Timothy Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence, wrote a major feature story for The Nation this week on the four whistleblowers from the National Security Agency—William Binney, Thomas Drake, William Binney, Edward Loomis and J. Kirk Wiebe—who Shorrock writes were “falsely accused of leaking in 2007″ and “have endured years of legal harassment for exposing the waste and fraud behind a multibillion-dollar contract for a system called Trailblazer, which was supposed to “revolutionize” the way the NSA produced signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the digital age.”
The program was “canceled in 2006.” It is now “one of the worst failures in US intelligence history.”Not only that, the failure is now a significant coverup in recent government history, as the Justice Department prosecuted Drake for blowing the whistle on this corruption and the total amount of money spent on privatizing this intelligence collection is still secret.
Moreover, there was this other cheaper program, ThinThread, that was not a privatization scheme. It had the ability to “analyze trillions of bits of foreign SIGINT flowing over the Internet at warp speed.” It was “small enough to be loaded onto a laptop, and included anonymization software that protected the privacy rights of US persons guaranteed in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).” But, ThinThread was not made generally operational so that Trailblazer wouldn’t have to be scrapped.
The story goes into much more detail on the ”toxic mix of bid-rigging, cronyism and fraud” of which “senior NSA officials and several of the nation’s largest intelligence contractors” were involved. Interviews with the “NSA Four” offer a glimpse at how the ”Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), the government’s fourth-largest contractor, squandered billions of dollars on a vast data-mining scheme that never produced an iota of intelligence.” (Read the full story here.)
Shorrock, Binney, Drake were on Huffington Post Live for a segment and were joined by Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project and Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). The segment went into more detail on this story.
Binney explains ThinThread could look at massive amounts of data and build relationships in that data to figure out what you wanted or needed to look at as potential threats. The benefit of it was being able to figure out at the point of interception what needed to be kept and throw all the other data away. The NSA could also have, for example, mentions of “al Qaeda” automatically forwarded by ThinThread and it would not lay around in a database until someone came to find it.
According to Drake, Trailblazer never developed into anything. “It was just a lot of Blazing Saddles-storefronts,” that “became basically a virtual bar.” Contractors could approach NSA for handouts. It never deployed and it is believed that billions of dollars were spent on the program, however, an exact figure is unknown because the Secrecy State doesn’t want the public to know how much was spent.
“There’s no real reason for the total amount [spent] on Trailblazer to be classified. It shouldn’t be state secret how much money was wasted. Why do they keep it a state secret? It’s an embarrassment to the NSA and it’s an embarrassment to the corporations,” Shorrock declares.
This is indicative of the over-classification problem that is pervasive in US government—a problem that the government does not deny exists.
Radack mentions the NSA Four “blew the whistle to the Department of Defense Inspector General, which actually investigated and substantiated their claims.” The report, however, was classified so no one could read it and then a few years later the Inspector General “sold them down the river” when the Justice Department began to target Drake for prosecution.
Drake became a target in 2006, when the Justice Department really began to crank up a multi-year multi-million dollar “leak investigation” into the source of disclosures on NSA surveillance programs in newspaper articles, particularly a New York Times story published by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen on warrantless wiretapping (which Drake had nothing to do with).
Shorrock opens his article with the following:
In the annals of national security, the Obama administration will long be remembered for its unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. Since 2009, it has employed the World War I–era Espionage Act a record six times to prosecute government officials suspected of leaking classified information. The latest example is John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer serving a thirty-month term in federal prison for publicly identifying an intelligence operative involved in torture. It’s a pattern: the whistleblowers are punished, sometimes severely, while the perpetrators of the crimes they expose remain free.
No persons have been accountable for the corruption surrounding TrailBlazer. Binney suggests that multiple levels of government officials should be fired. The problem is that the public does not know the true extent of corruption because it is concealed by a secrecy regime that has only been enhanced by Obama to prevent agencies from being embroiled in scandal.