I Toured Stasi HQ with NSA Whistleblowers
Visiting a dystopian past with Bill Binney, and looking back at the beginning of something.
Image by the author
The Stasi offices in Berlin have been frozen in time since they were stormed by activists on January 15th, 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall three months earlier. As tourists creep around, room by room, through this monument to fascism, it feels as though millions of secrets are still ingrained in the fabric of the chairs and the fibers of the ubiquitous oak furniture.
The museum that now occupies the building is an oddly mundane reminder of another era: Indistinguishable rooms of desks, phones and filing cabinets, fenced by aging net curtains filtering the sunlight. It is the walls adorned with surveillance photos of supposed state enemies, and exhibits of household gadgets planted with audio recording devices, that color the office's banality with a shade of darkness.
But the specter of Big Brother lingers, as I'm reminded by the man who is accompanying me through the exhibits: William Binney, the former NSA technical director who helped design mass surveillance systems for the agency, before spending a decade warning the world about the risks of those systems. As we tread past identical desks, retro rotary dial phones, and electromechanical typewriters, the Stasi's quaint spying technology reminds him of his NSA office in the 1980s, he says. Except the NSA today is estimated to hold one billion times more data than the Stasi held.
"The NSA's agenda is to control the government, and control the population," Binney says.
I had come to the Stasi Museum with a group of US and UK intelligence whistleblowers, who had congregated in Berlin to award Binney with the 2015 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The first award, presented in 2002, went to former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who testified to Congress about intelligence failures prior to 9/11; last year's award went to Edward Snowden.
In the years before September 11, Binney—then the technical director of world geopolitical & military analysis at the NSA—developed a surveillance program known as ThinThread. A spying tool for the 21st century, it was designed to sift global digital signals and procure important intelligence in a way that the NSA never had. Because it scanned a sizable amount of international communications traffic, it swept up Americans' data in the process; to address that problem, Binney installed privacy features that anonymized American data, while it scanned for patterns that suggested a search warrant would be needed to explore the data further.
Protecting the privacy of Americans was enshrined in the Constitution and in the agency's core directives. "I was giving privacy to everyone in the world," he says. After his creation was tested in the wild in 2000 and 2001, Binney proposed that ThinThread, which he says cost the NSA only $3.2 million to build, would require an additional $9.5 million to follow the surveillance targets that the program identified.
But then-NSA Director Michael Hayden was determined to ditch the program in favor of another data analysis program called Trailblazer. Proposed around the same time as ThinThread was born, and developed by a defense contractor called Science Applications International Corporation with close ties to the NSA, the program collected a much broader swath of information, but lacked the privacy controls of ThinThread. It was also far more expensive, at a cost that would ultimately reach an estimated $4 billion, according to the whistleblowers. Nevertheless, a month before the attacks of September 11, ThinThread was quietly put aside.
Binney warned that not only was this kind of program unconstitutional, conjuring "the Stasi on steroids," but would lead to "data bulk failure," whereby real security threats would be lost in the global haystack of information. Information overload would make terrorist attacks—like the kind that would happen in Boston and Paris—more difficult to prevent.
Soon after, everything changed. As three World Trade skyscrapers turned to dust on September 11, so did Americans' sense of safety. In the days after the attacks, Bush authorized the NSA and other government agencies to begin hoovering up every bit of data they could, under a secret wartime decree that appeared to override the Constitution. In the last week of September 2001, Binney watched as piles of hardware were carried into the agency's SIGINT Automation Research Center in Maryland. These were the instruments of a new spying system focused on domestic communications—built on the innovative architecture of ThinThread, Binney would learn.
The new surveillance system, codenamed "Stellar Wind," would capture data both outside and inside the US, harvesting Americans' emails, web browsing data, telephone communications, and financial transactions. Over the years, the system would grow, evolve, and be overseen, officially, by a secret court, which is now charged with approving domestic surveillance searches. (Of the thousands of surveillance requests to the FISA court in recent years, almost none have been denied.)
As we walked through the Stasi's walls of reinforced filing cabinets, it was hard to visualize this modern data collection. By one estimate, it would require an estimated 42 trillion Stasi filing cabinets to hold hard copies of all the NSA's virtual files.
Binney, who resigned from the NSA in October 2001, speaks of the secret powers of the state from personal experience. In 2002, he and two other NSA veterans formally complained to the Department of Defense about what they saw as fraud, waste, and abuse at the NSA. In 2005, a New York Times report about the NSA's surveillance program led the Dept. of Justice to open a leak investigation. Binney and his fellow whistleblowers became prime suspects.
Although Binney had been cleared of any wrongdoing, in July 2007 the FBI initiated an eight-hour raid on his home, confiscating a computer, disks, and personal and business records; as he was coming out of his shower, he says one agent pointed a gun at his head. Binney, as the most senior intelligence whistleblower, is certain the US government still keeps a close eye on him.
Binney suggests that the attacks of 9/11 were "allowed to happen." He explained: "There's an agenda that's after money, and not solving the problem. If you solve the problem you don't have the problem to get more money. It gave them all the money they could want." Binney insists that the NSA wasn't just negligent in preventing 9/11, but is guilty of a "deliberate cover up."
What he told me next was alarming: that the NSA sought to mislead the 9/11 Commission in its investigation of intelligence failures. Binney said that Tom Drake, a former NSA colleague also turned whistleblower, "took our program, ThinThread, and ran it on NSA data after 9/11. It showed the dispersal pattern of the people who actually didn't hijack the planes," like suspects and accomplices in the hijackers' support network, and "it showed the dispersal of them going back and getting out of the country. It also showed all those people and where they were and what they were doing long before 9/11. All the data was there." Binney and his former colleagues would detail this failure in their confidential report to the Pentagon's Inspector General.
"But NSA suppressed all of that data," he says. "The first thing they did was kill the program that Tom used, because it would show all the warts. The Congressional Investigating Committees didn't get truth from the intelligence agencies."
Drake discovered "all kinds of critical, actionable intelligence, that painted the tragic picture of what NSA could have known, should have known, and didn't share that they did know."
Drake, who was also touring the Stasi museum with us, told me the NSA has "huge culpability in the failure to protect the US from the 9/11 attackers, and has gone to great lengths to suppress the truth." During his investigation into ThinThread and data the NSA had, he says, he discovered "all kinds of critical, actionable intelligence, that painted the tragic picture of what NSA could have known, should have known, and didn't share that they did know."
Years after he warned Congressional investigators about NSA wrongdoing, Drake also became a target of the government's leak investigation; his home was raided, and he was charged with violating the Espionage Act, facing 35 years in prison. After a lengthy legal battle, the government's case against him collapsed, but the agency's inspector general found that his allegations of NSA retaliation were unfounded, even though, as McClatchy recently reported, the inspectors examined only two years out of the ten years detailed in his complaint.
In response to Binney's accusations of deliberate malfeasance and a cover-up, a spokesperson for the NSA said that his concerns are a "matter of public record" and suggested I "review all of the related information that has been in the public domain for several years." However, Drake's testimonies to two Congressional investigations about 9/11 remain classified.
After examining Binney's claims about the NSA's choice of Trailblazer over ThinThread, the Dept. of Defense agreed with him. In a 2004 report, it concluded that Trailblazer had "disregarded important solutions to urgent security needs," was "poorly executed" and "overly expensive." And it found that ThinThread's ability to sort through data in 2001 was far superior to that of Trailblazer in 2004. (Much of the report, including the NSA's response, remains classified.) Hayden himself admitted in 2005 that Trailblazer was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Five years and over a billion dollars later, the program was terminated, only to be replaced with more powerful mass surveillance systems, as evidenced by documents provided by Edward Snowden.
The refrain that the NSA collects "just metadata" now? "That's false," Binney says. "I put this in a sworn affidavit that I submitted to court. All emails are collected and the content of about 80 percent of everyone's phone calls are recorded. Currently, I think phone calls are stored for about 20 to 30 days. Although, if you're targeted for surveillance, you're screwed. Everything collected, everything stored."
Binney alludes to even more extreme intelligence practices that are not yet public knowledge, including the collection of Americans' medical data, the collection and use of client-attorney conversations, and law enforcement agencies' "direct access," without oversight, to NSA databases.
Vanee Vines, an NSA spokeswoman, would not comment directly on Binney's claims, but suggested that I "contact other US institutions about law enforcement and other domestic matters."
She added that the United States "is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures." Signals intelligence, she said, is only carried out "where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose for doing so," including "terrorist plots from al-Qaeda, ISIL, and others; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; foreign aggression against ourselves and our allies; and international criminal organizations."
Why would the NSA, I asked Binney, want to collect a phone conversation that Average Joe has with his mother, for instance? "Because Average Joe can turn into somebody objecting, and you don't want any opposition. You can't allow those people to organize," he said.
So, what kind of encryption technology does Binney use to communicate now? "Nothing," he says. Although Binney broadly agrees with Snowden that "crypto works," he knows that the NSA circumvents encryption by targeting the computer systems of recipients of encrypted mail, and sometimes even breaks encryption, as revealed in the Snowden documents.
In his acceptance speech, Binney thanked Snowden for his disclosures about widespread surveillance, since now he and other whistleblowers "can talk about it more easily." Despite the government's attempt to gag whistleblowers, he added, "I will not give up my First Amendment right to free speech, particularly to speak of information already in the public domain, for anyone."
The bugging devices we were observing in the Stasi museum looked almost comedic next to the kind of tools Binney was talking about. The Stasi's weird little watering cans with hidden cameras, plug sockets with listening devices, and steam machines for opening intercepted mail—they looked crude compared to the all-seeing surveillance apparatus constructed by today's government spies.
I thought we were visiting Stasi HQ to glimpse at a dystopian past, but the more I spoke to my fellow museum-goers, it felt like we were looking back at the beginning of something.
Correction: Drake testified to Congressional investigations into 9/11, not the 9/11 Commission as this post previously stated. An estimate of the cost of the NSA's Trailblazer program has been revised from $1.3 billion to Drake's estimation of $4 billion.