The Story of NSA’s “First Fruits” Program Has Never Been Told
You may have heard about the government’s spying on the Associated Press. And high-level NSA whistleblower Bill Binney told Washington’s Blog that the government also spied on Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen, and chief Fox News Washington correspondent James Rosen.
But Senior NSA executive Thomas Drake tells Washington’s Blog that the spying on reporters started 12 years ago – in 2002 – and has been fairly systematic.
By way of background, Drake had championed the “ThinThread” program, which automatically encrypted Americans’ data (data could only be decrypted after a court found there was probable cause that the American was a bad guy).
But after 9/11, NSA instead adopted the competing “Stellar Wind” system, which didn’t protect Americans’ privacy, and was less effective and more expensive.
THOMAS DRAKE: Part of what I discovered is that part of the surveillance system, part of the Stellar Wind system – and that’s an umbrella term in itself – there were offshoots of that.
It metastasized. It grew like a cancer on the body politic.
One of the things that was done was [along the lines of]: “You know what? We’ve got to make sure” (because they were paranoid) “we’ve got to make sure that this stuff doesn’t get out … oh yeah, the press. Let’s violate the Fourth Amendment and just monitor the press.”
The whole story of that has not come out.
There was a program called “First Fruits”. They’ve no doubt changed the name of the program [since then.]
And that First Fruits program was a cutout which was designed from all of the domestic surveillance take. “Let’s just pipe off from all” that is involving designated [reporters] … or in some cases whole groups of reporters and journalists.
So you’re targeting actual newspapers. You’re targeting media outlets.
And you’re monitoring – on a persistent basis – their communications.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: How early did that start?
THOMAS DRAKE: The preliminary version of that – as far as an active program – was in 2002.
Postscript: Sadly, journalists are treated like the like enemy in modern America.
9/11 Should Have Been Stopped
The U.S. government pretended that 9/11 was unforeseeable.
But overwhelming evidence shows that 9/11 was foreseeable. Indeed, Al Qaeda crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was itself foreseeable.
The fallback government position is that the problem was that intelligence agencies were prohibited by law from sharing intelligence, because there was a "Chinese Wall" put up between agencies focusing on foreign and domestic threats.
Washington’s Blog spoke with senior NSA executive Thomas Drake about this claim.
9/11 was Drake’s first day on the job at the NSA. Drake was tasked with investigating what intelligence NSA had on the 9/11 plot, in order to document that 9/11 wasn’t NSA’s fault. However, Drake discovered that NSA had a lot of information on the hijackers, and could have stopped 9/11 had it shared its data with other intelligence agencies.
Drake’s NSA bosses didn’t like that answer, so they removed Drake from his task of being the NSA’s investigator and spokesman regarding 9/11.
Here’s what Drake told us.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: A lot of people blame a “Chinese Wall” between foreign intelligence activities and domestic intelligence activities for not sharing the pre-9/11 data.
THOMAS DRAKE: That is a completely false “wall.” It was essentially to protect the status quo, or what they call “equities.”
It’s not true at all.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: Was it a turf war?
THOMAS DRAKE: Yes, it’s partly that. People have this idea that the government is all powerful, all-knowing, and everybody is in league with each other.
That’s not true. In fact – in this space – you more often than not find agencies at war with each other, effectively. Such that NSA is at war with Congress to keep them in the dark about what they’re really doing.
“I have knowledge, you don’t.” Information is power. “If I give it to you, then I’m giving away my power, and I’m not going to do it!”
Information is a currency. “Why would I give you my money. And I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. I don’t know how you’re going to spend it. I don’t know how you’re going to invest it. You may convert it, because money is fungible.”
Information is far more fungible even than traditional definitions of money.
I’ve never accepted the premise or the arguments. I’m aware that [9/11 Commissioner] Jamie Gorelick [who has potential conflicts of interest in the subject matter], for example, is well-known defender who kept saying that the “wall” was there when, in fact, there wasn’t a wall.
And we had special procedures where you had known ways to go through the wall when it was necessary.
Here’s the hypocrisy … It is true that in terms of separation between [domestic] law enforcement and normal causal chain of evidence, and information that was collected for intelligence purposes. But that’s not a wall as much as it’s due process.
Remember, what’s now used is parallel construction. [Background.] So, what was the wall again?
Intelligence is always carefully vetted for that reason. But if you’re talking U.S. domestic law, U.S. judicial process, due process, you couldn’t just take [raw] intelligence.
But here’s the kicker … If you believed that the intelligence rose to the level someone who has a U.S. person was involved in acts or planning to harm the United States, then the wall disappears, and there are actual procedures for that.
When you’re dealing with U.S. persons, then you had these procedures in which you could actually present [evidence for the need to target terrorists or other actual bad guys.] That was the whole thing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: If they’re actual bad guys, then you can go after them.
THOMAS DRAKE: Yes! And you had mechanisms where you actually end up putting them on trial. You have mechanisms where you can introduce that as evidence.
It wasn’t like, “Oh, we can’t tell anybody.” That’s the reason they didn’t want to tell anybody … because they’re actually abusing the system.
There isn’t a “wall” … it’s because there’s due process. With foreign intelligence, we had standing procedures.
We’ve tried bad people … in Article III courts. You didn’t have to do the rendition stuff. And you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to be put on trial.
For a short, must-watch interview with Drake and other high-level intelligence officials on agency turf wars, check this out:
The Government’s “Limited Hangout” In Mass Surveillance
The NSA claims that it only collects our “metadata”, and not our content.
Washington’s Blog called senior NSA executive Thomas Drake and asked him whether it’s only metadata we have to worry about, or whether the government is collecting our content as well.
Initially, Drake explained that admitting to metadata collection is simply a “limited hangout” by the NSA: admission of one small piece of the puzzle which Snowden’s documents already reveal, in order to hide the bigger picture of mass spying on all Americans.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: NSA apologists claim that the agency is just collecting metadata and not content.
NSA whistleblowers Bill Binney and Russ Tice – and Tim Clemente from the FBI and a lot of other people – say that they’re recording all content, and that’s why they’re building the massive data storage facility at Bluffdale, Utah. [Background See here, here and here.]
What do you think?
THOMAS DRAKE: Simple response. I’ve been by Bluffdale [and it's huge.] I call it the “dark cloud on the ground.” It’s the dark digital cloud that’s sited on the ground.
And you don’t build a facility of that size if it’s all about metadata.
I could put the metadata of the world – with current technology – in less than the space of an average size house.
In fact, I could essentially put the metadata of the world in a couple of rooms. But we’ll be fair … with infrastructure and racks and all of that, the size of a house. A regular house, maybe 2,500 to 3,000 square feet.
That type of facility [a giant data storage facility like Bluffdale] was in the planning stages many, many years ago, while I was at NSA … in 2002.
It’s far beyond metadata. The technology gave them the ability to store everything that they collected.
The “Dataddiction” of America’s Spies: “No Detox at the Data Center … You’re High All the Time”
While Edward Snowden’s revelations have made Americans aware of mass spying by the NSA, there has been very little discussion of the psychology behind mass surveillance.
Senior NSA executive Thomas Drake explained to Washington’s Blog the little-known psychology of workers at NSA who conduct mass surveillance.
THOMAS DRAKE: Information is power, and the government is addicted to data. They have to have their daily “data fix”, and they’re “mainlining” who we are.
I know it’s seductive psychologically: “I have all of this evidence. It doesn’t matter what the source is, and whether it’s sourced from intelligence. Because I’m going to use it for other purposes.”
Not only can you not get enough of it, but you have to keep what you have. You just “never” get rid of it.
And here’s the other dynamic which I’m intimately familiar with, given my technical background. The cost for processing and storing information is – for all practical purposes – essentially approaching zero.
I understand the seductive psychology behind surveillance. You’re a nameless face behind a screen somewhere (or you don’t even need a screen anymore). And all this stuff keeps pouring in about just about everything and everybody.
[I know from the cold war spying days,] It’s hard to separate yourself from that type of habit.
In the digital space, you’re “data drug” habit goes exponential, because there’s just so much. You can mainline this all day long.
To me, there’s a psychology that’s not often written about: What happens when you have this much reach and power, and constraints of law and even policy simply fade into the woodwork.
Because you’re already in a secret world, and “let’s just do a little query…”
Which is made worse by the fact that you can’t get enough, there’s never enough, and there’s more coming. It’s never like it ends one day and you get to go on a fast …
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: We won, it’s over …
THOMAS DRAKE: There’s no detox at the data center …. You’re high all the time. Because you’re plugged in. It’s now 24/7. There’s no relief from the addiction.
I call it the “Dataddiction”.
“We Have a Significant Element of Our Government In League With Corporations and Other Unelected Officials Who’ve Decided That The Constitution Is Essentially Null And Void”
Thomas Drake is a decorated Air Force and Navy veteran, who has been awarded numerous medals including:
- Meritorious Service Medal
- Air Force Commendation Medal
Drake was a member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service.
With a strong technical background in surveillance and computers, Drake was also one of the top NSA executives, and was Senior Change Leader within the NSA.
To get a sense of who Drake is, watch this recent PBS interview.
Washington’s Blog asked Drake if America is drifting towards tyranny.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: Senator Frank Church – who chaired the famous “Church Committee” on the unlawful FBI Cointel program, and who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – said in 1975:
“Th[e National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.“
Is the NSA turning its capability around on the American people, as Senator Church warned?
THOMAS DRAKE: I believe they are. Those words are words that have been ringing from inside Pandora’s box … the one that I opened and looked into right after 9/11.
I grew up in the early 70′s as a very young teenager, and I remember those hearings in 1975. And it was rather a dramatic warning that he [Senator Church] actually issued to the nation.
I never imagined in ’75 that in a short 26 years later that I would become confronted by the stark reality that my own government would jettison the Constitution.
And doing so in the deepest of secrecy under the mantle, the excuse, the label of “national security”. I shudder every time I hear national security invoked. Somehow it’s some “special dispension” when you use it in any sentence, that “justifies” anything when it’s done for (ostensibly) national security purposes.
It’s not rule of law. This secret law, secret rule, executive authoritarianism has saddled up again. [Indeed, the government now uses secret evidence, secret evidence, secret witnesses, and even secret laws.]
In many respects, the most virulent form [of tyranny] is when it’s least obvious.
There’s already a digital fence all around us. Extraordinary reach by the government, often in direct partnership with certain corporations, usually very large corporations.
It’s actually replacing the body politic with an alien substance. And it’s certainly not the form of government – or substance of government – that I took an oath to support and defend four times.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: Do you think we already have tyranny in the U.S.? Or how close do you think we are?
THOMAS DRAKE: We’re not an actual fascist surveillance state in the traditionally defined sense of the word.
Even the Stasi – who were the dreaded secret police in East Germany, a country upon which I became an expert during my RC-135 crypto-linguist and electronic warfare days, during the latter days of the cold war, even going into the ’70s, when they would use rather harsh techniques on their own population, or dissidents, or those who were considered enemies of the state – they actually went to psychological techniques.
The term they used was “zersetzlich” – the German translation is “to decompose”, really to fragment you, to isolate you. That’s psychological … and that has far greater greater impact.
So what you would do is selectively go after certain people to send the message. So you don’t have to be taking people off the street each and every day. Because that’s an obvious thing, and you’re going to resist it.
Remember, this is ultimately about social control. This is about social tracking. [He's right.] It goes far beyond any stated purpose of providing for common defense ….
This upends it, because now you’re using the very instruments of power to track and control your own population. And it’s better [from the perspective of those in power] to do it behind the scenes and without the population knowing fully how you’re doing it, as opposed to being on the street with tanks on the corners.
We have episodes [of tyranny]. With the Boston Marathon bomber, we effectively had martial law for short periods of time in certain neighborhoods. People who’ve seen the videos … there was no law. [See for yourself.] “The law is what we say it is, because we’re in charge.”
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: High-level NSA whistleblower Bill Binney says that we already have a police state, because government agencies are using information gathered through mass NSA surveillance – laundering it in order to hide its origin – and using “parallel construction” to create the evidence to use against people. [Former Top NSA Official: “We Are Now In A Police State”] What do you think?
THOMAS DRAKE: Yes. Remember, this is behind the scenes. Secret evidence collected for national intelligence purposes gets “repurposed”.
The cover of collecting for intelligence purposes gives me wide purview, because I also have enabling act legislation that’s allowed me to do that – and then some – plus the secret interpretations. [See this for an explanation of the "secret interpretations".]
And I can take that evidence – which completely flips our system of justice – and then I can use it for other purposes.
In this case, they can use it to go after people with evidence that was actually gained by other means and then use that as the hidden cover … and then assert a standard judicial mechanisms when you go after somebody as if it was traditional law enforcement.
When in fact, you are actually corrupting the justice system, you’ve actually flipped the whole notion of innocent until proven guilty and the whole notion of – and this is crucial – under fifth and sixth amendment, never mind the fourth (as to how it was acquired) you have the right to face your accusers … you have a right to face witnesses.
How do you face your accusers when – and I saw this, unfortunately – in my own criminal case – that whole process is completely subverted? [See below for Drake's Kafkaesque treatment in his criminal case.]
That raises the ugly specter of a police state mentality. We’re just going to go after anybody and how convenient is it to have mass surveillance data and “evidence”. If we already have it, then it’s not probable cause … but we’re going to assert it, because we have it. And it’s secret evidence. It’s literally secret evidence gained by other means.
And then you hide behind “state secrets” and executive privilege. And you have no “standing” [explanation] because you don’t know if you were harmed.
I think the most stark examples for me as far as what has transpired since the Snowden disclosures, is the claim by Keith Alexander about the “54 terrorist plots” that were somehow stopped, mitigated or blunted. But – in fact – what it turns out is that they weren’t. [Mass spying by the NSA has never stopped a single terrorist attack.]
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: $8,500 bucks sent abroad … [The one possible time that NSA mass surveillance might arguably have even contributed to stopping terrorism involved guys who sent $8,500 to their tribesmen in Somalia.]
THOMAS DRAKE: Right … and even that [could have been caught through] traditional law enforcement! So by saying that, [they're showing this is not really focused on stopping terrorism.]
The parallel construction is a means to an end. And what is the end? Complete dismantlement of due process. We choose to go after who we decide is a threat.
There is no bar … Any of the rights which are enumerated, in the Bill of Rights in particular, which are created for people … just forget it; it doesn’t apply. [Sadly, he's right.]
To me, the behavior – in terms of how they go about the abuse of the system – speaks volumes as to how far we’ve departed not just from the rule of law but from the Grand Experiment called the Constitution. Nothing was supposed to be above it … no president, no congress, no government agency.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: Even in times of war?
THOMAS DRAKE: I’ve heard it said that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” But that’s a hyperbolic response.
In fact, I believe our system of government is strongest when it is under the greatest pressures and the greatest threats. That’s when you actually exercise who we are.
And it’s not this either/or … that it’s only national security and all else pales.
And so – when in doubt – we always err on the side of national security … when in fact, we’re losing both. We’re losing the very essence of who we are – in terms of the Great Experiment – and we’re actually making ourselves even more insecure as a result.
But then, [mass surveillance is really geared towards] protecting power. There is the whole thing about “yeah, it’s okay, except when it involves those in power.”
The Stasi ultimately violated [their people's rights] – over many decades, they were the prime example of violating the privacy of people – to protect the sovereignty of the state. The sovereignty of the state reigns supreme.
Well, if the sovereignty of the state reigns supreme, what does that make us? That means we’re no longer citizens with rights … we’re simply turned into subjects of the state. And subject to the state.
“Collect it all, know it all” [the NSA's model] is actually the Stasi model. It’s not just know everything; we have to be able to keep everything that we want to know, even if we don’t know it yet.
It’s a collect it all first mentality … and then we’ll get to know it all. I call it “feeding the beast”.
I keep shuddering because I’m intimately familiar with the East German surveillance state mentality.
[If you think Drake is exaggeration, please note that a lieutenant colonel for the Stasi East German’s – based upon his experience – agrees. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel - who grew up in Stasi Germany - says the NSA is exactly the same. Top American constitutional experts also say that the Obama and Bush administration are worse than the Stasi East Germans. They also say that NSA spying is exactly the type of oppression that the Founding Fathers launched the Revolutionary War to stop. And see this.]
We have a significant element of our government in league with corporations and other unelected officials who’ve decided that the Constitution is essentially null and void and national security reigns supreme. National security is the new state religion.
And they love the power. They love the secrecy. And they want to protect it. They’ve got a lot at stake.
Frederick Douglass was right – and I’m paragraphing him – “Power does not yield willingly”. That kind of power, in particular, does not yield willingly.
Lord Acton was right that power does tend to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So what if you combine that with absolute secrecy? Or enough secrecy … or an expanding secrecy?
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: What about “pre-crime” surveillance?
[Snowden has said that the NSA is engaging in pre-crime surveillance. Drake himself was the victim of the use of mass NSA surveillance to go after people it doesn't like ... and to use false "evidence" to frame someone. Specifically, the government indicted Drake on numerous counts of "espionage" ... claiming - after he blew the whistle on NSA corruption and lawlessness - that unclassified documents which he took were classified. Stunningly, the government classified some of the documents after-the-fact in an attempt to frame Drake.]
THOMAS DRAKE: This whole pre-crime thing was played out with me and [NSA whistleblower Bill Binney] and others.
Because – once you target, you will find what you’re [looking for]. Because some have argued, “Give me 7 pieces of evidence on anybody and I’ll find a charge.” [Here's what he means.]
It’s a pre-crime mentality …
Everybody’s suspicious. And if I decide you’re suspicious enough, or that you’ve turned into a threat … then guess what? I’ve got more than enough evidence to frame you. It doesn’t even matter if the evidence is true. It’s just evidence.
It’s obvious that Snowden really focused on what happened to me and Bill [Binney; and so Snowden went into hiding after blowing the whistle].
I was “data framed”.
WASHINGTON’S BLOG: And when the NSA framed you, it wasn’t just that they claimed you took classified documents – that actually were never classified – did they frame you in other ways?
THOMAS DRAKE: Yes. They went to the ends of the earth. It’s the ultimate prosecutorial technique: When all else fails, it’s character assassination.
And that can take many forms. You shoot the messenger to avoid the message.
They charged me in a way that I would not have any public interest defense or First Amendment defense.
One of the things they had in the secret indictment I was charged with conspiracy with others against the United States of America. Pretty serious charge. That goes beyond espionage.
They alleged that I met – in conspiracy – and they alleged that it was “proved”.
It was President’s Day in February 2007. It was my day off, and we met at lunch. And we were meeting to talk as to whether it was possible to use technology to detect medicare fraud. And there were several other people there.
And the government conveniently [omitted important facts]. You know those old Soviet pictures where they just conveniently airbrush people out they don’t want anymore? That’s what they did here. They just conveniently left out the fact of who else was at this meeting. And simply said that it was a conspiracy.
And they removed the evidence from my home, after we got raided. How convenient is that?
When the first 9/11 investigation was launched – in early 2002 – the Saxby Chambliss inquiry (and I also testified to the Congressional Inquiry on 9/11) – NSA in response to that Saxby Chambliss subcommittee meeting, set aside the Leadership Room at NSA (basically our briefing room for the Signals Intelligence Director). And they had a bunch of computers set up, and they air gapped it [i.e. disconnected computers from the Internet in order to make sure know one could see what they were doing], and they called it the “War Room”.
I was faced with evidence by the FBI claiming, “you were in a conspiracy with others against the United States and you set up a war room.”
That was completely false! There was a war room. But I didn’t set it up. [It has now been conclusively proven that the "War Room" was set up by NSA chief Hayden - not Drake - to contest claims that NSA dropped the ball on 9/11. Moreover, Drake has explained that Hayden believed he was at "war" with Congress ... and the press. In other words, it was the NSA chief - and not Drake - who was in a conspiracy against the Constitution and American values.]