To the Foreign Intelligence Suveillance Court, 'We're all foreigners now.'
USA Today has a fascinating interview with three former NSA officials who all tried to call foul on the National Security Agency's widespread collection of information on Americans. Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Weibe are their names. They tried stopping NSA's surveillance of Americans for years. The three now say that they see some vindication in Edward Snowden's initial revelations. But they don't all agree whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. William Binney's answer to that question gets closest to my own opinion.
Q: There's a question being debated whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor.
Binney: Certainly he performed a really great public service to begin with by exposing these programs and making the government in a sense publicly accountable for what they're doing. At least now they are going to have some kind of open discussion like that.
But now he is starting to talk about things like the government hacking into China and all this kind of thing. He is going a little bit too far. I don't think he had access to that program. But somebody talked to him about it, and so he said, from what I have read, anyway, he said that somebody, a reliable source, told him that the U.S. government is hacking into all these countries. But that's not a public service, and now he is going a little beyond public service.
So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor.
Indeed. Americans needed to know that our government is spying on us. But there is no good reason to leak about US hacking against China, a program Snowden probably didn't even have legal access to. There is no good reason to out the UK's spying during the 2009 G20 summit, which, again, Snowden probably didn't have legal access to. Everyone assumes some spying goes on at these high-level meetings, but Snowden betrayed methods and means for no good purpose. Both of these leaks are one-sided and may be designed to earn Snowden favor with his hosts, the Communist Chinese. They both get into the realm of statecraft, areas where some secrecy is not only valid, it's a necessity. Not all government secrets are equal to all other government secrets. For instance, the public has no right to know exactly how the B2 evades radar detection. If the public gets that information, so do our enemies, and the capability will soon be rendered moot. The evidence and his actions suggest that Snowden went into the job with Booz Allen looking to grab things he could leak.
For what it's worth, though, the other two attempted whistle blowers still think Snowden is a hero. One of them, Thomas Drake, sees the Verizon warrant as hugely significant.
Q: What did you learn from the document — the Verizon warrant issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — that Snowden leaked?
Drake: It's an extraordinary order. I mean, it's the first time we've publicly seen an actual, secret, surveillance-court order. I don't really want to call it "foreign intelligence" (court) anymore, because I think it's just become a surveillance court, OK? And we are all foreigners now. By virtue of that order, every single phone record that Verizon has is turned over each and every day to NSA.
There is no probable cause. There is no indication of any kind of counterterrorism investigation or operation. It's simply: "Give us the data." ...
There's really two other factors here in the order that you could get at. One is that the FBI requesting the data. And two, the order directs Verizon to pass all that data to NSA, not the FBI.
That point touches on the relevance of a story that re-broke last week, and puzzled me -- that the FBI excludes mosques from its surveillance.
Since October 2011, mosques have been off-limits to FBI agents. No more surveillance or undercover string operations without high-level approval from a special oversight body at the Justice Department dubbed the Sensitive Operations Review Committee.
Who makes up this body, and how do they decide requests? Nobody knows; the names of the chairman, members and staff are kept secret.
We do know the panel was set up under pressure from Islamist groups who complained about FBI stings at mosques. Just months before the panel's formation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations teamed up with the ACLU to sue the FBI for allegedly violating the civil rights of Muslims in Los Angeles by hiring an undercover agent to infiltrate and monitor mosques there.
Are mosques, then, a form of sanctuary from FBI-NSA snooping? Is that how we're treating the terrorist threat upon which the Obama administration justifies sweeping up all our phone records?
There's some question, at the edges, of how Snowden obtained the Verizon document.
Q: Even given the senior positions that you all were in, you had never actually seen one of these?
Drake: They're incredibly secret. It's a very close hold. ... It's a secret court with a secret appeals court. They are just not widely distributed, even in the government.
Also for what it's worth, Drake tried whistle blowing on the NSA from within, using the government's whistle blower process. He ended up facing numerous felony charges. Snowden may have been aware of that when he decided to run instead of going through the proper channels. Had he stopped with the revelations about NSA snooping on Americans, he may have gone down in history as a hero. But the leaks on foreign policy seem designed to hurt the US and our allies. He may intend those leaks to make the US government wary of capturing him. It seems to me that if that's the case, it's a major miscalculation. Such leaks will only make the US more determined to capture him more quickly before he leaks again, and once captured, more determined to find out everything he knows and how he knows it.