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NSA Whistleblower Kirk Wiebe Details Gov’t Retaliation After Helping Expose “Gross Mismanagement”

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Veteran National Security Agency official Kirk Wiebe helped develop the data processing system ThinThread, which he believed could have potentially prevented the 9/11 attacks. But the NSA sidelined ThinThread instead of the problem-plagued experimental program Trailblazer, which cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Wiebe was among the NSA officials to face retaliation for blowing the whistle on Trailblazer. During his career, he received honors, including the NSA’s second-highest award, the Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the director of CIA’s Meritorious Unit Award, and a Letter of Commendation from the secretary of the Air Force. Wiebe joins us to tell his story and to respond to the White House-appointed panel to recommend NSA reforms. We also speak with Ben Wizner, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who is helping to coordinate Edward Snowden’s legal defense.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Kirk Wiebe, if you could talk about that, and also if you would share with us your own story, you yourself subjected—well, your whole family subjected to a daylong armed raid by federal authorities. But respond on that issue of metadata, as a former intelligence—

KIRK WIEBE: Well, yes, Amy, Ben captured it very nicely. It is true that in terms of speed and comprehension, comprehensiveness, if you will, metadata provides an opportunity to assess the activities of a targeted person or entity much more rapidly, and therefore—and because it’s machinable. The world operates on metadata. It is exactly how data is moved. When you dial a phone number—we say dial—when we punch up a phone number, instantly almost, the other end is ringing the person intended to receive the call. This is true of email: In seconds, it arrives at the person’s inbox—when things are working right. So, the speed—the opportunity for speed and comprehension of what a targeted entity is doing is enormous.

And especially if you watch it daily over time, you can actually then begin to paint a picture of a person’s lifestyle, where they are, because it’s not just phone calls. It’s bank deposits. It’s credit card swipes at the gas station, at the flower shop, when a man’s on the way home and buys flowers for his wife. It’s the E-ZPass transponder that measures or knows what ramp you got on a toll road. You amass this data. You have time hacks of every place an individual is when they do those things. So every time that you touch an electronic system, there’s droppings left. There’s a record that can be exploited.

AMY GOODMAN: And your own story, Kirk Wiebe?

KIRK WIEBE: Yes. You know, I have mixed emotions about it, because my job is not to destroy NSA, by any means. I was a member of a proud agency, that’s had some black marks on its path in terms of spying on Americans, but we had been assured that was never going to happen again after the Church Committee. And we had guidelines under USSID-18, which said, “Thou shalt not spy on Americans,” except upon probable cause shown to a judge that there’s evidence of wrongdoing, criminality, terrorism or whatever. So, everything seemed to be copacetic, congruent with the Constitution, and it was a fun place to work, on true targets of concern. In the latter part of my career, when I met up with Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, ultimately Tom Drake, and of course Diane Roark from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, that had been my experience, one that was very positive. And I was awarded for my work.

But then we began to see the agency’s intent on exploiting the digital age. And the digital age takes various forms. We talk about Facebook. We talk about the Internet, telephone, personal devices of every kind, iPods that can communicate now. So there’s a plethora of means of communication, all important to sort out for national intelligence purposes, but focused on foreign threats—and domestic, if there’s evidence that they exist. And that was the philosophy. That was the approach. And that’s what we built our original prototype system to work against in terms of analyzing big data. There needed to be a way to look into big data quickly for assessment purposes and be able to, as quickly as possible, home in on that fertile territory, that data connected with legitimate terrorist criminality and so forth.

When we found out that the NSA was directing resources against Americans without probable cause, this was late in 2001 just prior to, surrounding the events of 9/11, which happened concurrently as this technology was blooming. Nine-eleven really served as a marker that we had failed as an agency. We had been trying to get the NSA to lean forward, if you will, in its digital seat to get in—to get tools into the fight, with all this digital data, and find terrorism and so forth. And we had an opportunity to put it out there nine months before 9/11. Bad culture inside the building and bad process, that managers are supposed to ensure does not happen, defeated the small successful prototype in approach that embodied the principles of the Fourth Amendment in it. And it was eliminated in favor of Trailblazer.

Well, when 9/11 happened and we failed and the project that we had been developing called ThinThread was not adopted, we felt we had no other things to do at NSA. And since three of us were eligible for retirement, we retired, formed a small company and tried to bring the concepts of ThinThread to other agencies in the government. We succeeded in demonstrating its capabilities in a government contract with Boeing Company in 2004, but a high executive in the agency that that contract serves said, “We have to stop these guys. They’re going to embarrass NSA,” because we had found things in a set of data, that two agencies had, that NSA had not, and that was embarrassing. So that contract was stopped.

We then found another contract at Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol. We found some news-breaking data there about an operation involving Iranian businesses importing electronics to support the building of triggering devices for IEDs. And we found that—and this is not classified. This data, this fact, was actually broadcast publicly by the Department of Commerce to U.S. businesses, putting them on alert that certain people, individuals and businesses were trying to import electronics to build triggering devices for IEDs to be used against our troops abroad and coalition forces. We simply, Bill Binney and I, sat down, used Google at home, on our spare time, to formulate a profile of these businesses, where they were, how they were functioning, and it turned out they were all false fronts to cover up the import operation. We put all the—we connected the dots for the government, reported it to Customs and Border Patrol, where we were working. They took the data and briefed it up the line. And within two weeks, we were let go from our contract. I guess we had embarrassed too many people.

Long story short, two years later, seven gentlemen—I shouldn’t call them gentlemen—seven people are arrested in Florida by the FBI associated with this import operation. We were pleased that we could contribute, even if not officially in an official position for the government. But as far as NSA was concerned, we launched an IG complaint in 2002 talking about gross mismanagement and fraud—not so much fraud, but more about gross mismanagement.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an inspector general report.

KIRK WIEBE: Yes, it was.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened—we’ve had Bill Binney on, and he talked about the federal authorities coming in, raiding his home. He’s got a gun up against his head as he’s in the shower. His kid and his wife, they’re all under the gun. What about you, Kirk Wiebe?

KIRK WIEBE: Right. Well, as Bill told you, we were raided in 2007. In fact, it was July 26th at 9:00 a.m., in a coordinated strike against me, Bill Binney, Diane Roark of—the HIPSC staffer, and Ed Loomis.

AMY GOODMAN: House Intelligence.

KIRK WIEBE: Right. And they came to my home. I was actually sitting at my computer looking out the window, and I noticed about a dozen or so FBI agents coming across my yard in the dark blue uniforms with the gold letters ”FBI” on their backs. And immediately, a chill went up my spine. I said, “Uh-oh,” to myself, and I ran to the front door, because I didn’t want them to break in the door—not that they had an intention to, but I didn’t know that at the time.

So I opened the door. The lead agent showed me his badge to identify himself, and a search warrant. They asked me who else was in the house. My mother-in-law was, along with my eldest daughter. They were still up sleeping. And they asked me to get them downstairs and have them sit on the couch in the front room. They asked me if I had any pets. I said, “Yes, I have two dogs.” They asked me to lock those in the bathroom. My youngest daughter and wife had already left the house on an errand and didn’t know any of this was happening at the time.

And they entered, and they asked me—they didn’t ask me. They escorted me to the outside deck—this was July, it wasn’t cold—and babysat me there for the next seven-and-a-half hours while this group of about 12 or so agents went through the house documenting everything they found, rummaging through papers, taking computers, anything with a digital memory, gathering it up, putting it into—they had about five or six vans, unmarked white vans, out in my driveway—piled all that stuff in the vans, took printers, a whole bunch of stuff, and left.

Now, while this was going on, my wife comes home with my youngest daughter. They see all these vans lined up in the driveway. I have a 400-foot driveway because my home is on a flag lot. It actually sits behind other homes that are streetside. So, it’s a long driveway, and that was lined with vehicles, FBI vehicles. They were worried something had happened to me, maybe medical or whatever. The FBI explained what had happened and took them and sat them on the couch, at the same time.

Now, they did not have guns drawn. And people—you know, I’ve thought about why were they drawn when they went to Bill Binney’s house, and the only difference I can think of is the fact that Bill had at one time been a registered owner of firearms. He doesn’t have them anymore, but he was at one point. And probably the FBI does a check on the database to see if the person they’re targeting for a raid has weapons in the house or not—is my guess—and it’s a safety procedure for those teams. But that’s kind of what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: You were never charged?

KIRK WIEBE: No, never charged.


KIRK WIEBE: No, not at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to go to Ben about the—another question, key question, I had about the report. Encryption—supposedly encryption is a safeguard for ordinary Americans, businesses and others, who might want to protect their privacy on the Internet. This report basically urges the government not to continue to undermine encryption or to—and to instead seek to strengthen it. Your sense of the report’s recommendations on the encryption issue?

BEN WIZNER: This is really important. This comes out of an important article that The New York Times published about an NSA program called Bullrun, where we learned that the NSA, even as part of its mission is to secure the Internet, secure communications, protect us from cyber-attacks by strengthening encryption, was simultaneously undermining, systematically, encryption standards around the world so that its spies could break into these communications. The problem is, a backdoor for the NSA is a backdoor for everyone else, too. It’s a backdoor for hackers. It’s a backdoor for China. It’s a backdoor for criminals. There’s a fundamental tension between this cybersecurity mission, which is to defend the country and the safety of communications, and the aggressive spying mission. And the NSA had fundamentally favored the spying and surveillance mission over the security mission in a way that put all Americans’ and really all the world’s communications at risk. So if this recommendation is adopted, I think it’s a very important one.

AMY GOODMAN: In its report, the NSA review panel suggested the NSA is engaging in cyber-attacks on financial systems or accounts. The panel recommended, quote, “Governments should not use surveillance to steal industry secrets to advantage their domestic industry; (2) Governments should not use their offensive cyber capabilities to change the amounts held in financial accounts or otherwise manipulate the financial systems.” Ben Wizner, can you explain?

BEN WIZNER: I don’t know what to say, except I guess what I would—you know, this is a—this is a response to everyone who says that all of these programs are about terrorism. Look, there are not a lot of terrorists. There’s not enough terrorism in the world to justify these tens of billions of dollars that are being spent to build these massive systems that don’t target people, but sweep up all of the world’s communications. Clearly, there has been mission creep in what the NSA is doing. They’re collecting the information because they can. They are allowing their capabilities to drive their policy, instead of our laws and values to constrain our capabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Edward Snowden in his own words. In his interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Snowden said he knew the risks he faced when he became a whistleblower.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you, in time.

But at the same time, you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living—living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are; it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest and go to sleep at night after watching your shows. But if you realize that that’s the world that you helped create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so long as the public gets to make their own decisions about how that’s applied.

AMY GOODMAN: Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Kirk Wiebe worked for the NSA for 32 years. Did he have—once he realized—once Edward Snowden realized what was going on, what were his options? And what protections, Kirk, did he have? You wrote a piece, “Who Broke the Law, Snowden or the NSA?” Was Edward Snowden protected as a NSA contractor?

KIRK WIEBE: No, not at all. First—

AMY GOODMAN: Ooh, we seem to just have lost Kirk Wiebe on satellite. But let me then go—


AMY GOODMAN: —to Ben Wizner and ask—oh, wait, I think we have Kirk back. Kirk, are you there?

KIRK WIEBE: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Did he have another option?

KIRK WIEBE: No, he did not. It’s important to realize first that there are no formal whistleblower protections for members of the United States intelligence community—not just NSA, but DIA, CIA, all of the components of intelligence in the government structure. None of those employees have formal whistleblower rights.

Now, are there any logical paths one could take? Yes, the inspector general. There’s one at the NSA. But if you believe the director of NSA is at least in part a culprit in the wrongdoing, that IG works for him. So if you really want to put the director of NSA on report as having made high-level decisions playing in this whole privacy issue, you must then go above the director of NSA, which is the IG resident with the U.S. Department of Defense—

AMY GOODMAN: Inspector general.

KIRK WIEBE: —since NSA is an agency subordinate to the DOD. And that’s what we did. We did the 2002 complaint to DOD IG, even though that report was heavily classified and really very few people saw it. It was designed to be buried, because it was very embarrassing to the NSA. So, it didn’t—the IG function really was no function. So, if you think Snowden had a path through the IG, he didn’t. These things are there. They’re almost cosmetic. There are investigations, lots of reports written, but they’re buried, hidden from public view, when they don’t come out favorably.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben Wizner, the little time we have left, on Ed Snowden’s request for a permanent asylum in Brazil and his options right now, could you talk about that?

BEN WIZNER: Well, I think the press got a little carried away in interpreting that letter to Brazil. And let me give a little context for it. Snowden has been getting requests from Brazilian senators, and in fact members of parliaments from around the world, to provide direct assistance with their investigations of the NSA’s spying and their own countries’ spying. What he meant to communicate with that letter is: “I support your reform efforts. You need to understand that I’m living under a temporary grant of asylum halfway around the world right now. If I get permanent humanitarian status, in Brazil or elsewhere, I’ll be in a better position to assist with those reform efforts, to the extent that it’s lawful and appropriate.” No one should think that he would cooperate in those investigations any way differently than he has cooperated with journalists. He will only provide information that is in the public interest. He’s not trying to tear down systems altogether; he’s trying to reform them.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the debate within the Obama administration now about whether to grant an amnesty? Talk about who’s on what side.

BEN WIZNER: Isn’t that interesting? You know, I watched the same 60 Minutes report that you’re talking about, where you had two top NSA officials, one of them saying, “We need to sit down with this guy and have a conversation, that might include amnesty in exchange for his cooperation,” and then his boss saying, “No way. We can’t negotiate with hostage takers,” although—

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Alexander is opposed. He’s the head of the NSA.

BEN WIZNER: Keith Alexander—although—sure, although, of course, the government negotiates with hostage takers all the time. But leaving that aside, I do think that there are camps within the government, those who recognize that Snowden is not out to tear down the United States, that he actually could be useful for reform, that conversations with him could improve everyone’s situation. And I hope that the events of this week—the judge’s ruling that the program is unconstitutional, the president’s panel coming back and saying that sweeping changes are necessary—will strengthen the people in the administration who want to treat Edward Snowden as something other than a felon.

AMY GOODMAN: And Richard Ledgett, explain who he is, the significance of him saying that he actually would support amnesty, that the United States, the government, doesn’t even know what Edward Snowden has—a grave concern to the U.S.

BEN WIZNER: So they say. Richard Ledgett, who is a senior NSA official and who is in charge of the task force that is trying to assess what Snowden took or how much or the harm, he threw out the figure that there might be 1.7 million documents that were taken. It’s incredible that on the one hand they can say that a contractor walked out the door with 1.7 million documents, and on the other hand their audit systems are so effective that no one can commit abuses. Those two things simply don’t compute. But the fact that he was floating this balloon that maybe we should have a different kind of conversation with Snowden, I will just say in response—I don’t think a lot of members of the intelligence community watch your show, Amy—that if they’re listening, they know where to find us, and they know that we’re willing to have a useful and productive conversation with them.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess the question is for everyone, whether you’re broadcasting or you’re at home, is: Are they listening?

BEN WIZNER: That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Wizner, I want to thank you for being with us, Edward Snowden’s legal adviser, ACLU attorney, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. And also I want to thank Kirk Wiebe, retired from the National Security Agency, where he worked for more than 32 years. What a story he told us about himself, about what happened to his family when he raised deep concerns about issues of privacy.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Cairo, Egypt, Mohamed Morsi facing charges of terrorism and treason. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Stevie Wonder performing last night at the U.N. Correspondents Association Dinner here in New York. Stevie Wonder is the U.N. messenger of peace for advocacy for persons with disabilities. He received the UNCA Global Advocate of the Year award. UNCA is the U.N. Correspondents Association.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And congratulations, Amy, are in order for the U.N. Correspondents Association giving Democracy Now! an award for its coverage of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, congratulations to the whole team for the years of remarkable coverage, as we went from one global summit to another, and of course continue to cover that issue, and to our listeners and viewers and readers all over the world for being there to encourage Democracy Now! , that this is a such a critical issue. You can go to to see our coverage of the issue of climate change for all the years that Democracy Now! has been broadcasting.

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