Chris Hedges and William Binney on NSA Policy

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Paul Jay of The Real News Network interviews Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a senior fellow at the Nation Institute, and William Binney, former technical director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group and a senior NSA cryptomathematician at the NSA.

This passage caught my eye:

BINNEY: The collective group of four whistleblowers from NSA–Kirk Wiebe, and Ed Loomis, Tom Drake, and myself–also Diane Roark, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer, who managed the NSA account, we all chipped in and put in some advice to the president as to some of the things he should be doing, as opposed to the 46 points that were prepared for him by the other–.

JAY: And what are the highlights of what you recommended?

BINNEY: [The first main issue] was to do–one was to show or to do a focused collection of information on targets that were really important for international crime or other types of terrorism and things like that. Those kinds of focused target collection are possible, and we in fact had achieved that in a previous program that was killed, but that’s the kind of thing they need to really get rid of all of this bulk collection, because all that does is add more data that’s not relevant to anything.

JAY: And how do you parse what’s to be focused on? How would you know?

BINNEY: Actually, it’s really pretty simple. If you know a terrorist or a dope smuggler, then that’s a known bad guy. And if you look at who he communicates with, either in email or phone, that’s, like, one degree of separation from a known bad guy. Then the next degree out is the second degree, that–who that guy communicates with.

JAY: But what about a situation that took place in England, like the 7/7, when the buses blew up. As far as I can make out, those guys didn’t know anybody, and that that–you know, tracing it back from them wouldn’t have found them, because I don’t think they ever found any connection between the 7/7 guys and any kind of organized network.

BINNEY: Well, see, the other rules that you input other than just the relationships [incompr.] zones of separation is that–look for people who are visiting websites that advocate violence or jihad against the West. And if you see those kinds of [crosstalk]

JAY: And I think in this situation, you would have found that.

BINNEY: Yes. Yeah. Those are the other rules. Other things, other kinds of things, very simply put, are if you have a satellite phone that’s coming out of the middle of Afghanistan in the mountains or in the middle of the jungles in Columbia, chances are those are terrorists or drug smugglers.

JAY: It’s probably not vacationers. Yeah.


BINNEY: Or a foreign correspondent.

JAY: It could be a foreign correspondent.

BINNEY: But you see, okay, the rules go like this, that if you find a foreign correspondent, then you can identify them once you target them and look at them. Then you sort them out. So you do that on a finite number. Now you’re not collecting the 7 billion people in the world; you’re only down to maybe a few hundred thousand.

JAY: Okay. You had designed–you are–what was it?–a cryptomathematician. I love that. I’m going to keep saying that. So when you were in NSA, you actually designed a program to do exactly what you’re saying, and they said no, and you quit. But they must have given you some arguments why they said no. What were their arguments against what you were doing?

BINNEY: They gave me no argument at all, except they just simply rejected the approach. It was just flat-out rejection.

I guess the argument went like this. They had almost 500 contractors working on this other program.

JAY: This–is that Trailblazer?

BINNEY: Yeah, that was Trailblazer. And they had six people, six contractors working on mine. So they said, what do I do? Make six people unhappy or 500? So it’s happiness management. And that was the way they made the decision.

JAY: But this also–does this not filter up to a more senior level with some kind of strategy about all this?

BINNEY: This was from the senior level. This was from the senior level.

JAY: But the most senior level.

BINNEY: Exactly. And it came down to an issue of this program solicited billions into the budget; this program didn’t.

That’s pretty funny. Who was the contractor? CGI Federal? I love it that we’re trashing the Fourth Amendment so a horde of Beltway Bandits can cash in on bulk data collection. Not that creating a Stasi-style surveillance state isn’t icing on the cake, of course.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. rusti

    I think Binney is interesting to listen to, but I’m not so sure Trailblazer being chosen over ThinTread to make people happy is believable. I suspect that was just one justification given to him to soften the blow to his pride, Trailblazer was obviously the more powerful tool to the people wielding it.

    Dan Carlin of the fantastic Hardcore History podcast did an hour long interview with Binney about 2 months ago. Downloadable (Episode 265) in the archives:

    1. Andrew Watts

      William Binney wasn’t alone in blowing the whistle on Trailblazer/Thinthread.

      Does the name ‘Thomas Drake’ ring a bell?

      Perhaps if they’d both been more successful in their efforts Snowden would not have felt the need to go through with what he ultimately did do. I’d sure like to know what was said when Snowden met Drake privately when he was presented with an award in Moscow.

      The reality is that hackers have always viewed themselves as the last line of defense in the face of an Orwellian state. Before ‘The Matrix’ exploded onto the cultural scene there was ‘Swordfish’ and the Angelina Jolie movie ‘Hackers’. The protagonist of Swordfish was an ex-hacker who was convicted for sabotaging the FBI’s electronic surveillance program codenamed Carnivore…

    2. Randy

      Thanks a ton for the link, I love hardcore history didn’t know he had other podcasts. Or I forgot.

  2. impermanence

    The government is illegally spying on people. What else do people need to know?

    So, either you fix the problem or you live with it [just like all the theft that masquerades as “business” in this country].

    Nothing will happen because the professional class is afraid of EVERYTHING and dependent on EVERYTHING. God forbid they actually sacrifice [and begin the transformation back to economic/political sanity] so their kids/grand-kids can have a shot a better life.

    Truly pathetic.

  3. Bruce Johnson

    As I suspected, the NSA spying problem is really about jobs and money for political contributors.

  4. TedWa

    More stories allude to blackmail of high level politicians and military leaders (is Obama being blackmailed?). Those that know the secrets of a nations leaders can control that nation. Think of the possibilities.
    Any war that costs us the Constitution is a war we’ve lost. The terrorists have won. Now it comes down to figuring out who exactly are the terrorists that cost us the Constitution. I think we all know – those that lied to protect this illegal activity. I’m reminded of the sayings “be careful in fighting monsters lest you become one” and “we have seen the enemy and it is us”.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Blackmail or not, I think we can safely assume that Obama is among the most surveilled people in the country.

      In Kropotkin’s Memoir’s of a Revolutionist, he writes of being arrested and his police interrogator blithely saying that not only were the revolutionary groups hopelessly infiltrated, but the Czar himself was ultimately the most closely spied upon person in the empire.

  5. LifelongLib

    “look for people who are visiting websites that advocate violence or jihad against the West”

    So those of us who occasionally want to know what the bad guys are actually saying (as opposed to what someone else says they’re saying) are going to be targets? Or who visit a site for some other reason and don’t even know that it “advocates violence or jihad”? The other day I went to an Islamic site because I’d googled for info on how Muslims orient their prayer mats. I didn’t see anything about jihad but I wasn’t looking for it either. Could I now be on a list somewhere?

    1. Fiver

      Agree. There’s something pretty strange happening in our minds when it’s OK to violate just a few hundred thousand persons’ rights a lot rather than everyone’s a little, and that’s a “win”.
      Meanwhile, the zero-cost solution to “enemies” is to stop making them – NSA can have that one for free.

  6. bob

    Binney still thinks that NSA surveillance can be done legally. I don’t agree with him that it can be done without looking at Americans, or that it should be done on the level that it was be done under his direction.

    But, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to what he says. The problem is that he will never see himself as part of the problem.

    One of the more interesting bits of his work was when he started looking for medicare fraud (billing fraud) with his giant machines. This was the bit that likely resulted in his leaving. It worked WAY too well, and nothing ever came of it.

    I think he’s an extremely intelligent person. I believe most of what he says. But he is still the architect of most of the worst programs that have come out of the NSA. He is a lot like the people that were working on the Manhattan project. They all believed they were working for good. He is well worth listening to, but taking his word as law is dangerous, especially as this post does. He’s very close to Edward Teller in this respect.

  7. Crazy Horse

    You just posted to a site that exists to criticize malfeasance in the financial system that is the dominant force in the US kleptocracy. Who do you think the National Security State was organized to protect? And you wonder if you might now be on a list somewhere?

    Liberals are naive children —.

  8. Randy

    I find Binney’s claim about outright dismissal quite plausible. Budget is everything to managers everywhere especially in USGOV. Those people are insane. Talk about moral hazard! Budget is God, if you increase it you’re blessed. I mean increase the rate of increase.

    And libs wonder why conservatives bang on and on about shrinking government.

    1. Teejay

      Due respect, if I’m understanding you correct, the part of govt that the R’s want to shrink is the regulatory part. The can’t get that part too small. It’ll never be small enough for them. They love to talk about reducing the deficit, but look at the growth in the debt with each administration. Granted the democratic wing of the Democratic Party has been overtaken by Corporate Democrats, but know this:
      what you and I mean by “making govt smaller” isn’t what the R’s mean.

  9. Teejay

    Allow me to zero in even closer on the eye catcher: Binney: ” And that was the way they made the decision.” How many more decisions made like this can our society endure? The FBI’s Freeh and Pickard ignored John O’Neil (see Frontline 2002 “The Man Who Knew”). It’s
    heartbreaking the number of people who had important information (e.g. Binney, Rowley, O”Neil et al) that cuold very well have prevented 9/11 and someone decided to ignore them.

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