Seven weeks after the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people and demolished the World Trade Center in New York, one of the nation’s top code breakers walked out of the premier spy agency in the United States for the last time.
It was October 31, 2001. Lower Manhattan was still smoldering. Letters containing anthrax had been sent to members of Congress and media outlets across the nation. Bomb scares were reported seemingly every day. A jittery nation was at war with an unseen enemy.
But Bill Binney, a code breaker who had risen to the level equivalent to a general within the National Security Agency, wasn’t joining the fight. He was retiring after more than thirty years at the agency. As he reached the bottom of the steps at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, he said, “Free at last. Free at last.”
Binney had spent years trying to modernize the spy agency’s surveillance methods so that it could monitor Internet communications that bounce all over the world, while still respecting the privacy of U.S. citizens’ communications. But his efforts had been thwarted at every turn.
Now, his colleagues were telling him that the agency was collecting the communications of U.S. citizens without any privacy protections. He wanted no part of it.
As he left the Fort Meade compound, Binney was fleeing what he viewed as the scene of a crime. “I could not stay after the NSA began purposefully violating the Constitution,” he later declared in court testimony against his former employer.
We have since learned, of course, that Binney was right. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government established sweeping, possibly illegal dragnets that captured the phone call and e-mail traffic of nearly every American.
In my quest to understand the history and origins of mass surveillance, I kept returning to the year 2001. Not only was it the year of the devastating terrorist attacks on the United States, but it was also the year that the technology industry was left reeling from the bursting of the dot-com bubble. These two seemingly unrelated events each set in motion a chain of events that created the legal and technical underpinnings of today’s dragnets. For the U.S. government, the terrorist attacks showed that its traditional methods of intelligence gathering weren’t working. And for Silicon Valley, the crash showed that it needed to find a new way to make money.
Both arrived at the same answer to their disparate problems: collecting and analyzing vast quantities of personal data.
Of course, each had a different purpose. The government was seeking to find and extract terrorists who might be hiding within the population. The tech industry was seeking to lure advertisers with robust dossiers about individuals. But, inevitably, the two became intertwined as the U.S. government used its power to dip into the tech industry’s profiles.
Together, the government and the tech industry hatched our Dragnet Nation. This is the story of how it all began.
Bill Binney suffered for speaking out against the NSA’s dragnets.
While at the NSA, Binney had developed what he believed was a dragnet that respected and protected individual privacy. Called ThinThread, it was a clever program that intercepted tons of Internet and phone data, encrypted it, and analyzed it for patterns. It would be decrypted only if a specific threat was found and a court had approved a search warrant to decrypt the data.
But he couldn’t get the program deployed. After several years of internal battles, during which Binney and his colleagues took their case directly to congressional leaders, the NSA’s top leaders declined to support ThinThread. One reason: in the pre-9/11 era, the NSA’s lawyers worried that ThinThread would violate Americans’ privacy because it might collect domestic communications, even though they were encrypted. Another reason: NSA director Michael Hayden had thrown his support behind a much more expensive program called Trailblazer, built by private contractors, which also aimed to analyze the NSA’s oceans of data but didn’t use encryption. Trailblazer eventually was abandoned after massive cost overruns and technical failures.
In 2002, Binney’s colleague Kirk Wiebe, who had worked on ThinThread, contacted the Department of Defense’s inspector general to report what he believed was “waste, fraud and abuse” at the NSA. The inspector general’s report, issued in 2005, was heavily redacted, but the few unredacted parts seemed to vindicate ThinThread.
In 2006, the Baltimore Sun published an article about the battles over ThinThread. “NSA Rejected System That Sifted Phone Data Legally,” the headline stated.
On July 26, 2007, the FBI raided Binney’s home in suburban Maryland.
Binney was in the shower. “The guy came in and pointed a gun at me,” he recalled. “I just said, ‘Do you suppose I could put some clothes on?’ ”
Wiebe, who had retired from the NSA the same day as Binney in 2001, was also raided on this day. Neither Binney nor Wiebe was ever charged with a crime.
On November 28, 2007, the FBI raided the home of another ThinThread supporter, Thomas Drake, an NSA executive who had collaborated anonymously on the inspector general’s investigation. Agents seized Drake’s papers, computers, and hard drives and alleged that they found classified documents in the basement. Two and a half years later, Drake was indicted and charged with violating the Espionage Act because of his “willful retention” of classified documents.
Drake was financially devastated by the prosecution. He was five and a half years from retirement at the NSA. He lost his pension, which would have been $60,000 a year. He took out a second mortgage on his house and withdrew most of his 401(k) retirement plan to pay for his expenses. He was unemployable in the intelligence community, so he started working at an Apple retail store. After spending $82,000 on legal fees, he was declared indigent by the court and was represented by a public defender.
In 2011, after a wave of publicity about Drake’s plight, the government dropped all ten felony counts against Drake, as a condition for Drake pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of “exceeding the authorized use of a government computer.” During the sentencing, the U.S. District Court judge Richard D. Bennett called the government’s two-and-a-half-year delay between the search and indictment “unconscionable.” “It was one of the most fundamental things in the Bill of Rights that this country was not to be exposed to people knocking on the door with government authority and coming into their homes,” he wrote. “And when it happens, it should be resolved pretty quickly.”
Judge Bennett didn’t overtly accuse the government of using its power to harass a whistle-blower. But he gave Drake the lightest sentence possible—one year probation, during which he was required to do twenty hours of community service a month and no fine. He closed the sentencing hearing by addressing Drake: “I wish you the best of luck in the rest of your life.”
Prior to Drake’s prosecution, Binney, Drake, and Wiebe had tried to reform the agency from within. But as Drake’s trial approached, they went public. And after Drake’s exoneration, they became full-time critics of the NSA, giving scathing interviews to media outlets and warning of the power of an unchecked agency that has information on everyone.
When I first met Binney, the first thing he said to me was that the amount of data being assembled by the NSA was “orders of magnitude” more than the world’s most repressive secret police regimes, the Gestapo, the Stasi, and the KGB.
“It’s a real danger when a government assembles that much information about a citizen,” he told me. “Gathering that much information gives them power over everybody.”
Julia Angwin is an award-winning investigative journalist at the independent news organization ProPublica. From 2000 to 2013, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she led a privacy investigative team that was a Finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting in 2011 and won a Gerald Loeb Award in 2010. Her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, was published by Times Books in 2014.
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