James Bamford on NSA Secrets, Keith Alexander's Influence & Massive Growth of Surveillance, Cyberwar

June 14, 2013


James Bamford

investigative reporter who has covered the National Security Agency for the last three decades and helped expose the NSA’s existence in the 1980s. His most recent book on the agency is The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.

As the U.S. vows to take "all necessary steps" to pursue whistleblower Edward Snowden, James Bamford joins us to discuss the National Security Agency’s secret expansion of government surveillance and cyberwarfare. In his latest reporting for Wired magazine, Bamford profiles NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and connects the dots on PRISM, phone surveillance and the NSA’s massive spy center in Bluffdale, Utah. Says Bamford of Alexander: "Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign or the depth of his secrecy." The author of "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America," Bamford has covered the National Security Agency for the last three decades, after helping expose its existence in the 1980s.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: FBI Director Robert Mueller has vowed to take "all necessary steps" to hold whistleblower Edward Snowden responsible for exposing secret surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. Speaking days after NSA contractor Snowden claimed responsibility for the leaks, Mueller confirmed to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday that the U.S. has launched a criminal investigation.

ROBERT MUELLER: As to the individual who has admitted making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety. We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures. As this matter is actively under investigation, we cannot comment publicly on the details of the investigation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, the head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, defended the surveillance programs Wednesday and claimed they had helped prevent dozens of potential terrorist events. Several lawmakers who support the programs pushed the NSA to declassify information about these intercepted plots. Other lawmakers were critical of the monitoring of U.S. citizens. This is Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: It’s my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Snowden has pledged to fight any attempt to extradite him to the United States. In an interview at an undisclosed Hong Kong location published in the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, he said, quote, "All I can do is rely on my training and hope that world governments will refuse to be bullied by the United States into persecuting people seeking political refuge." The Associated Press reports the British government issued a travel alert to airlines around the world not to allow Snowden to fly to the United Kingdom.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by James Bamford, investigative reporter who has covered the National Security Agency for the last three decades, helped expose the NSA’s existence in the 1980s. His most recent book is The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. In his latest article for Wired magazine, he profiles NSA Director Keith Alexander in "The Secret War." He also has a piece on "Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center." Bamford writes of NDA—of NSA head, Alexander, quote, "Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy."

James Bamford, welcome back to Democracy Now! Tell us just who NSA chief Alexander is.

JAMES BAMFORD: Thanks, Amy. Good to be back.

Keith Alexander is a four-star general. And if you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, it’s very unlikely that even members of Congress wouldn’t even recognize who he is. His name is unfamiliar to most Americans. His face is unfamiliar to most people even in Washington. So, he’s a very mysterious person, but he’s the most powerful person that’s ever existed in the American intelligence community. First of all, he runs the largest intelligence agency and the most secret intelligence agency on Earth, probably, which is the NSA, in charge of enormous numbers of people that do just amazing electronic spying, as we could see in the revelations just in the last week.

In addition to that, he runs basically his own military. It’s the U.S. Cyber Command, which was just placed under his authority. The U.S. Cyber Command is an extremely powerful organization that’s already launched aggressive, what they call "kinetic attacks." Kinetic attacks means destructive attacks using cyber to actually destroy things. And they destroyed the centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear development plant using cyber. So, as is—as being commander of U.S. Cyber Command, he’s also got three branches of the military under him. He’s got the 2nd Army, the 24th Air Force and the 10th Navy Fleet. So you’ve got an enormously powerful person who’s enormously secret and who can do things without even members of Congress knowing about it.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s linked to Rumsfeld in his rise to power?

JAMES BAMFORD: Rumsfeld was the person who really gave him most of his stars. He came from almost nowhere. He was a West Point graduate, and he rose up through the ranks in the NSA’s secret world. But then, when the Bush administration came in, he really began rising high in the administration, going from one-star to three-star in a very short period of time, and now four stars.

AMY GOODMAN: Abu Ghraib?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, one of the people that—one of the groups that he was in charge of when he was head of the Army’s Intelligence Command were the people in Abu Ghraib, the military intelligence people who were connected to a lot of the human rights abuses that went on there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some of the fears that have been expressed by some U.S. officials in terms of the Snowden revelations is that he has alluded to other information that he has, potentially about U.S. cyber-attacks abroad. Could you comment on that?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, you know, the interesting thing here is that the administration, and particularly the NSA, has been coming out with all these charges against China going after our secrets, our information, and so forth. It’s caused the Congress to give enormous amounts of money to NSA, this money for defensive use against the Chinese and so forth. What never comes out is the U.S. offensive capability against the rest of the world. The U.S.—there’s nobody that can even compare to the U.S. We’ve got an enormous Cyber Command. They’re expanding NSA’s secret city by a third to accommodate 14 new buildings, 10 parking garages, a new enormous supercomputer center—all this for this new, very secret Cyber Command. And it’s dedicated largely to offensive, to creating wars, not preventing wars.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, there were some reports in the press in China, first commenting on the leaks of Snowden and saying that this could potentially change relationships between China and the United States because it’s now become clear that the United States is involved in cyber-espionage on a massive scale around the world.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the U.S. have been involved in that since the very beginning. That’s what NSA’s job is, is espionage. And it was at the forefront of the electronic eavesdropping era, and it’s at the forefront of the cyberwarfare era. I mean, the first thing you have to do when you’re doing cyberwarfare is discover how their systems work. And you do that by inserting viruses, different kinds of malware into their systems, and that’s what NSA’s job is. So, we’ve got an entire command now. Fourteen thousand more people are going to be working for General Alexander now in Cyber Command. So, this is a serious command. As I said, he’s got Army and Navy and Air Force under him. This is—this is the real thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Thursday, NSA director, General Keith Alexander, said the American people had been misinformed about the extent of the agency’s surveillance. This is what he said.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: I would tell you, I’ve been working with this committee for the past several years. They are very good about asking all the questions and providing tremendous oversight, as does the court and the administration. This is not a program where we are out free-wheeling it. It is a well-overseen and a very focused program. What we owe you, the American people, is now how good is that, with some statistics. And I think when the American people hear that, they’re going to stop and say, "Wait, the information we’re getting is incorrect." So I would just tell the American people that, let’s take a step back, look at what’s going on, the oversight and compliance, and then let’s have this discussion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was General Keith Alexander. Your response?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, there’s one area that I agree with him, and that’s the information that the public is getting—that the public is getting is incorrect. But it’s incorrect because it’s coming from Keith Alexander and the administration. What’s incorrect is the fact that you had General Clapper up there denying in Congress that the U.S. was engaged in any of this kind of activity. General Alexander—well, I wrote about this. Basically, the same things that are coming out from Mr. Snowden, I wrote about in Wired last year in a cover story, where I interviewed Bill Binney and so forth, and they verbally told me basically the same thing. And very soon after, Keith Alexander came out denying all this, which is—gives me a lot of thought about what might have been going through Snowden’s mind, for example.

If he sees the other whistleblowers coming out, like Bill Binney, other people, Tom Drake and so forth, and they come out and say that the government is doing these things, and then the administration and NSA comes out and says, "That’s not true. We’re not doing them," and then the mainstream media sort of just follows in line—falls in line with the NSA position, you know, what could go through somebody’s mind is, well, the only way to actually get attention to this is show the real documents, show what really is going on. And you can’t deny, if you’re—deny it, if you’re actually looking at a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order that actually shows that all these telephone records are being collected, even local records, on a daily basis. So, that’s the problem, is this escalation. You try to tell the public what’s going on; the administration denies it. Well, what’s next? You’ve got to show the proof. You’ve got to show the documents.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, explain the spy center that’s being built in Bluffdale, Utah.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s a mammoth—actually, the best way to think of it is NSA’s external hard drive. It’s a storage place for all that NSA gets from its surveillance, including the daily records of everybody’s telephone calls, which, again, we’ve just been hearing about in the news. But it’s not just that. It’s all this information that’s coming in from the Internet that the NSA picks out. It’s all their surveillance from all around the country, all around the world. And it all goes into this one place. It’s basically a huge data warehouse where all this information is placed. But it also serves as the cloud for NSA, the cloud being the central repository where every—where all the information is kept. And then, through these fiber-optic cables that go out from it, people at NSA headquarters, people at NSA listening posts in Georgia, Texas, all these places, are able to immediately go in. It’s just like, like I said, a hard drive. You go in, and you analyze all that information that’s in there. So if they’re collecting my telephone records today, who I’m calling, then tomorrow or tonight the NSA could go into those records in Bluffdale, Utah, and analyze them. So, that’s basically what it’s for. It’s this massive repository for all the information that NSA is collecting. And it’s a million square feet. It’s an enormous amount of space at a time when you can put a terabyte worth of data on just a blade on a Swiss Army knife, which can, like I said, hold a terabyte worth of data, and this is a million square feet, costing $2 billion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about—in 2012, at the annual DEF CON convention, the hacker convention, NSA director, General Keith Alexander, was asked whether the NSA keeps a file on every U.S. citizen. This was his response.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: No, we don’t. Absolutely not. And anybody who would tell you that we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people know that’s not true. And let me tell you why. First, under our agency, we have a responsibility. Our job is foreign intelligence. We get oversight by Congress, both intel committees and their congressional members and their staffs, so everything we do is auditable by them, by the FISA Court—so the judiciary branch of our government—and by the administration. And everything we do is accountable to them. And within the administration, it’s from the director of national intelligence, it’s from the Department of Justice, it’s from the Department of Defense. I feel like when I was a kid growing up—and some of you may feel like this, too. You know, you might get in a little trouble. You’re supervised a lot and maybe had to spend time in the hall. Well, that’s the way I feel today. We are overseen by everybody. And I will tell you that those who would want to weave the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: James Bamford, that was General Keith Alexander, again, at the DEF CON convention in 2012 in—as we mentioned yesterday, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a black T-shirt. Your response, especially this whole thing that he raises about we’re just involved in foreign intelligence gathering?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s funny. I was there, too. I also spoke at the DEF CON conference there. But the comments that General Alexander made, I thought, were amazingly out of place, because here it is, we just discovered he has all these dossiers that he’s listing, that he’s got all these records on American people and all these links into American Internet. What he’s talking about in terms of oversight also is—is just nonsense. He talks about the courts. Well, the court he’s talking about is a top-secret court that nobody is even allowed to know where it exists, where its address is, let alone getting any information from it. And in the last—or, the last time that they overhauled the legislation, they weakened the court a great deal. So, I’m sure—was that the answer you were looking for? What was the question again?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, basically, his emphasis on the foreign intelligence gathering, as well, the role of NSA.

JAMES BAMFORD: Right, right, right, yeah. Well, that’s always what they claim, is that, "Look, we’re not involved in the United States at all. We’re not involved in U.S. interception at all. We’re just involved in foreign communications." Well, you know, if you look at that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order that was released, what it talks about is getting from Verizon not just overseas calls, it talks about local calls. These are calls that aren’t even going to be on your bill. I mean, these are local calls or, you know, somebody calling their grandmother next door. We’ve come down to that, where the government is trying to get access to even your local calls. And I don’t see any connection between that and what they say. What they claim is that we’re only doing international, we’re only doing foreign communications. Well, when you’re asking for local phone calls throughout the United States, everybody in the United States, on a daily basis, you know, where’s the truth in all these claims?

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator Rand Paul said on Thursday he plans to take legal action against the NSA’s nationwide surveillance of telephone records. He also argued the NSA’s monitoring is ineffective.

SEN. RAND PAUL: I believe we can have liberty and security. I believe that we are actually more secure when we narrow our focus and target specific suspects. Despite mining billions of American phone calls, we still had the Boston bombing. Perhaps we are overwhelming ourselves with data. Perhaps this unfocused approach distracted us from knowing that one of the Boston bombers had gone back to Chechnya. Perhaps targeting everyone distracts us from stopping people such as the underwear bomber, who we were tipped off about in advance.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Senator Rand Paul. James Bamford, your response?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I’ve been saying the same thing. And the fact is that, you know, if you’re trying to find a needle in a haystack, the last thing you want to do is continually put more hay on that haystack. You want get people that are more—hire people that are more capable of finding the needle, rather than hiring people to—with a pitchfork to put more hay on the haystack. And that’s always what happens. Every time there’s an incident, they just say, "We need more information."

Not only that, this idea that they’re doing this totally covertly is just anti-democratic. The British—I just came back from about 10 days over in London. And before all this broke out over here, they were debating the same thing in England, because the government wanted access to all the metadata of the communications in the country, and they wanted to order the ISPs to store all the incoming and outgoing Internet data for a year, so the government can monitor it, go through the metadata and so forth. The difference, however, is, is that they decided to do that legally, through a bill through Parliament, where it was actually debated in Parliament and debated in the press. And people in the public were talking about it. And it was voted down. The public said that’s too much of an intrusion for the balance of—what they were saying, the balances in security. So, here you have a democratic system in England where they’re—they have a choice, and they vote against it. Here, they probably figure, "Well, if we bring this out to a vote, people will vote against it, so we’ll just impose it on them secretly." That’s not a democratic—that’s certainly not the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, we want to thank you very much for being with us, investigative reporter who’s covered the National Security Agency for more than three decades, helping to expose the NSA’s even existence. He most—his most recent book is called The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He has two new pieces in Wired: "The Secret War," which profiles NSA director, General Keith Alexander, and "Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center." We’ll link to them both at democracynow.org.

When we come back, the landmark decision issued by the Supreme Court barring patenting human genes. It was nine to zero. Stay with us.