Former NSA whistleblowers J. Kirk Wiebe and Bill Binney discuss how 90 percent of data intercepted by NSA originates from non-targets
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
A four month long investigation by The Washington Post has found that nine out of ten (yes, 90 percent) of all NSA-intercepted data are from ordinary citizens. These folks were not the intended surveillance targets, yet the NSA was able to intercept Facebook messages, photos, and more. The information for the report was based on revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The Obama administration has admitted to bulk data collection in the past, but if you remember, President Obama has denied that the NSA spies on everyday people beyond metadata collection. This is what the president had to say about the issue in an interview with MSNBC last year.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: I want everybody to be clear. The people of the NSA generally are looking out for the safety of the American people. They are not interested in reading your emails. They’re not interested in reading your text messages. And that’s not something that’s done, and we’ve got a big system of checks and balances, including the courts and Congress, who have the capacity to prevent that from happening.
DESVARIEUX: Well, that kind of monitoring is happening. And now there’s been another revelation, from journalist Glenn Greenwald, that the NSA and the FBI were also monitoring the emails of prominent Muslim-American activists, and as the article mentions, none of these activists advocates for violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime.
Now joining us to get into the details of this new Edward Snowden report are our two guests, and they know a little something about the NSA, since they both used to work for the organization. Kirk Wiebe is a former NSA senior intelligence analyst. And joining us on the phone is Bill Binney. He is a former highly placed intelligence official with the NSA.
Thank you both for joining us.
BILL BINNEY, FMR. NSA TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: Well, thanks for having us.
J. KIRK WIEBE, FMR. NSA SENIOR INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Good to be with you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kirk, I’m going to start off with you, because we’ve all known that the NSA was collecting metadata. But what makes this Washington Post investigation so significant?
WIEBE: Well, now we’re talking about content. The original discussions were about metadata, which poses its own threat if collected in bulk over time. But we had been led to believe that content wasn’t part of the equation unless properly targeted through a court of law. Well, now we know that’s a complete lie. And so the implications of this are tremendous, because fully 90 percent of all the collection that was surveyed by The Washington Post was connected with people that are of no interest to the U.S. government.
DESVARIEUX: Bill, I’m going to ask you for your take. What do you feel like the mainstream press is really missing in this story?
BINNEY: Well, I mean, they’re missing the bulk acquisition of information. I mean, my interpretation of incidental collections for NSA is if they are looking at one of those big 10 gigabit pipes, which carries massive amounts of data, they say there’s probably a terrorist on there, so they’ll collect the entire pipe, and then they store it all for searching. I mean, that includes–if you take, for example, the metadata, that includes everybody in the United States, somewhere between 280 and 300 million citizens, and all their phone calls and emails, stuff like that. That’s their metadata.
But also in the content side, the Fairview program is the program they’re using to collect all that content inside the continental United States. And if you look at the map of distribution of those tap points on the fiber lines, only a very few of them are along the coast. So the target is not foreigners and not terrorists; it’s domestic collection of U.S. communications between U.S. citizens. That’s the problem.
DESVARIEUX: When I hear “domestic collection”, I’m thinking, well, couldn’t this information be used for non terror related operations? For example, couldn’t the FBI get their hands on this, Kirk? Could we potentially see other government agencies gaining access to this information?
WIEBE: Oh, absolutely, Jessica. There is nothing to prevent that from happening whatsoever.
And the other story that has not been talked about is this is bad methodology. And I’m telling you right now, it puts the national security at risk, because once you start dumping tons of content into a database and expect a handful of analysts to go through it, the odds are that you’re not going to find the activity that’s just about to hit you. It’s a very bad method.
DESVARIEUX: I think Al Gore, he said recently in an interview that it was sort of like, you know, trying to find a needle in a haystack already, but now they’re just adding more hay.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. So let’s shift gears and talk about the fact that the NSA was spying on prominent Muslim Americans, as I mentioned in the introduction. We had civil rights activists, politicians. What do we know about that operation? I’ll turn to you, Bill.
BINNEY: Well, I mean, it’s just a fallout of collecting everything. That’s the whole point. I mean, they’re collecting everything on everybody they possibly can. So if you have a subset of people that you want to target, you already have all the data on them. It’s not a matter of searching for it; you’ve got it already. So it’s not–that is just a simple follow-on to collecting everything. And so it doesn’t really–it doesn’t really cause them too much difficulty to do.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And what about you, Kirk? I think off-camera we had mentioned this. This is just sort of a precursor of more to come, and they’re looking at other groups as well.
WIEBE: Oh, absolutely. This is–I have a feeling Mr. Greenwald has information about other groups and he’s going to trickle this information out as he thinks the timing is right. So I think this is the beginning of quite a long list of groups.
And all of us, all of us that are tied up in this–and that includes Bill Binney, you, and I, Jessica–and that is, we’re all being considered potentially guilty before having to prove ourselves innocent. So this whole matter, this old approach goes contrary to the U.S. system of justice.
DESVARIEUX: I’ve got to ask this question, ’cause we often hear this counterargument: what do you say to folks who say that they have nothing to hide, and if the government wants to collect all this data, they don’t mind, and they don’t mind that they’re being targeted in this way, Bill?
BINNEY: Well, first of all you say that what you think is irrelevant. I mean, it only matters what the government thinks. If they think you’re a problem, you are a problem. It’s not a question of whether or not you think you’re doing anything wrong. You know? And the other thing is–and I keep saying this–is that, you know, that’s a really good quote from Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister. So, I mean, you know, they’re following totalitarian procedures, our government is; they’re adopting all these totalitarian procedures that have been used down through history.
DESVARIEUX: Kirk, I’ll let you weigh in as well. What’s your take on that argument?
WIEBE: Yeah, it positions the government to maintain control over the population of the United States, and for that matter the world. You know, Jessica, information for intelligence purposes is another way of calling up the issue of information operations, of which there are four or five subsectors, including electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security. And all of those can be used for any purpose within those categories. So it’s a very dangerous situation.
DESVARIEUX: Very dangerous situation. Alright. Kirk Wiebe and Bill Binney, thank you both for joining us.
WIEBE: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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