Digital Blackwater: How the NSA Gives Private Contractors Control of the Surveillance State

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As the Justice Department prepares to file charges against Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden for leaking classified documents about the National Security Agency, the role of private intelligence firms has entered the national spotlight. Despite being on the job as a contract worker inside the NSA’s Hawaii office for less than three months, Snowden claimed he had power to spy on almost anyone in the country. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email," Snowden told The Guardian newspaper. Over the past decade, the U.S. intelligence community has relied increasingly on the technical expertise of private firms such as Booz Allen, SAIC, the Boeing subsidiary Narus and Northrop Grumman. About 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is now spent on the private sector. Former NSA Director Michael V. Hayden has described these firms as a quote "digital Blackwater." We speak to Tim Shorrock, author of the book "Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence."

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

AARON MATÉ: The U.S. government has begun the process of charging Edward Snowden with disclosing classified information after he leaked a trove of secret documents outlining the NSA’s surveillance programs. The FBI has already questioned Snowden’s relatives and associates. Snowden is a 29-year-old computer technician who formerly worked for the CIA. He reportedly turned over thousands of documents to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper, as well as to The Washington Post. Only a few have been published so far. His current whereabouts are unknown. Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong on May 20th. On Monday, he reportedly checked out of his Hong Kong hotel one day after The Guardian posted a video of him explaining his decision to leak the information.

AMY GOODMAN: Response to Edward Snowden’s actions has been mixed. On Capitol Hill, Senator Dianne Feinstein accused Snowden of committing treason. Meanwhile, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg called Snowden a hero, writing, quote, "In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material—and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago," he said. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has also praised Edward Snowden.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Edward Snowden is a hero who has informed the public about one of the most serious, serious events of the decade, which is the creeping formulation of a mass surveillance state that has now coopted the courts, corrupted the courts in the United States, made them secret, made them produce orders which violate U.S. constitutional protections to nearly the entire population, and then, if that wasn’t enough, has embroiled U.S. high-tech companies like Google, Yahoo!, Skype, Facebook, etc., to extend that surveillance all across the world—the amount of collections from the United States alone revealed to be more than 2.4 billion in the month of March alone. And that is something that I and John Perry Barlow and many other journalists and civil libertarians have been campaigning on for a long time, so it’s very pleasing to see such clear and concrete proof presented to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange speaking on Sky News. Up until a few weeks ago, Edward Snowden worked as a systems administrator inside the NSA’s office in Hawaii. His employer was not the U.S. government, but a military contractor called Booz Allen Hamilton. Over the past decade, the U.S. intelligence community has relied increasingly on the technical expertise of private firms such as Booz Allen, SAIC, the Boeing subsidiary Narus and Northrop Grumman. Former NSA director Michael V. Hayden has described these firms as a, quote, "digital Blackwater." According to the journalist Tim Shorrock, about 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is spent on the private sector.

AARON MATÉ: The leaks by Edward Snowden have also raised questions over who has access to the nation’s biggest secrets. According to The Washington Post, authorities are unsure how a contract employee at a distant NSA satellite office was able to obtain a highly classified copy of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. During his interview with The Guardian, Edward Snowden claimed he had the power to spy on anyone, including the president.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Edward Snowden and the privatized world of intelligence, we’re joined by Tim Shorrock, author of the book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence . He has just written a piece for entitled "Meet the Contractors Analyzing Your Private Data: Private Companies Are Getting Rich Probing Your Personal Information for the Government. Call It Digital Blackwater." In fact, Tim Shorrock, explain who exactly called it "digital Blackwater."

TIM SHORROCK: Well, this was said by Michael V. Hayden, who used to be the director of the NSA and was the director of the NSA when President Bush began the warrantless surveillance program back in 2001 right after 9/11. He has moved on from intelligence, the intelligence agencies, to become an executive with Chertoff Group, which is a large consulting company in Washington that works very closely with intelligence agencies and corporations advising them on cybersecurity and advising them on just basically security issues. And so, you know, he has cashed himself in and is making lots of money himself in this industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the former NSA and CIA director, General Michael Hayden, who, as you said, oversaw much of the privatization of the NSA from 1999 to 2005. This is him speaking in 2011.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: We may come to a point where defense is more actively and aggressively defined even for the—even for the private sector and what is permitted there is something we would never let the private sector do in physical space.

UNIDENTIFIED: That’s interesting.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: I mean, you look—well, I mean, let me really throw out a bumper sticker for you here: How about a digital Blackwater? OK? I mean, we have privatized certain defense activities, even in physical space. And now you’ve got a new domain in which we don’t have any paths trampled down in the forest in terms of what it is we expect the government or will allow the government to do. And in the past, in our history, when that has happened, private sector expands to fill the empty space. I’m not quite an advocate for that, but these are the kinds of things that are going to be put into play here very, very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the former head of the CIA and the NSA, General Michael Hayden. Tim Shorrock, talk about Booz Allen, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Edward Snowden and what this relationship is all about between Booz Allen and the NSA.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, the most astonishing thing I found in the articles in The Guardian and the revelation that he was from Booz Allen was that, in fact, Booz Allen Hamilton is involved at the—basically the darkest levels, the deepest levels of U.S. intelligence. If Mr. Snowden had access to these kinds of documents, such as these PRISM documents about surveillance on the Internet, as well as this FISA court order, that means practically anyone in Booz Allen who is in intelligence working for the NSA has access to the same kinds of documents. And American people should really know that now we have conclusive proof that these private-sector corporations are operating at the highest levels of intelligence and the military. I think that’s the bottom line here. It’s not curious—you know, the question is not why this low-level person at Booz Allen got these documents; the question is: Why is Booz Allen involved at this level of intelligence?

AARON MATÉ: Tim Shorrock, so, according to The New York Times, it’s gone so far that even the process of granting security clearances is often handled by contractors. So, can you talk about the duties that contractors are performing for the government on these intelligence matters?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, first of all, I want to comment on some of these stories in The New York Times and other newspapers. I mean, that’s an old story. Everyone knows that, you know, the security clearances is done by contractors. That’s been true for a decade or more. And, you know, Booz Allen has been around for years and years and years. The question is: Why haven’t these newspapers covered this? They cover intelligence as if there’s no private-sector involvement at all. And suddenly, they hear that Booz Allen is involved, and suddenly we have all these stream of articles about privatized intelligence. Well, welcome to the world of "digital Blackwater," as Hayden calls it.

And, you know, specifically on Booz Allen and what these companies do, I mean, you know, they—as I wrote in my book, Spies for Hire, they do everything from, you know, CIA intervention in other countries; JSOC, you know, when it does raids, contractors are involved in finding out where people they attack are and determining the mapping and all that and the imagery to make sure that pilots and drones can hit the right people—or the wrong people. And they’re involved in the Defense Intelligence Agency. They’re involved in all military agencies that do intelligence. They do everything. They do everything that the government does.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s wrong with that?

TIM SHORROCK: What’s wrong with that is that it’s a for-profit operation. Many times, you have—inside these agencies, you have contractors overseeing other contractors, contractors, you know, giving advice to the agency about how to set its policies, what kind of technology to buy. And, of course, they have relationships with all the companies that they work with or that they suggest to the leaders of U.S. intelligence.

And I think, you know, a terrible example of this is, you know, a few months ago, I wrote a cover story for The Nation magazine about the NSA whistleblowers that you’ve had on this show a few times—Tom Drake, Bill Binney and the other two—and, you know, they blew the whistle on a huge project called Trailblazer that was contracted out to SAIC that was a complete failure. And this project was designed, from the beginning, by Booz Allen, Northrop Grumman and a couple other corporations who advised the NSA about how to acquire this project, and then decided amongst themselves to give it to SAIC, and then SAIC promised the skies and never produced anything, and the project was finally canceled in 2005.

And it’s very ironic that Michael Hayden says he’s not sure about, you know, this privatization. I mean, he’s the one who set this whole privatization in place. He’s the one who did it. He’s the one who pulled the trigger on it. And he’s responsible for this vast privatization of NSA, which, I have to say, began before 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Booz Allen Hamilton in terms of its other clients? Here it has this remarkable access to information. You know, as Edward Snowden said in his video statement, which we ran yesterday on Democracy Now!, he could wiretap almost anyone, at his level, and that a lot of people could. The information that people like Snowden get, can Booz Allen then share this information with other corporate clients it has?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, I don’t know that for sure, because it’s very difficult to penetrate these companies, but I don’t think so. I think what they do is they operate just like the intelligence community does, like the—you know, the NSA shares the information with other agencies. Of course, the NSA collects, is the main collector for the government in terms of signals intelligence, what comes over the Internet and telephone and cellphones and all that, and they pass that on to other agencies that request it. It goes to the president of the United States. It goes—it goes to all the high levels of the State Department and other agencies that need to know what’s going on both around the world and inside the United States. And so, I doubt that they would pass it to other corporations, but they certainly have their hands in it.

And I think if Booz Allen Hamilton is doing this and has access to such high-level documents, then you know that these other companies do, too—SAIC, Northrop Grumman, all of the companies you named at the top of the show. They have the same kinds of access, and they do—they do very much the same kinds of work that Booz Allen does. And I think it’s—like I said before, it’s just about time we recognized that this is really, you know, Intelligence Inc. This is a—you know, 70 percent of it is a for-profit operation. It’s a joint venture between government agencies and the private sector, and the private sector makes money off of it. They make big profits from this.

AARON MATÉ: Tim, I’m wondering if you can talk about some more—about these companies, specifically Narus and Palantir.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, Narus is the company that basically makes the technology that allows agencies, as well as corporations and telecom companies, to intercept traffic coming in, telecom traffic coming in, you know, from the outside, from other countries, on fiber-optic cables. And they have this incredible capacity to process information. And, you know, a few year—right after—you know, when this story started blowing up in the—after The New York Times blew the story on surveillance, warrantless surveillance, you know, there was this whistleblower at AT&T, this technician, who found that Narus equipment had been attached to AT&T’s switching center in San Francisco, and they were using this equipment to divert the entire—the entire traffic, all the whole—the whole—everything that was coming in, they diverted that to a secret room, and that went right into the NSA’s servers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mark Klein.

TIM SHORROCK: And those—that’s what Narus—that’s what Narus technology does. And so, you know, that’s the key—

AMY GOODMAN: And Narus is owned by Boeing?

TIM SHORROCK: Boeing. It was bought by Boeing. It was actually—the company originated, actually, in Israel. You know, Israel has a very powerful equivalent to the National Security Agency. And it came out of—it came out of Israel, and then they brought their technology here, and they were very involved in the wiretapping right after—right after 9/11. And then Boeing bought them. And, of course, Boeing itself is a major intelligence contractor, through that company, and, you know, they used to—they own a company that used to transport a lot of these prisoners around that the CIA captured overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: And Palantir?

TIM SHORROCK: And you asked about—you asked about Palantir. It’s a Silicon Valley company that basically does data mining and mapping out relationships. I mean, all this—as I said in the Salon article yesterday, all this information and all this data that comes into the NSA has to be analyzed, and that’s what these companies they do that they hire. You know, they take—you know, NSA stores all this data. We know the story about this big Utah data center that’s just about to open. And they download it all there, and then they can go back to it. They can go back to it a day later, or they can go back to it months later or years later. And that’s one of the things that Mr. Snowden talked about in his interviews, was how they go back and analyze this data.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about The Guardian in its reports calling the NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fed them information, "whistleblower." But the Associated Press says it would instead use terms like "source" or "leaker." In a memo sent to reporters, it said, quote, "A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It’s not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral. Whether the actions exposed by Snowden and [Bradley] Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested. ... Sometimes whether a person is a whistle-blower can be established only some time after the revelations, depending on what wrongdoing is confirmed or how public opinion eventually develops," unquote. What do you make of what the AP is saying? I mean, of course, they change their—their definitions over time. We just saw them drop the word "illegal" when it comes to describing people.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, I think it’s kind of semantics. I mean, you know, he has blown the whistle on some actions that the NSA is doing, some programs the NSA is doing, that may be unconstitutional. And I think, you know, that’s why Daniel Ellsberg has had so much praise for him. I mean, he’s showing the underside of the war on terror, the underside of the surveillance state. And I think, in that sense, he’s a real whistleblower. You know, perhaps the difference between him and, say, the NSA Four—Tom Drake and Bill Binney and the others—is that, you know, the NSA Four did not leak information. I mean, they reported it through the chain of command, or they tried to. And what’s unfortunate was, you know, they tried to do this, and then they were caught up in an investigation of who leaked to The New York Times about the NSA surveillance program, and they were persecuted and investigated, and Tom Drake was actually indicted under the Espionage Act and charged with being a spy. Those charges were ridiculous, and the case completely collapsed, but nevertheless, that’s what happened to them. So, Snowden maybe looked at that and decided, you know, he’s just—you know, why go through channels? I mean, I think if we had a system where people could actually expose wrongdoing and without fear of being persecuted, that he may not have broken the law. And I think we need to look very carefully at that, because we need to protect people like this who want to expose wrongdoing.

AARON MATÉ: Tim Shorrock, is it harder for Snowden, as a private contractor, to try to blow the whistle than it would have been had he been working directly for the government?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, perhaps so. I’m not sure what the difference in how they might prosecute somebody like this, but clearly, from what’s being said, you know, today and what was said yesterday, they’re going after him. In fact, I’ve heard they may charge him under the Espionage Act. So, that’s what they would do to a government official, as well, or an intelligence officer who leaked the same kind of thing. So, I don’t really think it’s that much different. And like I said at the top of the show, you know, what really—what really amazed me was the fact that Booz Allen Hamilton, as a corporation, is involved at this level of intelligence. It’s not that this guy was just a low-level employee. It’s that this company is involved, and you have the private sector at that level of NSA.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think should be done differently? I mean, there’s two different issues here: One is the level of privatization of the military and intelligence, and the other is what Edward Snowden has actually revealed about what the U.S. government is doing with our information.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, what should we do about specifically what?

AMY GOODMAN: In terms of these private intelligence contractors and the access they have.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, you know, there’s been a process underway where the agencies are supposed to be doing, you know, inventories of the contractors and who they—what they do. And I think—you know, there was a report I saw recently from the inspector general of the Pentagon that looked at the Special Operations Command, which is—you know, Jeremy Scahill has been writing about it. It’s the most secretive part of the U.S. military, does these raids all over the world. And they looked at their contracts, and they found that a lot of JSOC and special operations contractors were doing inherently governmental work; in other words, they were doing things that, by law, should only be done by the government. And there was—at that level, there was very loose oversight.

And I think that we need to look, as a country, and the government certainly needs to do this, and Congress certainly needs to do this—you know, OK, it’s fine to buy technology from corporations, if they need it, but using corporations to fill your ranks, you know, to provide personnel—I mean, you go to these agencies, and it’s—you know, it’s not exactly like this, but it’s very much like a NASCAR race where they have logos, corporate logos, all over themselves. I mean, that’s what it’s like inside the NSA. You’ve got CSC over here. You’ve got Northrop Grumman over here, Lockheed Martin and so on.

Do we need to have the private sector doing all this analysis? I think that’s a very critical question to be asked. Do we want to have private corporations at the highest levels? And again, you know, if that’s something—that’s something that Congress, I believe, should really look at. And in the time that I’ve been covering this, as far as I recall, there’s only been one single hearing in Congress on this issue of intelligence contractors, and it was three years ago, and it was a pathetic hearing. They actually called me in for some advice, and they actually called Tom Drake in for advice, too. I didn’t know it at the time. And they—of course they didn’t use any of our suggestions. I—

AMY GOODMAN: The man they charged with espionage?

TIM SHORROCK: The man they—the man that was—had been charged earlier with espionage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the U.S. government had been charged with espionage, who, of course, ultimately—


AMY GOODMAN: —those charges were dropped—


AMY GOODMAN: —and has been called by many a whistleblower.

TIM SHORROCK: Right. He’s a true whistleblower. And—but the point—you know, I said, "You know, you ought to call in the chief executives of Booz Allen Hamilton and all these companies, so the American people can meet the secret leaders of the intelligence community." We know who Clapper is. We knew—you know, when Hayden was director, we knew who he was. But we don’t know these people running the corporations.


TIM SHORROCK: McConnell, Michael McConnell, used to be the director of national intelligence. Before that, he was NSA director. And, you know, in between, he was at Booz Allen Hamilton running their military intelligence programs. Now he’s back at Booz Allen Hamilton. So there’s this continuous flow of people in and out of the private sector back into government. It’s not even a revolving door; it’s just a spending door. But basically, what we have is an intelligence ruling class, public and private, that hold the secrets. And I think, you know, when Bill Binney talks about the Stasi, the East German police that listened to everybody, you know, look at, we have hundreds of thousands of contractors with security clearances. We have hundreds of thousands of federal workers in, you know, Homeland Security and intelligence. We have a massive number of people that are monitoring other Americans. I think it’s a very dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, I want to thank you for being with us, investigative reporter who covers national security. His most recent piece at is "Meet the Contractors Analyzing Your Private Data: Private Companies Are Getting Rich Probing Your Personal Information for the Government. Call It Digital Blackwater." He is author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting and what happened outside and in. Stay with us.

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