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​Former NSA whistleblowers plead for chance to brief Obama on agency abuses

Published time: January 08, 2014 22:35
Edited time: January 10, 2014 12:52
AFP Photo / Paul J.Richards

AFP Photo / Paul J.Richards

A group of former National Security Agency insiders who went on to become whistleblowers have written a letter to President Barack Obama, requesting a meeting with him to offer “a fuller picture” of the spy agency’s systemic problems.

The group of four intelligence specialists - William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis and Kirk Wiebe - who worked at the NSA for “a total of 144 years, most of them at senior levels” stressed in the letter the need for Obama to address what they’ve seen as abuses that violated Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and that have made proper, effective intelligence gathering more difficult.

“What we tell you in this Memorandum is merely the tip of the iceberg,” the group, calling themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), wrote. “We are ready – if you are – for an honest conversation. That NSA’s bulk collection is more hindrance than help in preventing terrorist attacks should be clear by now despite the false claims and dissembling.”

The group criticized the NSA for its vast data collection policies, which they say bars the agency from effectively tracking actual terror plots in advance, such as the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

The “NSA is drowning in useless data lacking adequate privacy provisions, to the point where it cannot conduct effective terrorist-related surveillance and analysis,” they write. “A recently disclosed internal NSA briefing document corroborates the drowning, with the embarrassing admission, in bureaucratese, that NSA collection has been ‘outpacing’ NSA’s ability to ingest, process, and store data – let alone analyze the take.”

The letter ridicules current and former intelligence community leaders like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper - for lying to Congress - and current NSA director Keith Alexander and its former chief Michael Hayden for purposely distorting the efficiency and vitality of the agency’s surveillance programs.

“Surely you intuit that something is askew when NSA Director Keith Alexander testifies to Congress that NSA’s bulk collection has ‘thwarted’ 54 terrorist plots and later, under questioning, is forced to reduce that number to one, which cannot itself withstand close scrutiny. And surely you understand why former NSA Director and CIA Director Michael Hayden protests too much and too often on Fox News and CNN, and why he and House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers publicly suggest that whistleblower Edward Snowden be put on your Kill List.”

“Does a blind loyalty prevail in your White House to the point where, 40 years after Watergate, there is not a single John Dean to warn you of a “cancer on the presidency?” Have none of your lawyers reminded you that “electronic surveillance of private citizens … subversive of constitutional government” was one of the three Articles of Impeachment against President Richard Nixon approved by a bipartisan 28 to 10 vote of the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974?”

The VIPS letter indicates the combined insight and expertise of these respected intelligence analysts - all ridiculed and some prosecuted after calling attention to NSA abuses years before anyone had heard of former NSA contractor and leaker Edward Snowden - can be important in the face of an establishment community in Washington seeking to shelter the mass surveillance programs in question.

“Given the closed circle surrounding you, we are allowing for the possibility that the smell from these rotting red herrings has not yet reached you – even though your own Review Group has found, for example, that NSA’s bulk collection has thwarted exactly zero terrorist plots,” they write, referring to an Obama-appointed panel that was tasked with reviewing NSA procedures."

“The sadder reality, Mr. President, is that NSA itself had enough information to prevent 9/11, but chose to sit on it rather than share it with the FBI or CIA. We know; we were there. We were witness to the many bureaucratic indignities that made NSA at least as culpable for pre-9/11 failures as are other U.S. intelligence agencies.”

The VIPS revisit much of the information already reported, including the case of NSA senior executive Drake’s attempts to convince agency heads that a program developed by Binney should have been used for crucial intelligence gathering. THINTHREAD, produced for a relatively small amount of money shortly before the 9/11 attacks, sorted information without violating the Fourth Amendment or NSA’s privacy standards, the VIPS write.

But instead, then-NSA director Michael Hayden chose a different program, STELLARWIND, produced by defense contractors that cost billions of dollars while violating Fourth Amendment and privacy rights. Drake sounded the alarm, continuing to push for THINTHREAD use even after all its developers left the NSA in October 2011. In his steady support for the discarded program, he found out how much actionable intelligence the NSA had legally gathered that could have thwarted the 9/11 attacks, he says.

Upon being asked to prepare a report at the request of Congress on the NSA’s knowledge of the 9/11 plot and hijackers before September 11, 2001, Drake says the agency decided to balk at taking any responsibility.

“After a couple of weeks [SIGINT chief Maureen] Baginski rejected my draft team Statement for the Record report and removed me from the task,” Drake writes. “When I asked her why, she said there was a ‘data integrity problem’ (not further explained) with my draft Statement for the Record. I had come upon additional damaging revelations. For example, NSA had the content of telephone calls between AA-77 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar in San Diego, CA, and the known al-Qaeda safe house switchboard in Yemen well before 9/11, and had not disseminated that information beyond NSA.”

“In short, when confronted with the prospect of fessing up, NSA chose instead to obstruct the 9/11 congressional investigation, play dumb, and keep the truth buried, including the fact that it knew about all inbound and outbound calls to the safe house switchboard in Yemen. NSA’s senior leaders took me off the task because they realized – belatedly, for some reason – that I would not take part in covering up the truth about how much NSA knew but did not share.”

The letter, with the subject line “Input for Your Decisions on NSA,” is timed to coincide with deliberations currently happening in the Obama administration to confront recommended NSA reforms from the panel.

Last month, the five-person review group, made up of intelligence and administration insiders, assembled by Obama presented the White House with a report suggesting that the NSA consider dozens of recommendations meant to reform some of the operations exposed through leaks supplied by Snowden. After that report was completed but before the president went on vacation in late December, Obama said he’d make a "pretty definitive statement about all of this in January."

The President is now expected to weigh in on those recommendations publically during the annual State of the Union address scheduled for January 28 in Washington.

Obama will reportedly hold a closed-door meeting with select officials on this week in advance of the public speech to discuss in private the future of the controversial surveillance operations waged by the NSA.