Three of the best-known National Security Agency whistleblowers lent their support to Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who exposed domestic surveillance and still was sitting in diplomatic limbo at the Moscow airport. But the three declined to fault the increased use of federal contractors in the past decade for Snowden’s recent unauthorized disclosures.
At a panel on whistleblowing convened Thursday by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, former NSA senior analyst J. Kirk Wiebe, who left the agency in 2001 “in disgust” over what he viewed as violations of citizen privacy, said reliance on contractors was not a problem but a “generational” phenomenon.
“There’s nothing magic about a contractor -- they put on their clothes and act like human beings and make mistakes like the rest of us,” he said. “But the pace of change used to be slower, and it became difficult to keep up with the new apps,” he said. So senior management came to believe that NSA was “no longer on the cusp as technology evolved, and that no one inside the [agency] black box was rubbing shoulders with industry so there was a need to catch up.” At the same time, he added, “Congress swallowed the pill of outsourcing.”
Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive indicted by the Justice Department after he took complaints to a reporter, said using contractors was part of the current political movement to “redistribute wealth” to corporations who have a “direct interest in not solving the problem” that the government pays them to work on.
GAP’s discussion -- which came at a key point in the trial of Army Private Bradley Manning, who was charged for handing government secrets over to WikiLeaks -- showcased the whistleblowers and their advocates’ solidarity with Manning and Snowden for acts they view not as insubordination but as a service to an unsuspecting public.
“I stand with Snowden without equivocation,” Drake said. He blasted what he called NSA’s “meme” that argues that because a domestic surveillance program is legal means it’s constitutional. “That’s only a veneer of legality, a legal term of art to keep programs away from the prying eyes of the public.”
William Binney, a former NSA mathematician whose home was raided by gun-toting FBI agents after he made disclosures and left the agency, said NSA “has broken many laws, and there are many lawsuits now. Internally, a lot of people were upset” about new surveillance software embraced by then-director Michael Hayden, he said. “It’s an introverted society,” and his highly conservative colleagues knew that if they talked “they would be targeted and probably fired.”
NSA “collects too much data and simply dumps it on the analysts,” Binney said. “Your entire social network is mapped by NSA. But unfortunately, NSA turned the software on the people of the USA, so I left.” And yet it “missed the bomber in Boston and the shooter at Fort Hood [Texas],” he added.
Wiebe described how he and his colleagues weighed the option of taking their complaints through channels to the Defense Department inspector general, versus “the nuclear option” of going public. Their first effort, through the IG, “resulted in absolutely nothing,” he said, as Hayden went onto bigger projects, including running the CIA.
Several speakers blamed NSA for failing to head off the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “NSA was created to prevent another Pearl Harbor,” Wiebe noted. “But its mismanagement, self-interest, ego and arrogance led to 9/11.”
Drake said one reason he became a whistleblower is that back in 2002 he was told by an NSA supervisor that the post-9/11 congressional investigators were “looking for leakers,” which suggested to him that NSA employees were being pressured to obstruct the congressional probe.