The Courage from Whistle-blowing

Exclusive: Courage, like cowardice, can grow when an action by one person influences decisions by others, either toward bravery or fear. Thus, the gutsy whistle-blowing by some NSA officials inspired Edward Snowden to expose mass data collection on all Americans, recalls ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

When Edward Snowden in early June 2013 began to reveal classified data showing criminal collect-it-all surveillance programs operated by the U.S. government’s National Security Agency, former NSA professionals became freer to spell out the liberties taken with the Bill of Rights, as well as the feckless, counterproductive nature of bulk electronic data collection.

On Jan. 7, 2014, four senior retired specialists with a cumulative total of 144 years of work with NSA William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe prepared a Memorandum for the President providing a comprehensive account of the problems at NSA, together with suggestions as to how they might be best addressed.

Former National Security Agency official William Binney sitting in the offices of Democracy Now! in New York City. (Photo credit: Jacob Appelbaum)

Former National Security Agency official William Binney sitting in the offices of Democracy Now! in New York City. (Photo credit: Jacob Appelbaum)

The purpose was to inform President Obama as fully as possible, as he prepared to take action in light of Snowden’s revelations.

On Jan. 23, 2015 in Berlin, Binney was honored with the annual Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. Ed Snowden was live-streamed-in for the occasion, and said, “Without Bill Binney there would be no Ed Snowden.” (Binney had been among the first to speak out publicly about NSA abuses; apparently that emboldened Snowden to do what he did.)

Snowden had already said when he fled to Hong Kong in June 2013 that he had learned an extremely important lesson from the four years of government persecution/prosecution of Tom Drake; namely, that he, Ed Snowden, had to leave the country in order to fulfill his mission and to have some reasonable chance to avoid spending the rest of his life behind bars. (Eventually, all the felony charges against Drake were dismissed.)

An important take-away lesson from Binney’s and Drake’s boldness and tenacity is that one never knows what impetus courageous truth-tellers can give to other, potential whistleblowers like Ed Snowden.

In 1998, Bill Binney, with some 35 years under his belt as a senior NSA mathematician and cryptologist took on a staggering problem for NSA: how to deal with the vast amount of data available on the world wide web without burying intelligence analysts under a haystack of data.

From Binney’s long experience, it seemed clear that selecting information by using metadata relationships was the smart way to go. As he puts it, “Smart selection is smart collection.”

This approach was totally different form the word/phrase dictionary-select type approach in general use even today. Binney’s technique was to use metadata and some additional rules to define relationships. This enabled discriminate selection of data from the tens of terabytes twisting in the ether. The approach focused the collected data around known targets, plus some potential developmental targets, and yielded much more manageable content for analysts to deal with.

Missing the Needles

Experience had long since shown that collecting everything in bulk, and using word/phrase type queries, end up burying analysts in data and making them dysfunctional.  In some of the internal NSA memos released by Snowden, NSA analysts complain of the kind of analysis paralysis that makes it extremely difficult for them to find and address the real threats.

As Snowden has quipped, “The problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing.”

The net result is that people die first. Only then do detectives and law enforcement go wading into their vast data, focus on possible perpetrators of the crime and often find related information.  This is, of course, exactly the reverse of how the security services should proceed assuming the main priority is to thwart terrorist or other attacks. And yet the U.S. government proceeds willy-nilly with its SOS (Stasi-On-Steroids) approach.

In sum, success can come only from a focused, disciplined selection of data off the fiber lines, yielding usable metadata, as Binney and his NSA colleagues demonstrated.  Indeed, there was quite enough electronic intelligence collected by THINTHREAD, the collection system Binney and his team created, before 9/11 to have thwarted the attacks, as NSA senior executive Thomas Drake learned, to his horror, after the fact.

“Smart selection” techniques can also protect individual privacy, as Binney and his colleagues likewise showed.  More to the point, this approach can provide a rich but manageable data environment for analysts to use toward one of the most important intelligence objectives predicting intentions and capabilities.

This way, one is not reduced to watching attack after attack and then wiping up the blood and searching data bases for clues to the perpetrators primarily the job of law enforcement.

Problems With Honesty

Sadly, recent history has shown that the directors of U.S. intelligence services lie, and that directors of the NSA lie blatantly and suffer zero consequences. On March 12, 2013 (less than two months before the Snowden revelations), National Intelligence Director James Clapper lied under oath in denying that NSA was “wittingly” collecting “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, had put that question to Clapper that day at a formal, open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Similarly, on June 27, 2013, three weeks after the first Snowden revelations started coming, then-NSA Director Keith Alexander lied in telling the same Senate committee that NSA’s bulk telephone surveillance program had thwarted 54 terrorist “plots or events.” On Oct. 2, 2013, Gen. Alexander admitted, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the number of terrorist plots thwarted was not 54, but one. (And that particular one cannot bear close scrutiny.)

The failure to demand accountability for these deceptions proves as if further proof were needed that the Senate intelligence “oversight” committees has long since become the Senate intelligence “overlook” committee.

If democracy still means anything, we the people need to devise some kind of replacement for the sleepy “watchdogs” in Congress who have forfeited their responsibility to oversee and verify what the intelligence agencies are doing.  Again, Bill Binney has what seem the most sensible and doable suggestions toward that end.

He has called for a properly cleared technical team, responsible to the courts, with clearly spelled-out authority to go into any intelligence agency and look directly into and inspect data bases and the tools in use. This would be a giant step toward ensuring that we the people through this intrusive inspection regime could monitor in some rudimentary way what our intelligence agencies are doing.

Binney suggests further that intelligence agencies be required to implement software to monitor their own networks to detect automatically and to report immediately violations of law and regulation.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour inner-city Washington. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), and is indebted to VIPS member Bill Binney for much of the substance of this article, which came from McGovern’s prepared text for remarks at a conference on Thursday in Moscow, marking the 10th anniversary of RT’s founding.

13 comments for “The Courage from Whistle-blowing

  1. Joe B
    December 12, 2015 at 14:42

    Thanks to Ray McGovern and the VIPS members who respond to a higher call of duty. Theirs is an historic contribution, which we may hope leads finally to elimination of wrongful commercial and government spying, part of a broader movement toward a restoration of democracy.

    But of course the problem is not solved simply by establishing an agency to investigate secret agencies (they know how to manage such agencies) nor by giving courts authority to prosecute (judges are appointed by and agree with the right wing demagogues who support promiscuous spying and oppose democracy). First one must break the control of government by economic concentrations, redesign checks and balances among the federal branches, pass amendments to the Constitution to limit funding of mass media and elections to limited individual contributions, flush the crooks from all branches of government, roll back the perverse laws of the right wing, and re-establish faith in the rule of law, the viability of moral action, and the ability of the people to govern.

    That probably requires recycling the whole mess made of our former democracy. But revelations of massive wrongs are a first step.

  2. Bill Bodden
    December 12, 2015 at 14:37

    On Jan. 7, 2014, four senior retired specialists with a cumulative total of 144 years of work with NSA – William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe – prepared a Memorandum for the President providing a comprehensive account of the problems at NSA, together with suggestions as to how they might be best addressed.

    What was the purpose of informing the president other than jumping through an obligatory hoop? Did anything worthwhile come of this exercise?

  3. RDM
    December 12, 2015 at 12:50

    Courage is contagious.

  4. Coleen Rowley
    December 12, 2015 at 00:40

    “The net result is that people die first. Only then do detectives and law enforcement go wading into their vast data, focus on possible perpetrators of the crime and often find related information. This is, of course, exactly the reverse of how the security services should proceed – assuming the main priority is to thwart terrorist or other attacks. And yet the U.S. government proceeds willy-nilly with its SOS (Stasi-On-Steroids) approach.”

    In all fairness, it’s mission impossible to prevent all crimes, including crimes of terrorism before they happen because it’s not possible to predict future human behavior WITH ANY REAL ACCURACY. You might recall this was the false argument used to convert terrorism crimes that could be investigated and prosecuted into matters of “intelligence” promising people they would prevent future acts of terrorism by creating the “national security intelligence complex” as little brother of the Military Industrial Complex).

    It may be possible to get lucky once in a while but the task of defending against terrorist attacks is made far more difficult, if not wholly impossible, when the US has greatly increased the numbers of real and potential terrorists with its 14 year old, perpetual “war on terrorism.” It’s simply a fool’s errand.

    Official attempts to make sense of the trillions of pieces of (mostly non-relevant) data the intelligence community has vacuumed up and stored, have resulted in honing it down to a still hugely over-inclusive and somewhat under-inclusive (Terrorist Identities DataMart Environment or TIDE) watchlist of “only” 1.1 million persons. That is the sad reality but foolish fearful people want to believe their government can protect them, politicians want to keep their power, and profiteers want to make more money so they tell citizens what they want to hear, even if the politicians/officials know they are essentially lying. It’s been confirmed that at least one of the Paris attackers was not on the TIDE “terrorist watch list” so could have easily entered the U.S. via the “Visa Waiver Program” while San Bernardino attacker Malik was apparently not on the list either so allowed to enter the U.S. on a “fiancé visa.” This is why after 30 years of the VWP, the urgency in House and Senate to “fix” the VWP ( But the newly proposed VWP reforms which will undoubtedly curtail tourism, business and scholar travel (and hurt US economic interests), will do almost nothing to address the real weaknesses of the surveillance-watchlisting process used to check visa applicants.

    In fact our MN Senator Amy Klobuchar just called for a “no fly zone” in Syria in the same position paper in which she backs Feinstein’s bill to reform the VWP that would not allow participation in the VWP for those who have traveled to Syria or Iraq. But how could it be ascertained if a VWP applicant has crossed the porous borders between Turkey and Syria or Iraq to fight with ISIS? Klobuchar’s “no fly zone” would presumably guarantee that the Syria border stays porous.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      December 14, 2015 at 18:18

      I was hoping to hear Coleen Rowley say that the best way to combat terrorism is to stop the crimes of State Terrorism by the government of the United States……….It is a shame that the big criminals like Dick Cheney are getting honored by Marble Busts or whatever and we are still talking about “Terrorists”!!! “Terrorists R’ US”, Coleen……………..

  5. F. G. Sanford
    December 11, 2015 at 23:36

    I recall going back and reading an old article from – I think 2007 – indicating that Bill Binney had signed the petition, while so many who should know better are reluctant to do so. It seems to be a manifestation of the Gerald Posner syndrome. The argument goes something like, “The magnitude of the crime inspires a belief that the perpetrator could not possibly be an insignificant loser, ergo, “conspiracy theorists” insist that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have done it”. Except that, looking at all the evidence, it’s pretty obvious that he couldn’t have done it. In fact, he really was just an insignificant loser, and an innocent one at that. Fast-forward to Congressional testimony provided by General Lloyd Austin who had to admit that, after spending $500,000,000, the best they could do was to field between five and a dozen vetted and trained “moderate” fighters into Syria. That operation merits critical comparison to a guy in a cave with a laptop who fielded twenty terrorists, financed their living expenses, oversaw flight-training programs, managed visas, licenses, and personal documents, coordinated their logistical needs, specified targets and chose a date when NORAD and seventeen intelligence agencies would fail to respond. Extrapolating from the performance described by General Austin, such an operation must have run into the billions of dollars. It is impossible to believe that “state sponsorship” did not play an indispensable role…unless one is capable of believing that the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and “magic bullets” really do exist. When thoroughly rational, credible and intellectually sound individuals express doubts, there definitely is a conspiracy. If the ‘guilty’ really are guilty, then why hide the truth? If the official narrative were true, there would be no need to classify the “28 pages”. It’s all really just that simple. There is a “conspiracy” to bury the truth. There’s still time, but our current trajectory would seem an invitation to oblivion absent resolution. The clock is ticking, folks.

    • Abe
      December 12, 2015 at 14:07

      Fast forward from “magic bullets” to “magic passports”.

      Fast forward from implausible videos “confirmed” by “intelligence analysis” from “official government sources” to implausible videos “confirmed” by “social media forensics” by “citizen journalist bloggers” and “information websites”.

      Fast forward from a guy in a cave with a laptop to a motorcade of refueling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon.

      Fast forward from a mere “network” to a “state” with its own black flag.

      The well-known sponsors remain the same.

      For those still not convinced by relentless demagogic scare tactics, the next smoking gun may be a mushroom cloud.

  6. Abe
    December 11, 2015 at 14:56

    William Binney has signed the petition from the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth to call for a new investigation into the 9/11 attacks.

    Binney was a 30 year career official at the NSA who resigned in October 2001 because of the flagrant and deliberate violations of the constitution that the agency was engaging in. For the last 13 years he has been working to hold the agency to account for its actions.

    • Abe
      December 11, 2015 at 22:35

      Over 2,400 Architects and Engineers and 20,500 General Public supporters like William Binney have signed the Petition demanding a truly independent investigation with subpoena power in order to uncover the full truth surrounding the events of 9/11/01 — specifically the collapses of the World Trade Center Towers and Building 7.

      There is sufficient doubt about the official story and therefore the 9/11 investigation must be re-opened and must include a full inquiry into the possible use of explosives that might have been the actual cause of the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and Building 7.

  7. December 11, 2015 at 14:55

    Everyone owes the most recent crop of whistleblowers a great debt of gratitude. As a Canadian, I believe our newly elected government has a tremendous opportunity to make amends for shamefully abandoning our role of peace keeper and sponsor of human rights on the international stage. For my part, I have initiated an email petition for the Canadian government to grant asylum to Edward Snowden. I’d appreciate your expressing your support on

  8. Abe
    December 11, 2015 at 14:47

    In the NSA’s 2007 Strategic Mission List obtained by Edward Snowden, in a section of the document headed “Foreign Intelligence, Counterintelligence; Denial & Deception Activities: Countering Foreign Intelligence Threats,” Israel was listed as a leading perpetrator of “espionage/intelligence collection operations and manipulation/influence operations…against U.S. government, military, science & technology and Intelligence Community” organs.

    The term “manipulation/influence operations” refers to covert attempts by Israel to sway U.S. public opinion in its favor.

    Under a section headed “Mastering Cyberspace and Preventing an Attack on U.S. Critical Information Systems,” Israel was among the countries identified as “FIS [financial/banking system] threats.” Israel also appears on the list of countries believed by the NSA to be “enabling” electronic warfare “producers/proliferators.”

    Mossad has longstanding ties to Verint, Narus, and other Israeli surveillance technology companies used for both domestic and international spying, assuring that Israel has access to information collected by the NSA.

    Whether its Angela Merkel’s cell phone, François Hollande’s bidet, or Lindsey Graham’s rumpus room, the NSA and Israel have plenty of blackmail material on world leaders.

    • incontinent reader
      December 12, 2015 at 18:17

      And one should not be distracted from the fact that all of New York and the East Coast could become even more tightly surveilled with the presence of Technion, the Israeli technology institute which has been such an important player in Israel’s defense industry, once it is ensconced on Roosevelt Island in NYC. While Technion was selected by the Bloomberg Administration to serve as a technology incubator, it is not hard to infer that it will also serve other functions for ours and the Israeli government.

  9. Bob Van Noy
    December 11, 2015 at 14:10

    Thank you Ray McGovern for your ongoing insight and democratic concern. It is quite clear that we need to address major concerns with our nonfunctional government. Publicly thinking and writing about possibilities is an excellent way to gather possible solutions. A more open system is totally necessary in a free democracy, so please keep up the work. As for me, I have frequently thought about how our democracy might “recover” from the coup d’état of November 22, 1963 without tearing itself to bits, and one possible solution seems to be something like a truth and reconciliation commission backed by severe penalties for those who refuse to testify honestly. Yet a commission like that would be extra constitutional and in “reality” seems impossible. Still one needs some hope, especially in dysfunctional times like we’re living in.

Comments are closed.