Truthout is serializing Beatrice Edwards’ book, The Rise of the American Corporate Security State. To read more excerpts from this book, click here.
Daniel Ellsberg writes of The American Corporate Security State: “Edwards is an extraordinary writer who brilliantly captures the essence of what whistleblowers such as Snowden have sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their personal liberties to convey.” Get the book by contributing to Truthout here.
The Government-Corporate Complex: What It Knows about You
Chapter 1: The Rise of the American Corporate Security State
Reason to be afraid #1:
Average citizens are subject to ever-expanding surveillance and data collection by the government-corporate complex.
Halfway across the ornate sitting room, Julian Assange stands with his back to the door, drinking a bottle of beer. It is early on a summer evening, June 22, 2013, and the Embassy of Ecuador in London is hosting a small party to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of his arrival in need of asylum. While Assange stands chatting calmly about the future of his anti-secrecy enterprise, Wikileaks, few people in the room know that he is worried. Sarah Harrison, his principal researcher and confidant, is only hours away from slipping out of Hong Kong with Edward Snowden, who, at that moment, is fast becoming the most hunted man in the world.
Close friends and supporters of Assange mill around the room, helping themselves to the buffet and arguing about software and the state of the world – in that order. Assange himself, with his longish white hair and black jeans, looks slightly out of place in the scene, bordered as it is by stiff-legged, gilt-painted settees. After a year, however, he’s completely at home here, laughing and joking with the security guys, lawyers, and hacker guests, talking thoughtfully about the escalating struggle for control of electronic information.
“There’s a completely new creation in the world,” he says. “And the battle is on for access to it.”
He’s talking about the electronic “pocket litter” that each of us collects as we cruise the Internet and use our cell phones each day. Behind us, we leave a digital trail that reveals our interests, our politics, our friends, their friends, our health worries, our finances and fears. As he speaks, Assange is thinking of Snowden and what he had recently revealed about the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.
The White House, the NSA, and the FBI closed in, and as a Chinese diplomat later confided, “You don’t know what pressure is until you have those sons-of-bitches breathing down your neck.”
In the course of his highly classified contract work for the NSA, the US intelligence agency, Snowden uncovered unconstitutional surveillance programs that trace and store the electronic pathways etched across the Internet by hundreds of millions of Americans. NSA surveillance also sweeps up and archives the metadata associated with phone calls. Snowden discovered that Americans are subject to dragnet electronic domestic surveillance and have been for years.
His disclosure of NSA domestic surveillance caused a Washington tailspin, and the search for the source was on. After he identified himself in a video filmed in a nondescript Hong Kong hotel room, US political pressure ramped up on the Chinese government. The White House, the NSA, and the FBI closed in, and as a Chinese diplomat later confided, “You don’t know what pressure is until you have those sons-of-bitches breathing down your neck.”
Even if everything else the Chinese government said about its role in the Snowden affair was calculated, that statement was unquestionably spontaneous and true. Snowden had the secrets to the Corporate Security State that was quietly metastasizing through US federal agencies and corporate management suites after 9/11, and he was telling them to the world. He had to be stopped.
In the world of national security and surveillance, the evening of June 5, 2013, two weeks earlier, was frankly horrible. At about 9:30 Eastern Daylight Time, a story by Glenn Greenwald appeared on the Guardian website, linked to an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) of the United States. In black and white, the document showed that, at the request of the FBI, the FISC ordered Verizon Business Network Services to submit all telephony metadata in its systems to the NSA. Only the data for calls originating and terminating abroad were exempted from the order, which, until the Guardian posted it, was secret. The order would not declassify until April 2038, twenty-five years in the future.
Telephony metadata, an unknown phrase for many of us until that night, includes the phone number called, number calling, routing of call, phone number identifiers, time of call, and duration. Subsequently, we learned that the FBI gave similar orders to Sprint Nextel and AT&T. Through a secret and tortured interpretation of the Patriot Act, Section 215, the court allowed this data collection.
Moreover, Greenwald wrote the next day that the NSA used a program called PRISM to collect customers’ data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and other online corporations.
Two months later, a new Greenwald article appeared, also on the Guardian website: “XKeyscore – NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the Internet.'” The article explained that the XKeyscore program sucks into its maw almost every electronic datum on the Internet about everyone in the United States. And more than that: analysts need no prior authorization to inspect the emails, Facebook pages and postings, tweets, and Internet browsing history of ordinary citizens suspected of nothing. Via XKeycore, analysts at the NSA:
[L]isten to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”
Many Americans can’t, really. “I’m not a terrorist,” they shrug. “So why should I care?” Then they laugh at the absurdity of highly skilled intelligence agents reading their dopey emails. “Go ahead, but it’s pretty boring” is the typical reaction.
“But that’s illegal . . . They’ve testified in Congress that they’re not doing anything illegal.” . . . “They’re lying.”
I work for a small nonprofit organization law firm in Washington, DC, that defends whistleblowers: the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Ordinary people come to us after they report appalling things in the places where they work and are dismissed, disciplined, or demoted in retaliation. They’re hoping we can tell the world what they told us (at the very least) and get them their jobs back (at best). Most of our clients are federal government employees. We work with food inspectors, for example, who report animal cruelty in processing plants and toxic chemical additives to your food. Our clients are UN police officers who witness and report rape and sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces. Office workers and agents at the FBI and the NSA come to us to document gross waste and abuse. As do traders and risk managers who see pervasive fraud at multinational banks and FDA officials who report drug trials faked by pharmaceutical companies. At truly repressive institutions such as the World Bank, our sources remain anonymous, but they also contact us by phone and email.
As a result, at GAP, our emails are not boring, and we do not want the NSA collecting them, much less reading them. Since the Snowden disclosures, we ask our clients to meet us outside the office, downstairs, and around the corner at Starbucks. We have to talk face to face as if we were subversives. To be safe, whistleblowers facing retaliation must provide their evidence on paper now, not by email.
Journalists must do the same with their sources. Or they need complex, user-hostile encryption programs. The loss of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure that Snowden exposed means the loss of a free press and free speech, as well as a loss of freedom of association.
Those who shrug about all this are right in a sense. Most calls and Internet habits are attracting nothing more than routine attention. It is also true, however, that innocent behaviors can drop you into the NSA’s net. You are suspect if you’re communicating over email in a language other than the one of the region you’re in or if you’re using encryption (in other words, trying to protect your privacy). Dissenting actions will also attract attention: writing a critical blog, or book; becoming a vocal whistleblower, whether wittingly or otherwise; contacting someone who contacts someone else who appears to be suspect. And then you must consider that US intelligence agencies have on record virtually everything you have done for five years past.
You should know that whatever information about you the government lacks, private corporations probably can provide. Your bank, of course, controls your financial data: number of bank accounts, balance, history of deposits, how much and when, cash withdrawals, bills paid, and checks written. Everything you bought with your debit card is also on record. Of course, if your bank issued your credit cards, then your purchases and payments every day, every month, are collected there, too.
Then there’s the new industry of data aggregation led by corporations like Acxiom and ChoicePoint. In her book Spying on Democracy, Heidi Boghosian describes this growing enterprise, which collects information about you available from municipal service providers, voter registration lists, property files, and court records. Clients of these companies include financial institutions, telecommunications companies, and insurance companies, which buy profiles and records for direct marketing purposes.
The US government also contracts data aggregators. According to Bogoshian:
Consumers are largely in the dark about the extent to which their personal data is being shared among different industries and government agencies and for what purpose. What is known, however, is that businesses and other organizations expend more than $2 billion annually to purchase personal information on individuals.
This is what Julian Assange meant when he said that there is a new creation in the world, and the struggle is on for access to it and control of it.
A miracle of signals intelligence, Thin Thread could scan through the metadata on calls and messages, identify suspect connections based on past intelligence and current contacts, and throw the rest of the data away. Besides its economy, Thin Thread had one other compelling feature: it was legal.
On a Wednesday afternoon in the fall of 2011, Jesselyn Radack (GAP’s National Security and Human Rights program director), Kathleen McClellan (GAP’s National Security counsel), and attorneys from three nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) convene in the conference room at GAP. It is decorated with the customary law firm props: the long oval table, the speaker phone, and shelves of matching leather-bound law books that no one has opened since the advent of electronic communication. GAP’s national security program clients (Tom Drake, Bill Binney, and Kirk Wiebe) are there, too. Like Snowden, they’re NSA whistleblowers, but they preceded him and used internal reporting channels, all of which failed them and left them exposed to devastating reprisal.
This afternoon, at Radack’s and McClellan’s behest, they are explaining what has been happening to all Americans since 9/11. The lawyers sit along one side of the table, and the NSA guys sit along the other. Radack opens the meeting: GAP is making the NSA whistleblowers available to the group because their knowledge about the US government’s invasion of Americans’ privacy is fundamental to any meaningful overall defense of the civil rights of US citizens. Bill is the mathematician of the trio, she explains. Tom knows IT and NSA management, and Kirk translates the math into the programming.
As the NGOs take notes, Bill and Kirk explain how NSA eavesdropping has evolved and what the government can do now. The US government, they say quietly, can collect every website visit, every phone call, and every email of anyone in the country. All of this information can be recorded wholesale and stored in massive databases, to be queried if and when needed.
Binney, looking the part of a bemused mathematician over his glasses, explains in lay terms the capabilities of the NSA. He names an apparatus the NSA operates: the Narus Insight equipment. It can process 1.25 million 1,000-character emails a second. The NSA has ten of them.
All web information is collected, regardless of whether the transmitters are of US origin, and all information is stored for a period of years by the government.
NGO lawyer X protests softly. “But that’s illegal,” she says. “They’ve testified in Congress that they’re not doing anything illegal.”
“They’re lying,” Drake answers, looking at her as if she’s new on the intelligence beat.
“To Congress?” asks the NGO lawyer Y.
Wiebe laughs softly and nods.
“Yes,” says Drake. “To Congress.”
“Jesus,” from NGO lawyer Z.
NGO lawyer Y comes back: “But the FISA court would never approve that.”
Wiebe looks down at his hands and says no more.
The audience for this presentation is not made up of novices. These are lawyers who are not naïve about official commitment to respect for the Bill of Rights. Still, they’re stunned, and as the shock wears off, Binney delivers the coup de grace: although the programs are both illegal and intrusive, they are not especially useful for purposes of counterterrorism.
If the NSA had put Thin Thread online when it was ready, 9/11 would not have happened.
It’s clear to everyone in the room that Bill Binney knows what he’s talking about. He and Wiebe, with their colleague, Ed Loomis, and others on the signals intelligence (SIGINT) team recognize a worthless program when they see it. In contrast, they designed a valuable one: Thin Thread. A miracle of signals intelligence, Thin Thread could scan through the metadata on calls and messages, identify suspect connections based on past intelligence and current contacts, and throw the rest of the data away. Besides its economy, Thin Thread had one other compelling feature: it was legal. In developing the program, Binney and his team solved one of the NSA’s most sensitive and difficult problems. They structured Thin Thread to separate US calls and emails from the rest of the digital heap and automatically encrypt the data to avoid warrantless spying on US citizens. If Thin Thread found that a US-based phone number or IP address contacted a known terrorist suspect, the agency could go to the FISC for a warrant.
When the NSA tested Thin Thread, the program immediately identified targets for investigation and encrypted the identities of US callers.
“And then you know what happened?” Drake asked during the meeting at GAP.
“They shut it down.”
There was silence in the room.
“But why?” asked NGO lawyer X.
The three NSA whistleblowers looked at one another. Finally, Drake cocked his head, and a pained expression crossed his face. “Too many careers and contracts were tied to a different program.”
Given the fact that 9/11 happened less than one year after the NSA shut down Thin Thread, there was nothing more to say. For his part, Binney was extremely disturbed about the NSA’s failure to deploy the program. Thin Thread was ready to go months before 9/11, and he planned to apply it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it would be most effective: he was (and is) convinced that if the NSA had put Thin Thread online when it was ready, 9/11 would not have happened.
Documents Edward Snowden began to disclose in June 2013 tell the whole sorry saga of the NSA and its corporate partners in the years after 9/11. Both what they have and have not done.
Back on its heels and lacking a mission after the Cold War ended, the NSA got new life with the advent of the Global War on Terror. Its budget more than doubled. Billions of dollars now disappear annually into intelligence contracts. Before Snowden told us in the summer of 2013, we did not know how much the US government spent on intelligence. Now we know: $52.6 billion annually. Of that amount, 70 percent goes to private corporations. Because, as taxpayers, we who fund the whole business have no right to know what we’re paying for, the setup is ripe for waste and fraud.
In America, there’s a curious disconnect between taxpayer concerns about the cost of social programs and the cost of security operations and war. It’s as if politicians don’t notice that Medicaid and the NSA are run by the same outfit – the US government. If the government wastes money on health care programs for poor people, which, by the way, are publicly and constantly audited, imagine what’s going on at the NSA, the CIA, and the rest of them, where much of the financing is secret.
The US government, which is huge and cumbersome and bureaucratic, is given to cronyism and ineptitude unless subjected to meaningful oversight.
The possibilities for waste in government agencies with few budget constraints and little oversight are almost unimaginable, and the one agency where the budget is most generous and the external oversight is weakest is the Pentagon. When he ran the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, for example, General Keith Alexander, who later came to run the NSA, presided over the Information Dominance Center, designed by a predecessor to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. It had everything: hardwood paneling, odd trapezoidal chrome and glass cabins, and a huge TV screen on the wall so the little man in the glittery uniform could monitor the world while sitting in his great huge leather captain’s chair. Those who have been there swore that the politicians Alexander invited to tour the place could also sit in the big chair if they wanted.
All of this, of course, was assembled with public money.
The US government, which is huge and cumbersome and bureaucratic, is given to cronyism and ineptitude unless subjected to meaningful oversight. If no one is paying attention, public money can buy props and toys to shore up the egos of generals. This has been repeatedly exposed, and yet there is no effective watchdog for the intelligence world or the Pentagon. Their money and their programs are classified.
This is why war is so profitable. When the country’s at war, the budget floodgates open and secret money pours out, funding black programs that lack accountability. And when we’re at war, anyone who brings up even the possibility of fraud in the intelligence world feels the full weight of the Justice Department come to bear against him – or her. We know this because it happened.
On July 26, 2007, in the early morning, Bill Binney was taking a shower when he thought he heard a commotion downstairs. He couldn’t be sure over the rush of water. He pulled back the shower curtain and found himself looking into the barrel of a Glock. The agent behind it wore a Kevlar vest that read FBI, and the gun was pointed directly at his head.
“Whoa,” Binney flinched and dropped back. He waited a beat. “Do you think I could get dressed here?” he asked.
Binney dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. His wife and his youngest son were home, and he knew they would be terrified. He was right. They huddled in the living room as the FBI raided their house. By the time Binney got to them, the ransacking was well underway.
FBI Special Agent Paul Michael Maric, whom Binney had met before, broke away from a huddle in the hallway and presented him with a search warrant: a thick blue document with a long list of articles the team could confiscate. On the list was the book State of War by James Risen, a book that documented secret domestic surveillance.
Here was the FBI, pursuing information about security breaches and leaks, openly describing classified operations without precaution.
Inspecting the warrant that morning, Binney, a long-time veteran of the Cold War and the battle against totalitarianism, felt a chill. The fact that it listed Risen’s book confirmed for him that he was caught up in a leak investigation that many at the agency were watching warily. Published two years before, the book contained information about surveillance that the author should not have known. Agent Maric allowed Binney a few moments to inspect the warrant, and then separated him from his wife and son.
“Out back,” Maric told him and steered him through his kitchen to the back porch. There, Maric told Binney to sit and began interrogating him.
Maric’s questions were specific, and he brought up details about classified operations, describing NSA sources and methods in the unprotected space of the back porch. Binney became increasingly concerned. Here was the FBI, pursuing information about security breaches and leaks, openly describing classified operations without precaution. Binney, a high-level NSA specialist, knew that if anyone’s house was bugged by a US enemy, his was. The FBI, however, on that particular day, didn’t seem to care.
The questioning continued, and the day grew hotter. Maric wanted a name. The agents were after someone, but Binney wasn’t helping. He couldn’t. He knew there was a leak investigation, but he wasn’t Risen’s source. Finally exasperated, Maric yelled at him: “Tell me something that will implicate somebody in a crime!”
At this point, Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis began to suspect that a financial force was driving NSA decision-making on security surveillance.
At that, Bill Binney shut down. This was a home invasion pure and simple by armed FBI agents. He was being attacked by his own government. The attack that day was part of a coordinated raid on the homes of three NSA specialists, and Diane Roark, a senior staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HIPSCI). It was an attack many years in the making. For much of that time, Bill Binney, who headed a cryptographer team, worked with his group to develop Thin Thread and solve the NSA’s primary problem during the 1990s. The analysts had to makes sense of the ocean of data pouring into the NSA daily, isolate real threat information, and protect the privacy of Americans. At a cost of about $300 million for full deployment, Thin Thread came in under budget, on time, and up to spec. Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Ed Loomis were pleased and planned to deploy it.
There they hit a wall, and nothing moved, even as they went higher up the chain of command looking for a green light. They spoke with Bill Black, the deputy director at the NSA, and finally with NSA director Michael Hayden. Neither would commit to anything.
In fact, Hayden didn’t want Thin Thread and would never use it, although neither he nor Black would say so. Even as Binney sketched out for Hayden what Thin Thread could do, the NSA director was asking Congress for an additional $3.8 billion to develop another surveillance program: Trailblazer. Binney and Wiebe got orders to merge Thin Thread’s data sweep with the embryonic Trailblazer, now to be produced by SAIC, Bill Black’s former employer. The initial amount to be spent on Trailblazer was about $1.2 billion, $900 million more than full deployment for Thin Thread, without the fine-tuning that made it legal or the real time analysis that made it effective.
At this point, Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis began to suspect that a financial force was driving NSA decision-making on security surveillance. In April 2000, they contacted Roark at HPSCI and briefed her. Reaction from NSA director Michael Hayden was swift and furious. He transferred both Binney and Wiebe to the technology division at the agency, where they had less access to congressional staff members.
At the same time, Hayden sent a memo to the “NSA Workforce,” informing the entire agency staff that if anyone else decided to report his decisions to Congress, they would regret it.
Seventeen months later, on a bright blue September day up and down the US east coast, a cabal of fanatics attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington with a coordinated hijacking of commercial airliners loaded with passengers and fuel. The towers caught fire and fell. The Pentagon itself seemed mortally wounded, and the country froze. Like a scene from a sci-fi horror movie, lower Manhattan and downtown DC filled with panicked and fleeing office workers and then stood deserted. No one knew what came next. Across America, air traffic control grounded all planes, and the stock market crashed and closed as TV stations rebroadcast the second plane hitting the South Tower of the World Trade Center over and over again.
The NSA, with the blessing of the Bush White House and the Justice Department, secretly did away with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution just like that.
It’s difficult to envision the complacency before and the panic just after September 11, 2001, in the management suites of the NSA. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the jihadists had gone quiet here in the homeland, but that attack was enough of a scare to crank up the contract machine and bulk up the budget for electronic surveillance in an agency hurting from the end of the Cold War. By 2000, Hayden & Company weren’t all that worried, they thought they could shut down Thin Thread and fool around for a few years with Trailblazer prototypes and PowerPoint presentations showing what SAIC was about to produce in exchange for $3.5 billion.
Then, with the shock of 9/11, the threat was suddenly real. Congress was asking questions, but Trailblazer wasn’t ready and wasn’t even scheduled to be for some years. So Hayden did the logical next best thing: he picked up elements of an espionage program that Binney had developed for surveillance of the Soviet Union and used them to spy on Americans. Because the 9/11 hijackers were based inside the United States, the NSA turned a program designed for foreign surveillance around and used it instead for dragnet domestic surveillance. The program soon had a new name: Stellar Wind. And the alternative acronym for the NSA – Never Spy on Americans – was no more.
A precursor of the programs Edward Snowden revealed, Stellar Wind enabled wholesale surveillance of Americans beginning shortly after 9/11. In effect, the NSA, with the blessing of the Bush White House and the Justice Department, secretly did away with the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution just like that.
The operation of the NSA after 9/11 is a cautionary tale about secrecy and profits. Senior managers made the wrong decisions consistently, and no one stopped them because no one who knew the whole picture, and objected, could talk about it. Those who did know and who tried to object were silenced.
As the 9/11 Commission reviewed the lapses in US defenses that allowed the attacks to occur, the phrase “connecting the dots” entered the popular lexicon, as in “The intelligence services failed to connect the dots.” Nonetheless, in the aftermath of 9/11, neither the CIA nor the NSA seemed to concentrate on more effective dot-connecting, which was exactly what Thin Thread would have done. Instead, the NSA wanted Trailblazer, a program that merely collected billions more dots. After years of this, the operative question is: just how many dots does the government have about each of us?
The answer is: too many because Stellar Wind was the real deal. Trailblazer, in the end, became a string of big-bucks contracts for SAIC that never produced a working program. Stellar Wind, however, unencumbered by privacy concerns, was sinister in the extreme. The program ran for years, sweeping up hundreds of billions of data points on US citizens, as if we were all plotting subversion. The Bush administration, which authorized it, and the NSA, which directed it, labored diligently to ensure that the American public remained ignorant of what was happening.
Very few people in Washington knew anything about Stellar Wind. In fact, no one outside a small circle of White House, NSA, and Justice Department officials did. Nor did anyone outside the circle really know how the program operated, until December 16, 2005, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau published an article in the New York Times exposing the NSA’s warrantless surveillance. The article opened with a dramatic statement:
Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.
On January 29, 2006, there was a second news bombshell. Although it was an ordinary mid-winter day for most Americans, it was a disaster for the cadre of NSA insiders managing Stellar Wind and concealing the Trailblazer losses. The morning dawned cold and clear on the Chesapeake Bay as the Sunday edition of the Baltimore Sun hit front walks and stoops around the city with the most explosive story of the author’s career. Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter for the Sun, began publishing a series of articles that exposed the gross waste and incompetence attached to the nonfunctional Trailblazer surveillance program. Coming on the heels of the December 2005 New York Times article by Risen and Lichtblau, the Gorman exposé infuriated the upper echelons at the NSA.
At the Justice Department and throughout the intelligence community, the search was on for the whistleblower.
Ironically, the reaction of the Bush White House, the NSA, and the Justice Department to September 11 unfolded according to the classic terrorist strategy. Terrorist groups are relatively small scale when compared to their targets; their leaders realize that their isolated attacks – even one as spectacular as 9/11 – cannot topple a targeted regime. The regime’s own extravagant reaction to the attack, however, does the rest of the work. Struck by a bomb – or by an American Airlines plane – the liberal regime clamps down on dissent in ways that make it unpopular, until the formerly free citizens themselves protest. Then the regime spends its wealth on stiffening repression rather than on public goods, so that it becomes increasingly despised and hated. No longer does the government help finance jobs, education, and health care. Instead, it sends tens of thousands of previously harmless young humans to distant countries for obscure reasons, where they die ignominiously or return home useless and wrecked, needing a lifetime of care, which the government no longer provides, either.
This is, in all likelihood, exactly where we are.
Copyright (2014) by Beatrice Edwards. This excerpt is not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher, Berrett-Koehler.