What do They know about you? An interview with NSA analyst William Binney

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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William Binney worked as a National Security Agency analyst for nearly 30 years, eventually becoming the technical director of the of the world geopolitical and military analysis and reporting group. After retiring from the NSA in 2001, Binney became an increasingly vocal critic of the intelligence community, raising alarms about mission creep, wasteful projects and surveillance of law-abiding Americans. Although he still collects a pension from his old employer, the NSA has yanked his security clearance and his home was raided in 2007 as part of a leak investigation in which he was eventually cleared. Binney spoke with The Daily Caller about the latest NSA revelations from his home in Maryland.

Daily Caller: The first of the recent NSA scandals we’ve heard about was the seizure of Verizon’s phone records. How seriously should we take that?

William Binney: Look at the court order that went to Verizon [pdf]. In the upper right portion of page 1 there’s a number, 13-80. That means that’s the eightieth order from that court in 2013. Now if you assume all of the other 79 orders are going to other telecoms and providers, to do the same thing — and these things are issued every quarter — that’s the second issue to Verizon this year. So if you took that and said, OK, 80 orders and each of the companies got two, that means a minimum of at least 40 companies’ data assembled.There’s an article floating around the web now saying about 50 companies are cooperating with these orders. So that number is not unreasonable for orders for commercially held data.

Daily Caller: We’re told these are just records of calls made — times, durations, numbers called, and so forth. But what universe of information are we talking about that’s available to the NSA?

Binney: The former FBI agent, Tim Clemente, says they can get access to the content of any audio, any phone call. He says that there are no digital communications that are safe or secure. So that means that they were tapping into the databases that NSA has. For the recorded audio, and for the textual materials like emails and phone.

Daily Caller: All textual material?

Binney: Any kind of textual material is relatively easy to get. The audio is a little more difficult. Now I don’t think they’re recording all of it; there are about 3 billion phone calls made within the USA every day. And then around the world, there are something like 10 billion a day. But, while they may not record anywhere near all of that, what they do is take their target list, which is somewhere on the order of 500,000 to a million people. They look through these phone numbers and they target those and that’s what they record.

Daily Caller: There’s been some talk about the authorities having a recording of a phone call Tamerlan Tsarnaev had with his wife. That would be something before the bombing?

Binney: Before the bombing, yes.

Daily Caller: Then how would they have that audio?

Binney: Because the NSA recorded it.

Daily Caller: But apparently the Russians tipped off the FBI, which then did a cursory interview and cleared him. So how were they recording him?

Binney: Because the Russians gave a warning for him as a target. Once you’re on a list, they start recording everything. That’s what I’m saying.

Daily Caller: So why didn’t they prevent the bombing?

Binney: Once you’ve recorded something, that doesn’t mean they have it transcribed. It depends on what they transcribe and what they do with the transcription.

Daily Caller: So it seems logical to ask: Why do we need all of this new data collection when they’re not following up obvious leads, such as an intelligence agency calling and saying you need to be aware of this particular terrorist?

Binney: It’s sensible to ask, but that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re making themselves dysfunctional by collecting all of this data. They’ve got so much collection capability but they can’t do everything. They’re probably getting something on the order of 80 percent of what goes up on the network. So they’re going into the telecoms who have recorded all of the material that has gone across the network. And the telecoms keep a record of it for I think about a year. They’re asking the telecoms for all the data so they can fill in the gaps. So between the two sources of what they’ve collected, they get the whole picture.

They can do textual processing at a rate of about 10 gigabits a second. What that means is about a million and a quarter 1,000-character emails a second. They’ve got something like 10 to 20 sites for this around the United States. So you can really see why they need to build something like Utah to store all of this stuff. But the basic problem is they can’t figure out what they have, so they store it all in the hope that down the road they might figure something out and they can go back and figure out what’s happening and what people did. It’s retroactive analysis. The FBI is using it that way too.

Daily Caller: Can you do that for audio? Can they retroactively put together the conversation we’re having right now? Suppose nobody from the government is taping this conversation right now. Is there any way they can go back and reconstruct it?

Binney: Well I think I’m on a target list, so anybody that my phone calls, they will be recorded. So yeah.

Daily Caller: Does this mean that my phone number is now going to be on a list?

Binney: You are now part of my community, so you can assume you are now going to be targeted, too.

Daily Caller: What did you make of the news over the last couple of days with Mr. Snowden coming forward?

Binney: Well obviously, I would have started out by trying to go different routes, like going to the intelligence committee, or the IG. I mean that didn’t do any good but that’s the route I took; I at least tried to do the right thing. So I’m not going to try to understand his motivation. I guess he was properly disturbed by the surveillance state we have, or the police state if you want to call it that. I wouldn’t have done it that way, but that’s the way he did it.

Daily Caller: But you said going through the proper channels didn’t do any good.

Binney: Yes, it didn’t do any good. I would still have done that to say I tried. And then, when it completely failed, then I might consider something radical.

Daily Caller: What about the specifics of what Snowden is claiming: that a guy like him, a Booz Allen contractor basically, can get all of my emails, all of my passwords, my credit card records, and everything else, all of my phone calls, etc. Is that true? Is it really that simple for one guy who’s not even at what we would think of as the highest level of security clearance to do that?

Binney: Well if he’s got access to the system, he can go into the database and pull that, yes.

Daily Caller: What system are we talking about?

Binney: It used to be called Stellar Wind and now it’s called Ragtime. Ragtime P is the domestic stuff. That may be a reference to the Patriot Act Section 215.

Daily Caller: So what are they doing with all of this information? If they can’t stop the Boston marathon bombing, what are they doing with it?

Binney: Well again, they’re putting an extra burden on all of their analysts. It’s not something that’s going to help them; it’s something that’s burdensome. There are ways to do the analysis properly, but they don’t really want the solution because if they got it, they wouldn’t be able to keep demanding the money to solve it. I call it their business statement, “Keep the problems going so the money keeps flowing.” It’s all about contracts and money.

Daily Caller: But isn’t data collection getting easier and processing speeds getting faster and data collection cheaper? Isn’t the falling price one of the reasons they can collect data at this massive level?

Binney: Yes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, can you figure out what’s important in it? And figure out the intentions and capabilities of the people you’re monitoring? And they are in no way prepared to do that, because that takes analysis. That’s what the big data initiative was all about out of the White House last year. It was to try to get algorithms and figure out what’s important and tell the people what’s important so that they can find things. The probability of them finding what’s really there is low.

Daily Caller: Well if that’s where the priorities are, should we ask if the goal really is to prevent terrorism? Or is it to know as much as possible about Americans — at an individual level and a society level?

Binney: That’s my point. When you ask how much damage these leaks have done to our capability, they’ve actually done absolutely nothing. The terrorists were monitoring all of this information anyway, so they had a pretty good idea of what was being collected. So, who are we keeping this from? It’s not the terrorists. We are really keeping it from the American public. Because that’s who they’re collecting data about. And that’s who they’re keeping it secret from. The terrorists already knew all this stuff.

Daily Caller: How searchable is this material? Let’s say I want to use NSA material against the tea party. Could I do that?

Binney: That would be very simple. You just take the key point “tea party,” plug it in the graph, and you get everybody. That smacks of what they’re doing.

I was listening to the testimony of one of the tea party people to Congress, one of the people being abused by the IRS, and she said she was asked, “What is my relationship with this person?” And the IRS agent gave her the name. Well, the question becomes, how did the IRS know the relationship with that person? And one way they’d know that is from this program, for sure.

So the question is, is someone in the White House, in the line of command, using any access to that program to find a tea party initiative or tea party people trying to get tax exempt status so they can pass them along for the IRS to target? That’s a question I think the government needs to answer, and prove that that’s not happening.

But when have they ever told you the truth from 2001 on? They only tell you the truth when they’ve been caught or exposed. And then, they only tell you what’s been exposed. They never go any further. Then, they wait for the next exposure to come out. How can you believe it?

Daily Caller: Does that kind of targeting happen? Is it possible for someone right now, from the EPA, or the IRS, or any other entity of the government, to just go and say, “Hey we’ve got some people who are causing trouble for us. They’re making FOIA requests we don’t like, or they’re politically not in our favor, so can we go right to NSA and get this information?”

Binney: Well that’s certainly possible. I don’t think they’d ask that openly. But if they had access to the program, all they’d have to do is go on it and get the data.

Daily Caller: So who has that access? According to Snowden even a high school-dropout contractor can do it.

Binney: Yeah. I mean that’s how they get into the system. Anybody with a terminal can have access to the systems.

Daily Caller: Anybody outside of NSA?

Binney: Yes, the FBI. I don’t know if they do it from the fusion centers or where, but the FBI has access to it. FBI Director Robert Mueller testified about that.

Daily Caller: The stuff that’s come up in the last couple days, is it a good thing? Is there any possibility of reform or restoration of the Fourth Amendment?

Binney: Certainly it’s possible to do. There’s a technical way to do it. But these people have all been duped by the intelligence community agencies. They throw technobabble down at the Congress and the judges. And those people have no idea what they’re talking about. All they can do is listen to the agencies and take their word for it. And they have no way of double checking or verifying. So I look at the oversight by Congress and the courts as just a joke. In the last year, how many requests for a warrant has the FISA court rejected? Zero. It’s just a rubber stamp. In 2002 the FISA courts found out that the FBI lied on 75 affidavits for a warrant. And they didn’t do anything as a result of that. How good of an oversight is that? It’s nothing, it’s a joke.

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