Seeing the Stasi Through NSA Eyes

In January when former Western intelligence officials, including from the U.S. National Security Agency, toured the old offices of East Germany’s Stasi, it was a look back into a dystopian past but also a chilling reminder of how far modern surveillance has come in the past quarter century, writes Silkie Carlo.

By Silkie Carlo

The Stasi offices in Berlin have been frozen in time since they were stormed by activists on Jan. 15, 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall three months earlier. As tourists creep around, room by room, through this monument to fascism, it feels as though millions of secrets are still ingrained in the fabric of the chairs and the fibers of the ubiquitous oak furniture.

The museum that now occupies the building is an oddly mundane reminder of another era: Indistinguishable rooms of desks, phones and filing cabinets, fenced by aging net curtains filtering the sunlight. It is the walls adorned with surveillance photos of supposed state enemies, and exhibits of household gadgets planted with audio recording devices, that color the office’s banality with a shade of darkness.

Former National Security Agency official William Binney (foreground) and other veteran intelligence professionals watching a video feed from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: Silkie Carlo)

Former National Security Agency official William Binney (foreground) and other veteran intelligence professionals watching a video feed of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: Silkie Carlo)

But the specter of Big Brother lingers, as I’m reminded by the man who is accompanying me through the exhibits: William Binney, the former technical director of the U.S. National Security Agency who helped design mass surveillance systems for the NSA before spending a decade warning the world about the risks of those systems.

As we tread past identical desks, retro rotary dial phones, and electromechanical typewriters, the Stasi’s quaint spying technology reminds him of his NSA office in the 1980s, he says. Except the NSA today is estimated to hold one billion times more data than the Stasi held.

“The NSA’s agenda is to control the government, and control the population,” Binney says.

I had come to the â€‹Stasi Museum with a group of U.S. and UK intelligence whistleblowers, who had congregated in Berlin to award Binney with the 2015 â€‹Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The first award, presented in 2002, went to former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who testified to Congress about intelligence failures prior to 9/11; last year’s award went to Edward Snowden.

In the years before September 11, Binney, then the technical director of world geopolitical and military analysis at the NSA, developed a surveillance program known as ThinThread. A spying tool for the Twenty-first Century, it was designed to sift global digital signals and procure important intelligence in a way that the NSA never had.

Because it scanned a sizable amount of international communications traffic, it swept up Americans’ data in the process; to address that problem, Binney installed privacy features that anonymized American data, while it scanned for patterns that suggested a search warrant would be needed to explore the data further.

Protecting the privacy of Americans was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in the agency’s core directives. “I was giving privacy to everyone in the world,” he says.

After his creation was tested in the wild in 2000 and 2001, Binney proposed that ThinThread, which he says cost the NSA only $3.2 million to build, would require an additional $9.5 million to follow the surveillance targets that the program identified.

But then-NSA Director Michael Hayden was determined to ditch the program in favor of another data analysis program called Trailblazer. Proposed around the same time as ThinThread was born, and developed by a defense contractor called Science Applications International Corporation with â€‹close ties to the NSA, the program collected a much broader swath of information, but lacked the privacy controls of ThinThread. It was also far more expensive, at a cost that would ultimately reach an estimated $1.3 billion. Nevertheless, a month before the attacks of September 11, ThinThread was quietly put aside.

Binney warned that not only was this kind of program unconstitutional, conjuring “the Stasi on steroids,” but would lead to “data bulk failure,” whereby real security threats would be lost in the global haystack of information. Information overload would make terrorist attacks, like the kind that would happen in Boston and Paris, more difficult to prevent.

Soon after, everything changed. As three World Trade skyscrapers turned to dust on September 11, so did Americans’ sense of safety. In the days after the attacks, Bush authorized the NSA and other government agencies to begin hoovering up every bit of data they could, under a secret wartime decree that appeared to override the Constitution.

In the last week of September 2001, Binney watched as piles of hardware were carried into the agency’s SIGINT Automation Research Center in Maryland. These were the instruments of a new spying system focused on domestic communications, built on the innovative architecture of ThinThread, Binney would learn.

The new surveillance system, codenamed “Stellar Wind,” would capture data both outside and inside the U.S., harvesting Americans’ emails, web-browsing data, telephone communications, and financial transactions. Over the years, the system would grow, evolve, and be overseen, officially, by a secret court, which is now charged with approving domestic surveillance searches. (Of the thousands of surveillance requests to the FISA court in recent years, almost none have been denied.)

As we walked through the Stasi’s walls of reinforced filing cabinets, it was hard to visualize this modern data collection. By one estimate, it would require an estimated 42 trillion Stasi filing cabinets to hold hard copies of all the NSA’s virtual files.

Binney, who resigned from the NSA in October 2001, speaks of the secret powers of the state from personal experience. In 2002, he and two other NSA veterans formally complained to the Department of Defense about what they saw as fraud, waste, and abuse at the NSA. In 2005, New York Times report about the NSA’s surveillance program led the Justice Department to open a leak investigation. Binney and his fellow whistleblowers became prime suspects.

Although Binney had been cleared of any wrongdoing, in July 2007 the FBI initiated an eight-hour raid on his home, confiscating a computer, disks, and personal and business records; as he was coming out of his shower, he says one agent pointed a gun at his head. Binney, as the most senior intelligence whistleblower, is certain the U.S. government still keeps a close eye on him.

Binney suggests that the attacks of 9/11 were “allowed to happen.” He explained: “There’s an agenda that’s after money, and not solving the problem. If you solve the problem you don’t have the problem to get more money. It gave them all the money they could want.” Binney insists that the NSA wasn’t just negligent in preventing 9/11, but is guilty of a “deliberate cover up.”

What he told me next was alarming: that the NSA sought to mislead the 9/11 Commission in its investigation of intelligence failures. Binney said Tom Drake, a former NSA colleague also turned whistleblower, “took our program, ThinThread, and ran it on NSA data after 9/11. It showed the dispersal pattern of the people who actually didn’t hijack the planes,” like suspects and accomplices in the hijackers’ support network, and “it showed the dispersal of them going back and getting out of the country. It also showed all those people and where they were and what they were doing long before 9/11. All the data was there.”

Binney and his former colleagues would detail this failure in their confidential report to the Pentagon’s Inspector General.

“But NSA suppressed all of that data,” he says. “The first thing they did was kill the program that Tom used, because it would show all the warts. The Congressional Investigating Committees didn’t get truth from the intelligence agencies.”

Drake, who was also touring the Stasi museum with us, told me the NSA has “huge culpability in the failure to protect the U.S. from the 9/11 attackers, and has gone to great lengths to suppress the truth.” During his investigation into ThinThread and data the NSA had, he says, he discovered “all kinds of critical, actionable intelligence, that painted the tragic picture of what NSA could have known, should have known, and didn’t share that they did know.”

Years after he warned Congressional investigators about NSA wrongdoing, Drake also â€‹became a target of the government’s leak investigation; his home was raided, and he was charged with violating the Espionage Act, facing 35 years in prison.

After a lengthy legal battle, the government’s case against him collapsed, but the agency’s inspector general found that his allegations of NSA retaliation were unfounded, even though, as McClatchy recently reported, the inspectors examined only two years out of the ten years detailed in his complaint.

In response to Binney’s accusations of deliberate malfeasance and a cover-up, a spokesperson for the NSA said that his concerns are a “matter of public record” and suggested I “review all of the related information that has been in the public domain for several years.” However, Drake’s testimony to 9/11 Commission investigators remains classified.

After examining Binney’s claims about the NSA’s choice of Trailblazer over ThinThread, the Defense Department agreed with him. In â€‹a 2004 report, it concluded that Trailblazer had “disregarded important solutions to urgent security needs,” was “poorly executed” and “overly expensive.” And it found that ThinThread’s ability to sort through data in 2001 was far superior to that of Trailblazer in 2004. (Much of the report, including the NSA’s response, remains classified.)

Hayden himself admitted in 2005 that Trailblazer was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Five years and over a billion dollars later, the program was terminated, only to be replaced with more powerful mass surveillance systems, as evidenced by documents provided by Edward Snowden.

The refrain that the NSA collects “just metadata” now? “That’s false,” Binney says. “I put this â€‹in a sworn affidavit that I submitted to court. All emails are collected and the content of about 80 percent of everyone’s phone calls are recorded. Currently, I think phone calls are stored for about 20 to 30 days. Although, if you’re targeted for surveillance, you’re screwed. Everything collected, everything stored.”

Binney alludes to even more extreme intelligence practices that are not yet public knowledge, including the collection of Americans’ medical data, the collection and use of client-attorney conversations, and law enforcement agencies’ “direct access,” without oversight, to NSA databases.

Vanee Vines, an NSA spokeswoman, would not comment directly on Binney’s claims, but suggested that I “contact other U.S. institutions about law enforcement and other domestic matters.”

She added that the United States “is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.”

Signals intelligence, she said, is only carried out “where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose for doing so,” including “terrorist plots from al-Qaeda, ISIL, and others; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; foreign aggression against ourselves and our allies; and international criminal organizations.”

The whistleblowers at the Stasi. L-R is Coleen Rowley, Annie Machon, William Binney, Elizabeth Murray, David MacMichael, Jesselyn Radack, Sander Venema (SAA's Webmaster), Todd Pierce, Tom Drake. (Photo credit: Niels Ladefoged)

The whistleblowers at the Stasi. L-R is Coleen Rowley, Annie Machon, William Binney, Elizabeth Murray, David MacMichael, Jesselyn Radack, Sander Venema (SAA’s Webmaster), Todd Pierce, Tom Drake. (Photo credit: Niels Ladefoged)

Why would the NSA, I asked Binney, want to collect a phone conversation that Average Joe has with his mother, for instance? “Because Average Joe can turn into somebody objecting, and you don’t want any opposition. You can’t allow those people to organize,” he said.

So, what kind of encryption technology does Binney use to communicate now? “Nothing,” he says. Although Binney broadly agrees with Snowden that “crypto works,” he knows that the NSA circumvents encryption by targeting the computer systems of recipients of encrypted mail, and sometimes even breaks encryption, as revealed in the Snowden documents.

In his acceptance speech, Binney thanked Snowden for his disclosures about widespread surveillance, since now he and other whistleblowers “can talk about it more easily.” Despite â€‹the government’s attempt to gag whistleblowers, he added, “I will not give up my First Amendment right to free speech, particularly to speak of information already in the public domain, for anyone.”

The bugging devices we were observing in the Stasi museum looked almost comedic next to the kind of tools Binney was talking about. The Stasi’s weird little watering cans with hidden cameras, plug sockets with listening devices, and steam machines for opening intercepted mail, they looked crude compared to the all-seeing surveillance apparatus constructed by today’s government spies.

I thought we were visiting Stasi HQ to glimpse at a dystopian past, but the more I spoke to my fellow museum-goers, it felt like we were looking back at the beginning of something.

Silkie Carlo is a London based journalist, musician, and co-author of the book, Information Security for Journalists. [This story originally appeared at Motherboard.

1 comment for “Seeing the Stasi Through NSA Eyes

  1. chronicle
    March 6, 2015 at 07:24

    quote”I thought we were visiting Stasi HQ to glimpse at a dystopian past, but the more I spoke to my fellow museum-goers, it felt like we were looking back at the beginning of something.”unquote

    When the Church Committee discovered the various illegal activities of the CIA and NSA, they also were looking at the beginning of something, and were outraged to the point they tried to reign them in by virtue of establishing the FISC and the two intelligence “oversight” committees. What they failed to realize is Eisenhower’s prophetic warning about the power of the MIC, nor did they realize the CIA/NSA were compromised on day one, by virtue of the Secret Team, extensively documented by ex CIA official, Col. Fletcher Prouty. To this day, the oversight committees have also been compromised to the point they are virtually hamstrung. This is why you will NEVER see true IC “reform” nor true “oversight”. After all, the Senate “torture” report debacle is living proof. Furthermore, at the same time the Church Committee hearings were taking place, Otis Pike held one of the most devastating investigations in the history of our country, as the Pike Committee hearings exposed the absolute unaccountability of the CIA by virtue of the sources of CIA secret funding, which in 1962, the OMB(Office of Management and Budget..which is a joke)virtually gave up trying to
    oversee CIA’s funding till these hearings took place. At the conclusion of these hearings, the Pike report was issued, only to be classified on the same day by the current President of the time. Fortunately, journalist Danial Shore leaked it to the Village Voice and was forever more banned from employment in any MSM capacity. Such was the power over the media even then. You have to read it to believe it.

    To this day, NSA and CIA have now grown to unimaginable power by virtue of these sources of secret funding. Should anyone in Congress ever try again to reign them in..they better have their will written. After all…JFK found out the hard way. This nation has been sold out..lock, stock and barrel. James Garrison summed it up succinctly in 1967..
    quote”1967 interview of Jim Garrison, District Attorney of New Orleans, who tried to prosecute one of the conspirators in the coup d’etat of November 22, 1963:

    PLAYBOY: Many of the professional critics of the Warren Commission appear to be prompted by political motives: Those on the left are anxious to prove Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy within the establishment; and those on the right are eager to prove the assassination was an act of “the international Communist conspiracy.” Where would you place yourself on the political spectrum — right, left of center?

    GARRISON: That’s a question I’ve asked myself frequently, especially since this investigation started and I found myself in an incongruous and disillusioning battle with agencies of my own Government. I can’t just sit down and add up my political beliefs like a mathematical sum, but I think, in balance, I’d turn up somewhere around the middle. Over the years, I guess I’ve developed a somewhat conservative attitude — in the traditional libertarian sense of conservatism, as opposed to the thumbscrew-and-rack conservatism of the paramilitary right — particularly in regard to the importance of the individual as opposed to the state and the individual’s own responsibilities to humanity. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to formulate this into a coherent political philosophy, but at the root of my concern is the conviction that a human being is not a digit; he’s not a digit in regard to the state and he’s not a digit in the sense that he can ignore his fellow men and his obligations to society. I was with the artillery supporting the division that took Dachau; I arrived there the day after it was taken, when bulldozers were making pyramids of human bodies outside the camp. What I saw there has haunted me ever since. Because the law is my profession, I’ve always wondered about the judges throughout Germany who sentenced men to jail for picking pockets at a time when their own government was jerking gold from the teeth of men murdered in gas chambers. I’m concerned about all of this because it isn’t a German phenomenon; it’s a human phenomenon. It can happen here, because there has been no change and there has been no progress and there has been no increase of understanding on the part of men for their fellow man. What worries me deeply, and I have seen it exemplified in this case, is that we in America are in great danger of slowly evolving into a proto-fascist state. It will be a different kind of fascist state from the one of the Germans evolved; theirs grew out of depression and promised bread and work, while ours, curiously enough, seems to be emerging from prosperity. But in the final analysis, it’s based on power and on the inability to put human goals and human conscience above the dictates of the state. Its origins can be traced in the tremendous war machine we’ve built since 1945, the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower vainly warned us about, which now dominates every aspect of our life. The power of the states and Congress has gradually been abandoned to the Executive Department, because of war conditions; and we’ve seen the creation of an arrogant, swollen bureaucratic complex totally unfettered by the checks and balances of the Constitution. In a very real and terrifying sense, our Government is the CIA and the Pentagon, with Congress reduced to a debating society. Of course, you can’t spot this trend to fascism by casually looking around. You can’t look for such familiar signs as the swastika, because they won’t be there. We won’t build Dachaus and Auschwitzes; the clever manipulation of the mass media is creating a concentration camp of the mind that promises to be far more effective in keeping the populace in line. We’re not going to wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves in gray uniforms goose-stepping off to work. But this isn’t the test. The test is: What happens to the individual who dissents? In Nazi Germany, he was physically destroyed; here, the process is more subtle, but the end results can be the same. I’ve learned enough about the machinations of the CIA in the past year to know that this is no longer the dreamworld America I once believed in. The imperatives of the population explosion, which almost inevitably will lessen our belief in the sanctity of the individual human life, combined with the awesome power of the CIA and the defense establishment, seem destined to seal the fate of the America I knew as a child and bring us into a new Orwellian world where the citizen exists for the state and where raw power justifies any and every immoral act. I’ve always had a kind of knee-jerk trust in my Government’s basic integrity, whatever political blunders it may make. But I’ve come to realize that in Washington, deceiving and manipulating the public are viewed by some as the natural prerogatives of office. Huey Long once said, “Fascism will come to America in the name of anti-fascism.” I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.”unquote
    Indeed. The coup d’etat of 1964. Any questions?

    The ONLY way this nation will return to the values of the Constitutional Republic the Framers created, is by virtue of those rights enumerated in the 2nd Amendment. And THEY know it.

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