By PETER VAN BUREN published FEB. 18, 2017 in NYT Sunday Review
“The spotlight has finally been put on the lowlife leakers! They will be caught!” So tweeted President Trump on Thursday morning after a week when his administration had been shaken by reports based on information from anonymous sources inside the government and intelligence agencies. On Monday, such revelations had led to the resignation of Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser.
Further reports about repeated contacts between members of the Trump campaign team and Russian officials also caused the president to reverse his pre-election stance — “I love WikiLeaks!” — and issue tirades against “illegal” leaks and the “criminal action” of leakers. It’s no surprise that Mr. Trump, in office, wants to stem this flow with threatened retaliation, but if you’re a government employee who knows something, what are you thinking?
To leak or not to leak? Will you blow the whistle and expose wrongdoing?
I know something about the decision you’re weighing. With 21 years of service at the State Department as a foreign service officer, I was assigned to wartime Iraq from 2009 to 2010 to manage two provincial reconstruction teams. Their purpose was to help rebuild the country, in hopes that the young men then joining the insurgency would cease fighting and discover that they had a stake in a Pax Americana.
It was a difficult task, perhaps naïvely optimistic from the start. I quickly learned that despite the good intentions, the extraordinary amount of money spent and the importance of the project, it was not well thought out.
My orders from Washington were to nurture entrepreneurs among rural women whose husbands would not allow them to leave home. So we handed out money for people to open bakeries on streets that lacked running water and electricity. There was the chicken-processing plant we helped establish that threatened to disrupt a food chain that had served the region for hundreds of years. A short-term giveaway of animal vaccines ended by driving up their prices beyond the means of local farmers after my team had moved on.
This sounds almost comical now: My boss directed me to fund a theatrical production intended to persuade warring Sunnis and Shiites to stop killing one another. An Off Off Broadway show was not going to fix the sectarianism running amok in Iraq.
In short, I saw a hemorrhaging of American taxpayers’ money on propaganda when the Iraqis lacked basic health care, clean water and other essentials that we could have provided but did not. I felt the way I imagine civil servants today do: The country I loved serving wasn’t living up to its ideals.
It’s hard to pin down the exact moment, but at some point, the program’s flaws exceeded what in good conscience I could participate in. But the system did not want to hear constructive criticism.
I spoke with my boss in Iraq. He told me to do what I was told; his boss said the same. When I took my concerns to the inspector general, I was advised that what I was witnessing was not fraud or waste, but policy. Back in Washington, no one at the State Department would meet with me. I went outside the department, but when I attended a semi-clandestine meeting with Senate staff members, I could see they had trouble believing me. My reporting was 180 degrees from what they had heard officially from both the Bush and Obama administrations.
I didn’t know any journalists, but I did know from years in Washington that a leaker usually trades anonymity for credibility. You keep some safety, perhaps, and your job, but since you can’t stand up in your own defense, you are attacked by officials as ego-driven, your information as false. Or “fake news,” as we hear today.
I also realized my story needed more explaining than would fit in a newspaper article anyway. So I decided to go public, via a book. I chose to become a whistle-blower.
It’s risky. It’s saying, “Here I am, come after me.” But your motivations, too, are on display; you are more easily seen as a patriot than a partisan. And your presence encourages and empowers others.
I followed protocol and submitted the manuscript of my book. The State Department cleared it for publication without question. I can account for this only by noting that it went through a system then in place to rubber-stamp memoirs by retired diplomats.
Then, one day, an advance copy landed in someone’s hands at State, and my professional life ended. My security clearance was suspended. I was interviewed repeatedly by security personnel who were clearly fishing for any excuse to fire me. My personal finances and years of travel vouchers were scrutinized in a quest to find evidence of fraud or illicit income. I was a government employee inside a bureaucracy with powers of investigation and punishment I previously had no clue even existed.
The State Department flirted with prosecuting me for disclosing classified data that no one ever seemed to be able to pinpoint in my book, and tried to dismiss me in part for a “lack of candor” when I refused to incriminate myself. In the end, the harassment pushed me into an unwanted early retirement.
Near the end, I asked one of the security officers why they were bothering. In a rare moment of candor, the officer said most of this wasn’t aimed at me. It was about the next person; it was about sending a message.
So why did I do it? For the same reasons you’re thinking you should.
Because we saw something wrong. Because our conscience told us we must. Because we believe the people have a right to know about their government, and sometimes only someone on the inside can tell them. Because we can contribute to a larger story or supply a missing puzzle piece. Above all, because our oath of service is to the Constitution, not to any leader or party, neither the one in, nor out, of power.
People of conscience, leakers and whistle-blowers alike, we’re made. If government acted as the founders believed it should, we would not be here. Mushrooms don’t pop up on a dry lawn.
I made a choice to be a whistle-blower. I’d do it again. You?
Peter Van Buren is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 19, 2017, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: When It’s Time to Blow the Whistle.
Katharine Gun says expanded jail terms for leaking state secrets will deter people from revealing abuses of power
Published in The Guardian 2/13/2017
By Owen Bowcott, Legal Affairs Correspondent, published in The Guardian, 2/13/2017
A former GCHQ whistleblower has condemned plans by government lawyers to increase prison sentences and expand the definition of espionage for the digital age.
Katharine Gun, a former translator for the monitoring agency who leaked details of an operation to bug United Nations offices before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has spoken out following the publication of Law Commission plans suggesting that maximum jail terms for those leaking information should rise from two years to 14 years.
In the past, Gun has called for a public interest defence to be introduced into the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to protect whistleblowers and prevent governments from hiding politically embarrassing information.
She said: “The Official Secrets Act 1989 may need reforming for the digital era, but I would argue that at its heart there should be protection for whistleblowers. As it stands, the OSA is reputedly one of the most draconian secrecy laws in the world. It seems to me to have been very effective at dissuading and preventing the 99.9% of British citizens who have signed to it from making unauthorised disclosures.
“On the rare occasions where it has been breached, it could be argued that it was done to expose lies or misrepresentations of the truth and other forms of skulduggery. Examples include Clive Ponting, Peter Wright, David Shayler, myself, David Keogh and Leo O’Connor. Peter Wright’s case followed the publication of his book, Spycatcher, Lord Goff [a judge] said at the time, ‘In a free society, there is a continuing public interest that the workings of government should be open to scrutiny and criticism.’
“It seems to me that we are living in an increasingly unfree society. The government and its intelligence and security apparatus have amassed ever broader and deeper powers through legislation like the Justice and Security Act 2013 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. These laws enable it to survey all private communications and online activity, carry out bulk collection and storage of data, hack private devices, detain and interrogate at whim and demand CMP [closed material procedures] in court, preventing evidence and information from being disclosed in the interest of national security.
“If the proposals to reform or rewrite the OSA extend the overall dragnet nature of the act, increase the penalty limit and disregard a public interest defence, it will exacerbate the concentration of power in the hands of the government and deter or even prevent whistleblowers from revealing government lies and abuse of power.”
Gun was charged under the OSA in 2003, but the prosecution was dropped when it came to court the following year amid speculation that there would have been a political outcry.
Referring to the request in 2003 from the US National Security Agency to bug the offices of countries on the UN security council before the vote on invading Iraq, Gun said: “I was enraged by the subterfuge and potential blackmail they wanted us to carry out. I went public and it was published in the Observer.”
Commenting on the Law Commission proposals, the the Liberal Democrat peer and civil liberties campaigner Paul Strasburger said:“This attempt to suppress dissent and prevent the public knowing the truth is typical of Mrs May’s time at the home office. She has carried the same authoritarian approach into Brexit by doing everything she can to limit debate and keep voters in the dark.
“These proposals might be appropriate for a banana-republic dictatorship. They are completely out of the question in our democracy which depends on brave whistleblowers and a free press to hold the government to account when they let us down through incompetence or corruption.
“Liberal Democrats will strongly resist these extremely dangerous proposals.”
Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, said: “It’s disturbing that the Law Commission considers a single meeting adequate consultation to inform such drastic and dangerous proposals. We don’t – and we will be submitting a thorough response to the public consultation.
“These oppressive plans have no place in a democracy. They would skew the balance even further in favour of state secrecy, irrespective of potentially profound public interest. By increasing the prospect of prosecutions for revelations that are merely embarrassing or inconvenient, they would silence whistle-blowers and gag our press.
“This is the latest hypocritical move from a government intent on operating in the shadows while monitoring every move the rest of us make. When the agencies’ illegal mass surveillance was exposed by Snowden’s courageous actions, this government responded with the eye-wateringly authoritarian investigatory powers act. That law makes it illegal to disclose even the mere existence of warrants to intercept people’s communications, meaning those who are unlawfully spied on, including journalists, will never know about it – unless whistle-blowers come forward.”
The National Union of Journalists said it would robustly defend the rights of its members. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The ramifications of these recommendations are huge for journalists and freedom of the press. Journalists face being criminalised for simply doing their job and the public’s right to know will be severely curtailed by these proposals. The union will respond robustly to the Law Commission’s consultation on changes to the Official Secrets Act.”
She said: “It was the present prime minister Theresa May who was the ‘Big Sister’ and original architect of the snoopers’ charter. We need to protect the public from a government which seems intent on threatening journalists from finding information the government finds inconvenient to be exposed. Democracy is under attack when a government does all it can to do its business in secret.”
By Jenna McLaughlin, Feb 10, 2017, at The Intercept
IN 2010, THOMAS DRAKE, a former senior employee at the National Security Agency, was charged with espionage for speaking to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun about a bloated, dysfunctional intelligence program he believed would violate Americans’ privacy. The case against him eventually fell apart, and he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor, but his career in the NSA was over.
Though Drake was largely vindicated, the central question he raised about technology and privacy has never been resolved. Almost seven years have passed now, but Pat Eddington, a former CIA analyst, is still trying to prove that Drake was right.
While working for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Eddington had the unique opportunity to comb through still-classified documents that outline the history of two competing NSA programs known as ThinThread and Trailblazer. He’s seen an unredacted version of the Pentagon inspector general’s 2004 audit of the NSA’s failures during that time, and has filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
In January, Eddington decided to take those efforts a step further by suing the Department of Defense to obtain the material, he tells The Intercept. “Those documents completely vindicate” those who advocated for ThinThread at personal risk, says Eddington.
The controversy dates back to 1996, when Ed Loomis, then a computer systems designer for the NSA, along with his team worked to move the NSA’s collection capabilities from the analog to the digital world. The shift would allow the NSA to scoop up internet packets, stringing them together into legible communications, and automating a process to instantly decide which communications were most interesting, while masking anything from Americans. The prototype, called GrandMaster, would need to ingest vast amounts of data, but only spit out what was most valuable, deleting or encrypting everything else.
Then in the fall of 2001, four passenger airliners were hijacked by terrorists as part of a suicide plot against Washington, D.C., and New York City. The U.S. intelligence community faced a disturbing wakeup call: its vast collection systems had failed to prevent the attacks.
Yet, in response, the NSA simply started collecting more data.
The NSA sent out a bid to multiple defense contractors, seeking a program that could collect and analyze communications from phones and the internet. Science Applications Internal Corporation, or SAIC, won the contract, known as Trailblazer. Meanwhile, internally, NSA employees were developing a similar, less costly alternative called ThinThread, a follow-on to GrandMaster. ThinThread would collect online communications, sort them, and mask data belonging to Americans.
Those involved in ThinThread argue that their approach was better than a collect-it-all approach taken by NSA.
“Bulk collection kills people,” says Bill Binney, a former NSA analyst, who rose to be a senior technical official with a dream of automating the agency’s espionage. “You collect everything, dump it on the analyst, and they can’t see the threat coming, can’t stop it,” he says.
Binney built a back-end system — a processor that would draw on data collected by ThinThread, analyze it, look at whether or not the traffic was involves American citizens, and pass on what was valuable for foreign intelligence.
“Bulk acquisition doesn’t work,” agrees Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA senior analyst, who was trying to help convince NSA of ThinThread’s value at the time.
The analysts are drowning in data, and Binney and Wiebe believe ThinThread would have solved the problem by helping the NSA sort through the deluge automatically while protecting privacy using encryption.
But Binney and Wiebe say advocates of ThinThread hit every possible bureaucratic roadblock on the way, sitting in dozens of meetings with lawyers and lawmakers. In the meantime, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA at the time, said he decided to fund an outside contract for a larger effort, focused on gathering all communications, not just those over the internet, as ThinThread was designed to do.
Additionally, while ThinThread masked American communications, Hayden’s legal and technical advisors were concerned the collection itself would be a problem. Some of Hayden’s senior officials at the NSA came from SAIC, the company that won contract to design a proof of concept for Trailblazer.
“A tiny group of people at NSA had developed a capability for next to no money at all to give the government an unprecedented level of access to any number of foreign terrorists,” Eddington says. “Instead that system was shut down in favor of an SAIC boondoggle that cost taxpayers, by my last count, close to a billion dollars.”
He argues the contract, and the “incestuous” relationship between the NSA chief and the contractor never received the scrutiny it deserved. “It was clearly an ethical problem,” Loomis said.
Ultimately, however, the NSA went with Trailblazer. Hayden rejected the ThinThread proposal because the intelligence community’s lawyers were concerned it wouldn’t work on a global scale, and that it would vacuum up too much American data. Hayden has continued dismissing concerns years later as the grumblings of disgruntled employees. Hayden told PBS Frontline ThinThread “was not the answer to the problems we were facing, with regard to the volume, variety and velocity of modern communications.”
In 2002, Wiebe, Binney, Loomis, Drake, and Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee who had been advocating for ThinThread, united to complain to the Defense Department’s inspector general, arguing that ThinThread, while still a prototype, would be the best surveillance system. The oversight body completed its report in 2004, which included major concerns about Trailblazer.
“We talked about going for the nuclear option,” Wiebe said, referring to discussions at the time about contacting the press.
But Drake went it alone, however, never telling his colleagues what he planned to do. Stories about the disagreements started showing up in news headlines based on leaks. The Bush administration in 2007 sent the FBI after the whistleblowers, raiding each of the whistleblowers’ homes who raised complaints to the Pentagon inspector general. Drake faced espionage charges after speaking to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun about the alleged mismanagement and waste in the NSA.
Though Drake wasn’t sent to prison, he lost his career in government, and now works at an Apple store. The question of whether ThinThread would have provided a better capability than Trailblazer was never resolved.
While ThinThread never made it to production, some of the analytic elements, minus the privacy protections, made it into Fort Meade as part of a massive surveillance program now known as Stellar Wind.
But there may be a way to settle the debate. The watchdog agency tasked with oversight of the Department of Defense completed a full investigation into the battle between ThinThread and the Trailblazer. The Pentagon inspector general published a heavily redacted version of that investigation in 2011; that report is now the only public record available, aside from the account of the whistleblowers who exposed it.
Despite everything that’s come out about its surveillance programs, the NSA still won’t release the full ThinThread investigation. “I don’t really know what they’re trying to hide,” said Loomis.
Loomis says he thinks those redactions were more for the sake of Hayden’s reputation than protecting real classified information. He eventually documented the saga in a self-published book called “NSA’s Transformation: An Executive Branch Black Eye.”
Drake told The Intercept in an email that efforts to uncover the Pentagon inspector general’s ThinThread investigation were a large part of his defense. Since then, the Office of Special Counsel concluded last March that the Department of Justice may have destroyed evidence that might have helped exonerate him.
In the meantime, however, hope is fading that the entire story of ThinThread will emerge from behind the government door of secrecy. “We’ve been trying for 15 or 16 years now to bring the U.S. government the technical solution to save lives, but they fight us left and right,” said Wiebe.
Eddington says the ThinThread controversy demonstrates the lack of oversight of the intelligence community. “The mentality that gave us this system is still in place,” he says. “We could see this become de facto permanent,” he said.