Why I Decided to Blow the Whistle on the NSA
NSA whistleblower Russ Tice describes his evolution from being a staunch believer in the mission of the NSA to being the first insider to expose how the surveillance state disregarded Americans’ fourth amendment rights
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our discussion with our in-studio guest, Russ Tice.
Russ is a former NSA analyst and operations officer, and he was the first NSA whistleblower who blew the whistle in 2004.
Thanks for joining us, Russ.
RUSS TICE, FMR. NSA ANALYST AND OPERATIONS OFFICER: Thanks for having me again.
DESVARIEUX: So, Russ, what were you actually doing for the NSA, as much as you can actually tell us? What were you doing?
TICE: Well, I specialized in special black world programs, which are even above the things that, like, Mr. Snowden would have had access to. So in that world I was a tentacle specialist and a geopolitical analyst. But my main specialty is dealing with our capabilities in space and missile systems, anything having to do with–if it went through space, I was involved with it.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And you have talked about spying on politicians and things of that nature . Can you just map out, like, what specifically, like, caught your eye when before and blew the whistle?
TICE: Well, I was working on a program that was the run-up to the conflict in Iraq. So this would have been the 2002 time frame. And then, ultimately, in 2003. And something that I was doing with the satellite capabilities: I found out that the United States were using satellite capabilities to spy on American citizens.
DESVARIEUX: What caused you to say, hey, I maybe should come forward and talk about this?
TICE: Well, at first I ded, because I had a mission to complete, and we had, , you know, a war to win , and so for–. you know, I was working 16 to 18 hours a day, and I really didn’t have time to look into what I’d found out there, ’cause we had a whole lot of other things to do.
After the statue fell in Baghdad–and it got–it was still pretty–pretty much I didn’t have a whole lot to do after that as far as the things that I was up to, but they’d said, well, we still want you to be there 16 hours a day. So I went to my to-do list and said, oh, here’s all the things that I’ve written down that I need to cover if I have time. And now I have time. And one of those things was find out what was going on with that, with what I’d found out with that satellite stuff.
DESVARIEUX: So what did you find out when you did some more investigating?
TICE: Well, I found out that the targets were–back then it was, like, Colin Powell, General Shinseki, a lot of State Department, a lot of military high-level people, corporations, big-time finance, international things of that nature. Those were the kind of things I was finding with the satellite things that they were going after, targeting.
DESVARIEUX: So the NSA is spying on all these characters, like, politicians, generals, business men and women.
TICE: Yeah. But with the satellite stuff, it seemed to be concentrated on anything that had to do with anybody that was involved with the conflict in Iraq. Now, then I went to colleagues of mine that were involved in the terrestrial world. And now we’re talking about the fiber optics that run most of our communications domestically. And then we started comparing notes, and they were involved in what is commonly referred to now as Stellar Wind, which was the domestic spying program. And then we started comparing notes and we realized it was much, much worse.
DESVARIEUX: So what do you see when you compare notes?
TICE: Well, we started seeing that the targeting was a lot wider, especially with domestic communications. It was the Supreme Court. At was Justice Alito when he was being considered for the Supreme Court. It was members of the FISA court. It was congressmen and senators, especially those involved with the Armed Services Committee, the intelligence committees, and the judiciary committees, and the senior leadership in Congress. And it was a lot of lawyers and law firms, mainly lawyers and law firms, from what I saw. I mean, hundreds of lawyers’ and law firms’ phone numbers were tapped. It was the Red Cross, so–you know, of all things, and some of those organizations that go overseas to do, you know, charity work and that sort of thing. And one of the–it was General Petraeus. It was admirals and generals, right about that three-star level. I saw General Petraeus’s information when they went after his phone numbers. And there was a number–and this was in summer 2004–of some guy that–I didn’t know who he was, and none of my coworkers or my colleagues knew, so we had to look up. It was a wannabe senator from Illinois. He had won his primary. But we had never heard of this guy–Barack Obama. And that was 2004. Now, of course, you know, bigger things awaited for that photo.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. And what about you? Is there a system in place in the NSA–if you see something, you say something to, I don’t know, some group internally? What do you do with this information?
TICE: Well, that’s the problem. They say there’s an internal mechanism. But when you’re literally talking about something at this level, you know, where–I mean, I know the director is probably in on this. And I didn’t know the president was in on it, but I knew this was [incompr.] that going to the inspector general’s office at NSA is a joke. They’re controlled by the security office and the front office. So, you know, I went to the DODIG. That was a joke. They were protecting for everybody as well. I went to Congress. That was a joke, when I went to Congress, because everything I was telling Congress in confidence was being reported right back to NSA. And at that point they were trying to put me in jail.
DESVARIEUX: Congress–are you talking about the Senate Intelligence Committee?
TICE: I’m talking about all the committees I talk to. They wouldn’t let me talk initially to the intelligence committees. They forced me to talk to the armed services committees. And these were staffers that were leaking everything I was saying right back to Fort Meade and to the Department of Justice because they were trying to put a rope around my neck to hang me.
DESVARIEUX: So is this why you decided to go to The New York Times eventually? What made you make that decision?
TICE: Well, I decided to go to a bunch of papers, because initially I decided–’cause initially they used a false accusation of being mentally ill to try to silence me, because if I went to the press, they would use that. And they have used that against me. Now, thank goodness for Mr. Snowden, because now, you know, 75 percent of everything I’ve said that they said I was crazy for saying it has now come to fruition through their own documentation. So I think most people realize I’m not crazy now. But back then, it was like, hey, that guy’s crazy, and you in the press would go, hmm, is he really crazy or not?
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, yeah. And then you get a call from your legal department saying, don’t put this guy on.
TICE: Right. So we can’t have the crazy guy on the camera. So–but back then, you know, well, the initial catalyst was when they put me in the motor pool and gave me a red badge. And that was, like, punishment. And it snowed in February 2004, and they wanted me to, like, wipe the snow off 200 vehicles. And that was, like, I had steam blow through my ears, and that was it. We were going to war.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Okay.
TICE: That was it. It’s time to go tell what I know.
DESVARIEUX: Got it.
TICE: So at that point I started contacting the press.
DESVARIEUX: And did you save documents? What did you present to the press?
TICE: Well, we did not use documentation, because we felt that if we use documentation and it could be traced back to us, we might be in the same straits as Mr. Snowden right now. And I think that was probably the smart thing. Even in communications, we didn’t use electronics. We used things like dead drops. It was almost like, you know, spooky, you know, Spy vs. Spy kind of stuff, because, remember, we all worked with NSA, so we know what their capabilities are. So we know how to make sure that they cannot follow our own internal communications with our little group. So that’s how we operated to–.
DESVARIEUX: Gotcha. And you mentioned Edward Snowden and how you feel like at this point you’ve been vindicated because a lot of his revelations have just confirmed what you’ve been saying along. But I know you also have some issues of what he’s put out there. What, specifically?
TICE: Well, I try to limit myself to only talking about what I consider to be crimes that are committed against the American people and our constitution. I feel–and, believe me, I really have a debt in gratitude for Mr. Snowden because he’s basically, you know, taken that veil of craziness off of me. But I think there’s just too much information that’s been put out there with those files of his. Now, maybe that’s because he was under pressure, because I’m quite sure that he initially went to The Washington Post, and I know from my internal sources that NSA was running around with their hair cut off to try to find–this was two weeks before the information came out–because they knew they had a leak on their hands, because the editors of The Washington Post went to the government–the same thing that happened with The New York Times and things I was involved with way back when. And NSA literally was wiretapping the journalists that were involved. And I knew that. And that’s something that I let loose a long time ago, and the press did not seem to even care that I was telling them that they were being wiretapped by NSA.
DESVARIEUX: So Edward Snowden’s revelations related to foreign countries you probably–.
TICE: I think it’s too much, yeah. You know, that’s our job at NSA. Our job was to spy against–you know, with signals intelligence against foreign entities and non-nation entities that could possibly be a threat. So in all this angst about, you know, Angela Merkel and all that sort of thing, you know, a lot of that is nonsense, because, let me tell you, they spy on us, and we spy on them, and everybody spies on everybody in that kind of world. So that is sort of like–you know, it’s sort of like in Casablanca, where it’s like, what? Gambling here? As the captain is receiving his winnings from his night’s gambling. It’s sort of that hypocrisy there.
DESVARIEUX: Gotcha. Moving forward, what would you say if you could speak directly to those in charge in the NSA in terms of how to maintain citizens’ privacy? What needs to be done there in order to clean up the NSA’s act, essentially?
TICE: Well, first, those people in charge need to be tried, and if found guilty of violating our constitutional liberties, they need to be put in jail. We need to clean house at NSA. The place–basically we need to kill NSA and from the ashes, you know, build another agency that’s dedicated to the true mission, ’cause they have a valid mission. NSA–and believe me, I love the place. I love working there. I was a workaholic. I would be there early in the morning. I’d be there, you know, till six or seven. I’d be the guy closing the office. And I’d work through lunch most every day. I loved my job. I loved what I did there. And I felt that I was serving the American people.
Then I come to find out, you know, what has happened and the NSA is violating their own regulations, the laws, the Constitution. It was a brick to the head.
And so basically NSA has become a gorgon, a Medusa. And the Medusa has to die, the Medusa cannot live, because what’s going to happen with this capability, even if you believe our president now is the most benevolent president that we’ll ever have, maybe, what about the next president? What about the one after that? What about the one after that? You’ve given that individual the capability to basically turn this country into a dystopian police state.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Russ Tice, thank you so much for joining us in-studio and sharing your story.
TICE: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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