The National Security Agency (NSA) operates largely without accountability to other government branches or the public, according several former high-ranking NSA executives speaking July 25 at a forum at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
They said the NSA tries to collect as much phone, email, and social media data as possible from the world's population, including U.S. citizens, for storage and potential retrieval later. The process represents a massive loss of the political freedom and privacy that Americans have enjoyed through history until recent years, according to panelists convened by the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
GAP Executive Director Bea Edwards, right, opened the forum by describing the pivotal role of whistleblowers in helping the public understand when authorities overstep legal bounds. She praised fugitive NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for providing a vital service last month by risking his freedom to release documents showing massive government abuses. She rejected claims by his opponents in the media and government that he should have deferred to others of greater rank to decide whether the Executive Branch agencies such as the NSA comply with Constitutional, statutory, and secret law.
“No one in power is making decisions in the public interest on this front,” Edwards said. “No one is even consulting the public to determine what that interest is.”
Quite the opposite, in fact. The public is being deceived. Consider the first document disclosed by Mr. Snowden: a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court order directing Verizon to continue supplying metadata to the NSA on domestic phonecalls.The court order revealed a crucial fact of life in 21st century America: Our government lies to us about decisions that really matter. Not only is domestic surveillance pervasive and real, but the government lied about it – to Congress and to the public.
Her comments and those by prominent former NSA executives directly challenged the veracity of NSA Director Keith Alexander, left, and other top Obama administration and congressional officials. Defenders of the super-secret NSA (which is much larger than the better known CIA) claim that NSA conducts domestic surveillance of modest scope within the law, and strives also to protect freedoms by confining electronic surveillance to potential terrorists, primarily overseas.
Not true, according to Thomas Drake, a former NSA senior executive who reported to NSA's third-ranking official under Director Michae Hayden. Hayden ran the agency during the first years of the Bush administration, and now holds many posts, including as a high-level government contractor. Drake objected via internal procedures during Hayden's tenure to vast waste of money and to warrantless spying on innocent Americans in violation of the law.
“The government itself,” Drake said during the press club panel, “has become a criminal enterprise.”
Similarly, former NSA Technical Director William Binney and former NSA Senior Analyst J. Kirk Wiebe said they resigned from NSA along with others when they realized the agency was violating its mandate by a leadership guided by bad motives.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Wiebe said, after he realized in late 2001 that 3,000 people had died during 9/11 from what he regarded as needless intelligence failures. Each of the three told the panel audience that he had sought to correct NSA problems internally, but each learned that authorities at the highest levels wanted to use the complaint process to identify — and punish — those who raised questions.
The forum convened national security journalists as well as whistleblowers. New York Times reporter James Risen and syndicated columnist David Sirota moderated the two panels. Risen, ordered by a federal appeals court July 20 to testify against a CIA source, led a discussion whereby whistleblowers described their experiences, some disastrous, with prominent reporters.