potential risks involved when the nation turns its spying and eavesdropping over to companies with lax security and inadequate personnel policies. The risks increase exponentially when those same people must make critical decisions involving choices that may lead to war, cyber or otherwise.
At a time when the NSA has lost its way and is increasingly infringing on the privacy of ordinary Americans, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that NSA employees — whether working for the agency or for one of its contractors — would feel the obligation to alert the public to the secret acts being carried out in its name. The only surprise is that we haven’t seen more such disclosures. General Alexander will surely use all his considerable power to prevent them. Don’t be surprised if he fails.
James Bamford is the author of the The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America
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