In case you were still harboring a smidgen of hope for President Change, Jane Mayer at the New Yorker has an article to disabuse you of that illusion. She relates the story of Thomas Drake, an NSA whistle-blower of exactly the type Obama claimed to support during his brief Senate career and his Presidential campaign. Yet the Obama administration is pursuing secrecy with more vigor than George Bush or Richard Nixon, and is thus prosecuting Drake rather than those who actually broke the law or endangered national security. Whatever that is.
What Drake did was leak some unclassified information to a newspaper reporter on what began as bureaucratic waste at the NSA and led to the ability to watch everyone in the country on a continuous basis. An NSA project codenamed ThinThread had been developed in-house for purposes of data mining, examining the connections between bits of information in search of links that might be suggestive. This sort of processing has only become possible in the last decade or so as computer power and storage space have become cheap and reliable enough to allow enormous data farms like those the NSA has set up in Utah and Texas. But of course it’s been the dream of every spy agency in history.
ThinThread worked very well, but collected lots of data on Americans. This being the pre-9/11 era, Bill Binney, who headed the ThinThread team, says they instituted privacy controls that anonymized data on Americans in most circumstances. The NSA decided instead to contract an outside firm to create a competitor codenamed Trailblazer. For several years the contracted company worked on the program, with some top-level people from the agency and the contractor switching employers. In the end, Trailblazer cost $1.2 billion and was dumped as useless.
So the NSA went back to ThinThread. However, in the post-9/11 world privacy controls were not what Bush administration officials wanted.
In [Drake’s] view, domestic data mining “could have been done legally” if the N.S.A. had maintained privacy protections. “But they didn’t want an accountable system.”
[Matthew] Aid, the author of the N.S.A. history [“The Secret Sentry”, 2008], suggests that ThinThread’s privacy protections interfered with top officials’ secret objective — to pick American targets by name. “They wanted selection, not just collection,” he says.
Bill Binney, the ThinThread team leader, retired from the NSA in protest at the direction it was taking. This was apparently not a minor retirement; Binney was at one time technical director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, six thousand people focused on the analysis of signals intelligence.
Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the N.S.A. has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google. After 9/11, he says, “General Hayden reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn’t put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need — it was getting every fish in the sea.”
Binney considers himself a conservative, and, as an opponent of big government, he worries that the N.S.A.’s data-mining program is so extensive that it could help “create an Orwellian state.” Whereas wiretap surveillance requires trained human operators, data mining is automated, meaning that the entire country can be watched. Conceivably, U.S. officials could “monitor the Tea Party, or reporters, whatever group or organization you want to target,” he says. “It’s exactly what the Founding Fathers never wanted.”
So who does the constitutional law professor-turned-President decide to prosecute? Someone involved in the blatant violations of the Constitution that are taking place every second? No, someone who tried to warn us that the government is permanantly storing copies of every email, every bill and financial transaction, and every phone number we call.