TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When stories began to emerge about the U.S. government's massive surveillance of Americans' phone and Internet communications, it was no surprise to three analysts who had left the National Security Agency soon after the 9/11 attacks. Those analysts, who'd worked on systems to detect terrorist threats, left in part because they saw the NSA embarking on a surveillance program they regarded as unconstitutional and unnecessary.
Those analysts are among the interviewees in a "Frontline" documentary which airs tomorrow night on the origins of the NSA's surveillance program and the extraordinary steps top government officials took to give it legal cover and keep it hidden from the American people. Later in the show, we'll hear from two analysts who reported concerns about the direction of the NSA to the inspector general's office of the Defense Department and whose homes were later raided by FBI agents as part of an investigation of government leaks.
But first we'll hear from Michael Kirk, who directed the "Frontline" documentary called "United States of Secrets." Kirk is a veteran documentary director who's won a long list of awards, including two Peabody Awards, two George Polk Awards, and 12 Emmys. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Michael Kirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to talk a little bit about the history of the NSA and kind of where it was before the 9/11 attacks. Going back to the 1970s, what were some of the practices of the agency's that came to light?
MICHAEL KIRK: It had been turned on the American people, by itself and by President Nixon and others, to spy on radical groups and others in the '60s and '70s, partly contributing to the famous - President Nixon's enemies list. And when it was discovered that it was also part of a process of spying on Martin Luther King and many other Americans, including Senator Frank Church, who ran the Church, the famous Church Committee, which looked into it all, really for the first time, Congress stepped up and spanked the agency hard and said it was never allowed any kind of dragnet searches, surveillance, eavesdropping, wiretapping on the American people. They could turn their eyes and ears outward on the rest of the world but never on us.
DAVIES: So they couldn't spy on Americans. Were there any circumstances under which the NSA could undertake surveillance on American citizens?
KIRK: There was - after the brouhaha, which is putting it mildly, the response from Congress about the spying, the domestic spying, there were restrictions put on them and a court called the FISA court created, which was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, FISAC actually. And if you had a warrant from that court, and the court was very secret in its actions, and it happened inside the Justice Department, if they had a warrant, if they had a warrant to go and copy, find out, listen to your telephone calls, they could do it.
But in order to get that, they had to have real evidence that you were connected in some way to foreign activities.
DAVIES: So there were tough rules, there were legal hurdles they had to cross before spying on Americans, but, you know, it wouldn't be the first time if some agency dodged it or got around it. From your sense...
KIRK: But you know, but you know there was something special happening out there. I was surprised to discover the extent to which there were such bright white lines painted on the sidewalks, on the walls, on everything out at the NSA at Fort Mead, Maryland, where the people, the 20,000 people who worked there, believed the code and believed they were never, ever, ever going to be allowed to spy on Americans again.
They were many of them ashamed of what had happened and swore that they would never participate in it. So there was an ethos out there of, yes, we will follow law as it's clearly written now by the United States Congress.
DAVIES: Now, of course the September 11 attacks in 2001 had a profound impact on the NSA, as they did on the country. Big changes would come. But some technical people and analysts within the NSA had already developed a system for data analysis that seemed to have enormous potential for detecting terrorist threats. Do you want to tell us about that?
KIRK: There was inside the NSA a group of - there were many little skunkworks operations developing, in R&D fashion, all kinds of ways of using the newer technologies. One of them revolved around a particular computer program called ThinThread, and it was the brainchild of a crypto-mathematician named Bill Binney. He's a legendary figure at the NSA for his brainpower and his kind of magnetism to get certain kinds of minds around him, thinking and working on problem-solving.
The NSA was pulling in, you know, tons and tons and tons of terabytes of information from around the world already, but they were overwhelmed by it, and they didn't have the latest equipment for sifting it, and they didn't have all the ways, despite the things we all feared, which was I'll bet they can pick a word out of an email and grab us, they weren't doing any of that sort of thing prior to 9/11.
But there were some people around ThinThread and around Bill Binney who were working on a way to do that and thought they had managed to create a kind of elegant solution. It could grab information from around the world and information as it sort of came on the shores of America. But it was okay to do it because it would anonymize anybody in the United States who was doing it unless they met certain kind of - the metadata, if you will, met certain kind of standards, at which case they could go to the FISA court, ask them for - say they had probable cause to want to read something or listen to something or follow a trail - and then they could get a warrant and do it.
And then they could unencrypt, if you will. That was what they wanted to do with ThinThread, but of course they didn't get very far with it.
DAVIES: When the attacks came on September 11, what was the impact within the NSA?
KIRK: Guilt, guilt, you know, deep sadness. I've talked to so many people out there who felt that they had just really let the country down, that they had probably known, and inside the agency there was probably floating in one of the many, many reservoirs of information, information that could have prevented the attack. Some of them - one of them in our film, Ed Loomis(ph), just literally feels it so deeply, he can't get over it even to this day.
DAVIES: You know, I think we should listen to that moment from the documentary. It's a really powerful one. This is NSA analyst Ed Loomis describing his reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
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ED LOOMIS: I do believe it could have been prevented with revisions to the way we were permitted to operate before 9/11, revisions that I tried to get the general counsel to embrace and wouldn't - and couldn't. I tried to get them to make adjustments to how we were operating, how we were permitted to operate, and they wouldn't do it. I felt this ever since it occurred, that over 3,000 people's lives were lost, and it's just a weight that I have been having trouble bearing.
DAVIES: So that was Ed Loomis, an NSA analyst, and that's from the documentary "The United States of Secrets." It airs Tuesday, May 13. We're speaking with its director, Michael Kirk. After the September 11 attacks, everything was different involving intelligence and national security. But it was still illegal for the NSA to spy on Americans. And as you note in the documentary, the Bush administration was determined to aggressively wage a war on terror.
How did the status of the NSA change, and what kind of guidance did the administration give to its leaders?
KIRK: Well, the first thing to remember is that it - this is, what we're talking about now, was the closest held secret that the United States government had for almost five years, really secret, so secret that only a handful of people in the government actually knew the full scope of its existence, and the government has spent a great deal of time over the first five years or so after 9/11 keeping this secret a secret.
DAVIES: And that secret is?
KIRK: The secret is something called The Program. It had various names as time went on, as they tried to make it palatable once it was revealed, but it was known inside the government as The Program. And what the - the genesis of The Program was that in the hours and immediate days right after 9/11, everyone in Washington who had anything to do with intelligence or war fighting wanted to get tough, stop this from happening, react to what had happened in Washington and in New York.
One of the people who was called for a solution to the problem was the head of the National Security Agency, a three star Air Force general named Michael Hayden. So Hayden drives to the Oval Office, the first meeting in his life that he's in the Oval Office. The president, who's been briefed about him - Andrew Card, who we talked to and was the chief of staff, says that he had never heard of Hayden, and he's pretty sure the president hadn't either.
But they briefed the president, and when Hayden goes into the White House, into the Oval Office, the president puts his arm around him and calls him Mikey, his kindergarten nickname. And Hayden presents what would eventually become The Program, very aggressive collection of Internet data and telephone records, and he says to the president: But I'm worried about the legality of this.
And the president looks at him and says don't worry about it, we're going to go forward with this. I've got lawyers working on this now, and you don't have to worry about the legality of this, I think I can do this on my own authority.
DAVIES: Michael Kirk directed the "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets." It airs Tuesday, May 13, and a second episode on May 20. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michael Kirk. He directed the "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets." That airs Tuesday, May 13, and a second episode on May 20.
The matter of dealing with the legality of spying on Americans is a fascinating part of this story. How do they figure out a way to make it, quote-unquote, legal?
KIRK: Well, the first thing, once we all started to learn about what had happened in that sort of power base at the White House and the old executive office building, was that it was kept very closely in the hands of the vice president, Dick Cheney, who for years had believed executive power sort of trumped the checks and balances of the system, not Congress, not the courts, and that the president in a time of an emergency could actually do a tremendous number of things, by any means necessary, they believed, to protect the American people.
The thing that we learned that was, I think, most astonishing to many of the people I talked to was that the regulation, the agreement, the authorization that was written for Hayden to keep in his safe, the authorization that allowed many things that have been revealed by the Snowden revelations, was written by the vice president's attorney; not Alberto Gonzales, the president's attorney; not over at the Justice Department, but by the attorney for the vice president, not an elected official in the sense that - David Addington is lawyer's name, not an appointed official in the sense that the Senate has confirmed him.
He just went to an office and wrote something that is still a secret and kept it in his safe and once in a while would reveal it to some people to read, but an amazing number of people in even the Bush White House, certainly at the Justice Department and out at the National Security Agency, never read the document. All they knew was that something had been signed by the president and the attorney general that authorized them to walk across the bright white lines that had been established by Congress in the 1970s.
DAVIES: I want to make sure we understand this. This sweeping program to gather data on Americans' email traffic, phone calls, the underlying legal authority was kept in a safe in the office of the vice president and was unseen by most people in the government who were implementing it and is still secret today?
KIRK: Absolutely. It was, and is, I think, the darkest kept secret that the government has had in recent times. And that information, the authorization for that, is kept - was kept under lock and key with just a few people privy to seeing it. Now, that by itself - eventually the film reveals the story of how one person at the Justice Department, Attorney Jack Goldsmith(ph), who was in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, managed to read the document and when he did was astonished at what he considered to be the - at least walking up to the edges of unconstitutionality that was inherent in some parts of it and certainly problem enough that at one point in the Bush administration, during 2004, nearly two dozen top officials, including the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, threatened to resign if the president didn't shut down part of the program.
DAVIES: And how was that crisis resolved?
KIRK: Well, the president and many of the people around him were - had not sought deep and broad legal or congressional approval for anything they were doing. So they were extremely anxious about the revelation of it. They also, apparently, believed that it would result - the revelation of it would result in the deaths of maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans.
At one point he, the president, threatens the publisher of the New York Times that if they publish a story about the warrantless wiretapping, the blood of many of those Americans would be on the New York Times' hands, as well as he, President Bush's. And it was, as the executive editor of The Times said to us, it was a goosebumps moment.
How it was resolved was it was shut down briefly in the summer of 2004. This is an election year. By the fall, Michael Hayden from the National Security Agency had spent two Saturdays with a FISA judge trying to get her to help him think of a way to authorize restarting the program with broader authorities and a nod from the FISA court.
She does manage to find a 25-year-old Supreme Court case based on, some people say, suspicious reasoning and allows it to go forward, and it picks up, as Michael Hayden says in our film, even more robustly than it was before the dustup in the spring of 2004.
DAVIES: And when you say hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, you mean what?
KIRK: The government always had three specific answers to any query from the press or anyone else, other lawyers, other people inside the government, who started to wonder what this was. Their standard response went like this: The program is legal, its constitutionality has been arrived at secretly and quietly, but we know it's OK, so you're all good to go.
The second thing is the program is unbelievably effective, which is why we dare not talk about it to anyone, not at any level of detail. And the third thing they would always say is, and if you do, the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans who could die in the next attack could be on your hands. It was a statement David Addington, the vice president's attorney, often used in arguments around the West Wing when others, including Attorney Jack Goldsmith from the Justice Department, were trying to get legal clarity for the underpinnings of the program.
He would often say the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans will be on your hands if you stop this. It's time for you to decide what side you're really on.
DAVIES: How did Americans first learn of this massive surveillance program?
KIRK: Well, I think the first big-bang moment was when the New York Times reported in December of 2005 the existence of the program. They didn't have it exactly right, but they had enough of it that it really changed everything. They had had it basically, according to the two reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, they had had it a year before, but the Times, after having many conversations with the White House and the administration, had kind of stepped back, and the editors of the Times told us they didn't think they really had enough to go forward.
There are many people who are unhappy about that decision, but a year later they did, when Risen decided to include what he knew in a book he was writing, and the Times was more or less forced to go forward. When that moment happened, other people started to come forward and be listened to. So we all learned about it, but Congress didn't really get in the act, and the story kind of - it didn't die, but it certainly went down and became moribund until Snowden came along.
GROSS: Michael Kirk will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Kirt directed the PBS "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets," which will be shown tomorrow night. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to Dave Davies' interview with Michael Kirk, the director of a new PBS "Frontline" documentary, "United States of Secrets," which airs tomorrow night. It details the National Security Agency's vast expansion of surveillance activities after 9/11 and the extraordinary steps top government officials took to give it legal cover and keep it hidden from the American people.
DAVIES: But in spite of those efforts, in 2004, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau started hearing about the program and began working on an article, but White House officials convinced Times editors to sit on the story for national security reasons. The Times waited a year before publishing in December 2005.
DAVIES: The Bush administration, back when the stories began to emerge, embarked upon a very aggressive effort to find out who was leaking to the media. Now, the FBI has a lot of priorities, right? I mean, they've got to investigate drug crime and white-collar crime and terrorism itself, and now they're being asked to find out who is leaking government secrets to the media. What kind of effort did they mount?
KIRK: Well, the first thing to remember is that the vice president was hopping mad, and when he gets hopping mad, especially in the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney could make all kinds of things happen. And everybody knew what it meant when Cheney said I want the leaks to stop. He'd been saying that for 30 years, and was one of the most vehement Executive Branch figures about stopping leaks in government.
Once the FBI went out and began to look, what they were actually looking for was the leakers to The New York Times. What they didn't have for almost 18 months with almost anything. They hadn't found anybody who really fit the bill. And there was apparently a lot of pressure for them to keep going. So, months go by, and finally, they decide to focus their efforts in a fashion that's right out of the FBI playbook, which is to come down very hard on suspects with the hope that one or more of them will flip and give up the goods and reveal the other perpetrators in their midst.
And who do they turn on? They turn on Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, a congressional staffer named Diane Roark and eventually on a man named Tom Drake, all people who were involved in the Thin Thread program back in the early days, right after 9/11.
DAVIES: We're going to hear from Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe later in the show. You mentioned Tom Drake, this man who was indicted. He had been at the NSA, and he had actually spoken to a Baltimore Sun reporter, not about, I think, the surveillance program, but about other issues - wasteful spending and other things - and says that he didn't deliver any classified documents. What ultimately became of the indictment and the charges against him?
KIRK: The FBI pulled him in and said: We found some things on your computer at home and some papers. We think these were classified documents. The federal prosecutor, who was doing that moment that we've all seen on television so many times, leaning into the suspect said, Mr. Drake, you're screwed. Essentially, what they charged him with was the Espionage Act, and he could have done 30 years-plus in prison if he would've been found guilty for the possession of classified documents. In the end, of course, what they discovered was the documents were not classified. They were unclassified documents that then had been reclassified, and the government had used a sort of argument that, well, they should've been classified, even if they weren't, and he shouldn't have had them.
DAVIES: There was no trial, but they certainly worked hard to get him to plead to something, right?
KIRK: This is the standard operating procedure for any of us: the threat of a federal indictment. So they find what they can find, they confront you with it, and then they slowly but surely work you, heading for a trial date. You're spending lots of money on lawyers and you're confronted with horrible years in prison, and that can all go away in an instant if you only tell them who the leaker to The New York Times was.
It's almost astonishing that in this day and age, that's the way that those resources were put together on someone like Drake, where those documents were not classified, and eventually, the government had to give up the cases. It was falling apart. And Drake, he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor right before trial and given a $25 fine and probation. But, of course, his life had been basically destroyed. He now finds himself working at the Genius Bar at an Apple store in a mall in Maryland. But that's an object lesson to every potential whistleblower out there that this is what the government can do if you decide to step forward and raise a ruckus. This is Tom Drake, who had tried to go through channels all the way along, and finally spoke to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, Siobhan Gorman.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Kirk, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KIRK: It's been a pleasure, Dave. Thank you.
GROSS: Michael Kirk spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Kirk directed the new "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets," which airs tomorrow night on PBS stations.
Coming up, we'll hear from two former NSA analysts who became targets of the government's investigation into leaks about the secret surveillance program. First, a short break
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Next, we'll hear from two former National Security Agency analysts who are interviewed in the PBS "Frontline" documentary we've been discussing. They left the agency shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and have publicly criticized the direction the NSA subsequently headed in. Both worked for the NSA for decades and, as you'll soon hear, both were eventually targeted in a leak investigation by the FBI.
Bill Binney was a crypto-mathematician who worked as technical director of the NSA's World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group. Kirk Wiebe was a senior analyst who was awarded the NSA's Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the agency's second-highest honor.
Before the 9/11 attacks, Binney led a team that created a program called Thin Thread, which could gather and analyze enormous amounts of Internet and telephone traffic, but encrypt the identities of people in the United States to protect their privacy.
After Binney and Wiebe left the NSA, they joined others in filing a compliant with the inspector general of the Defense Department about the agency's use of private contractors to develop a surveillance system the analysts regarded as expensive and ineffective, as well as a violation of constitutional rights.
Binney told Dave that the 9/11 attacks had a profound personal affect on him. He thinks if the NSA had implemented his Thin Thread program, it could've prevented the attacks.
BILL BINNEY: I co-founded the SIG and Automation Research Center, and in there, we were working on a number of programs to basically automate analysis so that you weren't dependent on people finding information in large databases to alert everyone that something was going on. That was something that we only had a limited capability at the time, and had proposed a much larger deployment to take care of terrorism around the world. In January of 2001, had we done that, we would've automatically picked up all that stuff, including those people moving into the West Coast.
Those two terrorists moved into San Diego, they were calling back to the Yemen center. And if you can show relationships to known terrorists or known terrorists organizations like the Yemeni center was, and we knew that, so, I mean, all that data was right there. The process we had would have picked it up as they did it, not after the fact. That would've pointed it right to the FBI, not to go take them down right away, but to watch them to see who else was conspiring with them as a part of that operation inside the country. Then when they found out the larger group, they could then move in and take them all down.
KIRK WIEBE: And that's a key point, Dave. Here you have NSA having the data to prevent 9/11, but it doesn't know it has it, because it's buried in a database of information. And what I'm trying to say is the data retrieval mechanisms were ancient. They were highly ineffective, so that one did not really know what one had at the time, and this is the kind of improvement Bill's talking about.
DAVIES: Now, is the program that's called Thin Thread?
DAVIES: Yeah. And so the idea was you could bundle all this data and analyze it. But it would not allow people at the NSA to know the identities of U.S. citizens unless there was some reasonable suspicion that there was a connection.
BINNEY: It's probable cause. That's the way you present the warrant.
DAVIES: All right. So, if you developed this and it seemed promising, why wasn't it implemented?
WIEBE: The root cause of it was improper acquisition process. You have to know what you need, and the only way you find out what you need is to talk to the experts, the people using the existing processes that are feeling the pain of not being able to do certain things. That step was skipped entirely under General Hayden's acquisition process that led to his infamous failure called Trailblazer.
DAVIES: Yeah. That's General Hayden, who was then the head of the NSA. So you're saying that you had developed this program for analyzing data, which would be low-cost and effective, but those at the NSA chose to go with an outside vendor because, why? Because they just didn't want to take the time to talk to their own people?
WIEBE: Well, clearly, they were in a hurry. 9/11 had happened. We needed to do something, so Congress was only too willing to throw huge sums of money at the problem, that no one wanted to be seen as not doing their patriotic role. Of course, this is after the fact. It's too late. We didn't prevent. We failed. Nonetheless, everybody wanted to hurry up and get something done that was effective, and in that process, things got broken.
BINNEY: And there were other interests that were lobbying in Congress, and also at NSA. Mostly, it was the companies that wanted to feed off the billions of dollars they would get to run Trailblazer. It was over four billion, yeah, that program. So...
DAVIES: Trailblazer was this other program which the agencies put billions into, and then was finally abandoned, because it never actually worked, right?
WIEBE: Yes. It failed.
DAVIES: So, after the September 11th attacks, you were hoping that they would adopt this technology which could preserve the privacy of Americans and still make effective analysis of data. You saw the agency essentially discarding those protections and moving to an expensive and ultimately ineffective program. You weren't happy. What did you do?
BINNEY: Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, Diane Roark and I filed a DODIG complaint against the NSA for corruption, fraud, waste and abuse.
DAVIES: Now, that's the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office.
WIEBE: Correct. Right.
DAVIES: Which is supposed to be a private - you're just supposed to have access to make a complaint privately, right?
BINNEY: Actually, it's in the terms of employment at the United States government that you are required to report fraud, waste, abuse and illegality. That's in the terms of employment.
DAVIES: So you made that complaint. You asked the Defense Department to look into the things that were troubling you. You mentioned another name there. There's a woman, Diane Roark, who was a staff member for Congress, who was very interested in intelligence matters, and was very involved in oversight of the NSA.
DAVIES: Tell us about your experience with her.
BINNEY: She was on the House Intelligence Committee. She was the senior staffer managing the NSA account, so she had the responsibility of overseeing and writing the budget for - the yearly budget for NSA, and overseeing the programs that they were doing and advocating for them or against them, which one way or the other, whichever she felt. I mean, that was what really irritated NSA people about her. She would actually get into the business to where she could understand it and ask meaningful questions and kind of put them on the spot. That really irritated a lot of people at NSA. But when she came out to NSA to give talks at one of the large auditoriums - we had the Friedman Auditorium there at the NSA - she would get standing-room-only crowds from the employees at NSA. They just loved what she was saying and doing.
DAVIES: So, you and some other analysts and this congressional staffer, Diane Roark, filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Defense saying bad stuff's happening here, look into it. What happened?
WIEBE: Well, just after the investigation began, we were invited back into NSA. Now, remember, we are now contractors. We've retired from NSA, Loomis, Binney and I. We formed a small...
DAVIES: You know, that's a little detail we shouldn't just walk past.
WIEBE: No. True.
DAVIES: When did you leave the NSA, and why?
WIEBE: We walked out in disgust on Halloween day, October 31st, 2001. 9/11 had happened. We had said maybe now this will cause them to look too Thin Thread. They still wouldn't do it. And we said my God, if 3,000 lives wouldn't give them the impetus to do it...
WIEBE: ...we have no hope of getting that program adopted within NSA. So Bill, Ed and I decided to retire. We were all eligible to go out into the real world, form a small company and try to bring it into the government through another door, maybe at CIA, maybe DIA, somewhere, maybe Department of Homeland Security.
DAVIES: So, what became of your complaint, as far as you know?
WIEBE: Well, we...
BINNEY: Well, it's all substantiated. I mean, they took two-and-a-half years and about 12 investigators to do it. But it came out with about 110-page report, and it was so damaging to NSA, the NSA had them redact about 95 percent of it.
BINNEY: Even though 85 percent of it was unclassified.
WIEBE: Yeah. So realize, Dave, neither Loomis, Binney or I ever got to see the final report. We had left NSA, we weren't invited in to read it, and that was fine. We just wanted it to be well investigated and for the truth to come out. However, the classification denied wide distribution, so very, very few people ever saw it and nobody did anything about it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe. They are former analysts for the National Security Agency and they are interviewed in the "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets." It airs Tuesday, May 13. And a second part airs May 20.
We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guests are former National Security Agency analysts Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe. Both appear in the "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets." It airs Tuesday, May 13. And a second episode airs May 20.
In 2005, The New York Times reported on the warrantless eavesdropping program and the government embarked on a very aggressive campaign to find out who the leakers were. FBI agents, plenty of them, were active on this. And they found their way to your doors, didn't they? What kind of contact did you first have with the FBI, Kirk Wiebe?
WIEBE: Yeah. I had absolutely none. The raid on my home came as a total, I would say a 99 percent surprise. I was always a bit nervous knowing that we had challenged the government's words by launching an IG complaint, and I always news that there could be some form of retribution, but I hadn't seen any.
DAVIES: Let me just ask you this. Since this was an investigation about a leak to journalists, had you been talking to journalists about your work at the NSA?
WIEBE: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And you're right, later we would obtain the affidavits underlining the warrants - the search warrants - that the FBI used, recently we got those. We hadn't seen them for years. And found out that the primary reason for the search was The New York Times article that you are just now specifying. We - at least I - had never - I didn't even know who James Risen was or Eric Lichtblau, nor did I subscribe to or read The New York Times.
DAVIES: Risen and Lichtblau were the authors of that story, that the leak was in pursuit of.
DAVIES: Well, so Kirk Wiebe, tell us the story. What happened when the FBI showed up at your house? This was...
WIEBE: Well, I was sitting...
DAVIES: ...2007, right?
WIEBE: Yeah. 2007, July 26, I'm sitting at my computer looking at email and I sit in front of a two pane window and I looked out and I saw dark navy blue uniforms with the gold letters FBI. A bunch of people, I didn't know how many at the time. It turned out it was just around a dozen, walking across the front of my yard. I immediately bolted to the front door because, you know, I've seen movies and stories too and I didn't want these guys breaking in the door. So my adrenaline shot up. I opened the door and they shoved a search warrant and identification badge in front of me. And I let them in the door and they immediately began to organize the house. And what I mean is I was told, and I was escorted out to the deck off the rear of my home, and for seven and a half hours I sat there.
My mother-in-law, who...
DAVIES: Seven and a half hours?
WIEBE: Seven and a half hours. And my mother-in-law was aroused from bed, told to come down in a bathrobe and they sat her on the couch, as was my oldest daughter, who has learning disability. She was aroused from bed and told to go join her grandmother on the couch. This was a coordinated strike on Diane Roark out on the West Coast at 6 a.m., but here on the East Coast it was 9 o'clock for me, 9 o'clock for Bill Binney, and 9 o'clock for Ed Loomis, the four of us - who just happened to sign the IG complaint. We were all raided simultaneously. And seven and a half hours went by while they searched rooms, they grabbed computers, anything with a digital memory. They grabbed notes, some documents and piled it all in those vans. And when they were about to leave at about 4:30, 5 o'clock in the afternoon, Dave, I actually thanked them for not ransacking my home.
DAVIES: Bill Binney, let me turn to you. At that same moment FBI agents arrive at your home?
WILLIAM BINNEY: They showed up and pushed their way through the door, at gunpoint really, and my son answered the door. I was in the shower at the time and he hollered up that the FBI were here and I said, well, tell them I'll be down in a minute. So I was still in the shower. I was getting out of the shower when one of them came into the bathroom there and pointed a gun at me as I was drying off. So I wouldn't say I was - I wasn't upset about it, I just didn't understand what they were doing that, why they were doing it. I mean after all, I had been cooperating with these people for months, you know, telling everything I knew and they knew that. So but at any rate, they separated me from my wife, like similar to Kirk, they put me on the back porch. But they came out to interrogate me. I think they thought I knew something, but I didn't.
DAVIES: Neither of you were arrested, right?
DAVIES: Were you ever subjected to any legal action at all? Did they just take your stuff and disappear?
BINNEY: Yes. Between the raid in 2007 and the end of 2009, they attempted to indict us three separate times on false charges. They cranked up and falsified evidence and tried to get an indictment. We actually found evidence of malicious prosecution every time so they dropped it every time.
DAVIES: You were never formally charged. Give me a sense of what you spent on legal expenses. And did you ever get any of your property back?
BINNEY: For me, I guess we spent something like $10,000 or something like that. Plus, I got most of my, most of the material back. But the hardware I didn't get back. The copies of the emails, I guess I got most of the, some of that back but not all of it.
DAVIES: And Bill Binney, what was the impact on your life?
BINNEY: Well, it gave me a purpose now. I have a purpose to straighten my government out one way or the other.
DAVIES: Kirk Wiebe, tell me what it meant for you.
WIEBE: Well, it abruptly ended promising jobs - I mean high-paying positions on contracts with key parts of the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Because our vision for Thin Thread was to be much more than what Thin Thread was. It was a prototype. But the full up version of what we wanted would have served all the information needs of intelligence and law enforcement for the United States government. So it ended our careers. My daughter would not have a $50,000 college debt right now. My disabled daughter would be much better provided for in the future. Clearly, I would've earned six figures every year. Bill Binney would've earned six figures every year for a number of years. It was an abrupt halt to all of those dreams.
DAVIES: I want to ask you when the documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden started emerging in the media, were you upset about this? How did you regard it?
BINNEY: I looked at it as there's still another whistleblower out there. I mean I looked at it as he saw what happened to us and realized that you couldn't come out and say these things and have people believe you because they wouldn't. What they would do, NSA would call you a disgruntled employee or they would call you mentally disturbed or something like that. So I couldn't blame him for taking some material. I didn't realize he took so much of it, but I mean certainly enough material to justify or show and prove what he was alleging was true, and that's certainly is what he's done, has done a public service for everybody in this country and everybody around the world.
DAVIES: Kirk Wiebe, do you agree? I mean some say, you know, you should try within the system first.
WIEBE: We did. We tried for several years to do it within the system and look what they did to us. Clearly Edward Snowden saw that and said that's obviously not an option, obviously not an option. And just to be a little more formal, there are no whistleblower protections for any employee of the intelligence - U.S. intelligence community. There are a modicum of protections for other government employees, but not inside the intelligence community.
DAVIES: President Obama came into office talking about transparency and extolling the value of whistleblowers. But his administration has been very tough on investigations of leakers. In fact, there's still an attempt to get James Risen into court to testify about a source. I mean he could be facing a contempt citation and prison. And I'm wondering, I mean clearly you spent a lot of years - both of you - in an agency where secrets were important to keep and you believed that some secrets have to be kept.
What should a government do if it feels someone is leaking important information?
WIEBE: Well, first of all, I mean if they took whistleblowers who usually go internally to begin with and actually did something about it to try to correct a problem instead of covering it up - which is what they consistently have been doing, if they actually did something positive to try to resolve the issues that are being raised by whistleblowers, they wouldn't have this problem.
DAVIES: Kirk Wiebe, Bill Binney, thanks so much for speaking with us.
WIEBE: Thank you.
BINNEY: Thank you, Dave.
GROSS: Kirk Wiebe and Bill Binney spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Wiebe and Binney are former NSA analysts who are interviewed in the new "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets," which will be shown tomorrow night on public television stations.
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