Snowden saw what I saw: surveillance criminally subverting the constitution
by Thomas Drake
So we refused to be part of the NSA's dark blanket. That is why whistleblowers pay the price for being the backstop of democracy
What Edward Snowden has done is an amazingly brave and courageous act of civil disobedience.
Like me, he became discomforted by what he was exposed to and what he saw: the industrial-scale systematic surveillance that is scooping up vast amounts of information not only around the world but in the United States, in direct violation of the fourth amendment of the US constitution.
The NSA programs that Snowden has revealed are nothing new: they date back to the days and weeks after 9/11. I had direct exposure to similar programs, such as Stellar Wind, in 2001. In the first week of October, I had an extraordinary conversation with NSA's lead attorney. When I pressed hard about the unconstitutionality of Stellar Wind, he said:
"The White House has approved the program; it's all legal. NSA is the executive agent."
It was made clear to me that the original intent of government was to gain access to all the information it could without regard for constitutional safeguards. "You don't understand," I was told. "We just need the data."
In the first week of October 2001, President Bush had signed an extraordinary order authorizing blanket dragnet electronic surveillance: Stellar Wind was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls. It correlates precisely with the Verizon order revealed by Snowden; and based on what we know, you have to assume that there are standing orders for the other major telephone companies.
It is technically true that the order applies only to meta-data. The problem is that in the digital space, metadata becomes the index for content. And content is gold for determining intent.
This executive fiat of 2001 violated not just the fourth amendment, but also Fisa rules at the time, which made it a felony – carrying a penalty of $10,000 and five years in prison for each and every instance. The supposed oversight, combined with enabling legislation – the Fisa court, the congressional committees – is all a kabuki dance, predicated on the national security claim that we need to find a threat. The reality is, they just want it all, period.
So I was there at the very nascent stages, when the government – wilfully and in deepest secrecy – subverted the constitution. All you need to know about so-called oversight is that the NSA was already in violation of the Patriot Act by the time it was signed into law.
When I was in the US air force, flying an RC-135 in the latter years of the cold war, I was a German-Russian crypto-linguist. We called ourselves the "vacuum-cleaner of the sky" because our capability to gather information was enormous at the time. But it was always outward-facing; we could not collect on US targets because that was against the law. To the US government today, however, we are all foreigners.
I became an expert on East Germany, which was then the ultimate surveillance state. Their secret police were monstrously efficient: they had a huge paper-based system that held information on virtually everyone in the country – a population of about 16-17 million. The Stasi's motto was "to know everything".
So none of this is new to me. The difference between what the Bush administration was doing in 2001, right after 9/11, and what the Obama administration is doing today is that the system is now under the cover and color of law. Yet, what Snowden has revealed is still the tip of the iceberg.
General Michael Hayden, who was head of the NSA when I worked there, and then director of the CIA, said, "We need to own the net." And that is what they're implementing here. They have this extraordinary system: in effect, a 24/7 panopticon on a vast scale that it is gazing at you with an all-seeing eye.
I lived with that dirty knowledge for years. Before 9/11, the prime directive at the NSA was that you don't spy on Americans without a warrant; to do so was against the law – and, in particular, was a criminal violation of Fisa. My concern was that we were more than an accessory; this was a crime and we were subverting the constitution.
I differed as a whistleblower to Snowden only in this respect: in accordance with the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, I took my concerns up within the chain of command, to the very highest levels at the NSA, and then to Congress and the Department of Defense. I understand why Snowden has taken his course of action, because he's been following this for years: he's seen what's happened to other whistleblowers like me.
By following protocol, you get flagged – just for raising issues. You're identified as someone they don't like, someone not to be trusted. I was exposed early on because I was a material witness for two 9/11 congressional investigations. In closed testimony, I told them everything I knew – about Stellar Wind, billions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse, and the critical intelligence, which the NSA had but did not disclose to other agencies, preventing vital action against known threats. If that intelligence had been shared, it may very well have prevented 9/11.
But as I found out later, none of the material evidence I disclosed went into the official record. It became a state secret even to give information of this kind to the 9/11 investigation.
I reached a point in early 2006 when I decided I would contact a reporter. I had the same level of security clearance as Snowden. If you look at the indictment from 2010, you can see that I was accused of causing "exceptionally grave damage to US national security". Despite allegations that I had tippy-top-secret documents, In fact, I had no classified information in my possession, and I disclosed none to the Baltimore Sun journalist during 2006 and 2007. But I got hammered: in November 2007, I was raided by a dozen armed FBI agents, when I was served with a search warrant. The nightmare had only just begun, including extensive physical and electronic surveillance.
To Read the Rest