Over the last dozen years, whistleblowers at the National Security Agency have had a rough track record, facing FBI raids and lawsuits.
Seventy years old and on crutches, both legs lost to diabetes, Bill Binney worked at the National Security Agency nearly three decades as one of its leading crypto-mathematicians.
He then became one of its leading whistleblowers.
Binney recalls the July morning seven years ago when a dozen gun-wielding FBI agents burst through the front door of his home, at the end of a cul-de-sac a 10-minute drive from the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
“I first knew that they were in there when they were pointing a gun at me as I was coming out of the shower,” Binney says.
Bill Binney (shown here in Berlin, Germany, on July 3) worked for the NSA for three decades before quitting after he discovered the agency was using software he created for domestic spying on U.S. citizens.
When I ask him why the agents were there, he replies: “Well, it was to keep us quiet.”
The NSA is overseen by Congress, the courts, and other government departments. It’s also supposed to be watched from the inside by its own workers.
But over the last dozen years, whistleblowers like Binney have had a rough track record.
Those who tried unsuccessfully to work within the system say Edward Snowden — the former National Security Agency contractor who shared top-secret documents with reporters — learned from their bitter experience.
For Binney, the decision to quit the NSA and become a whistleblower began a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he says he discovered the spy agency had begun using software he’d created to scoop up information on Americans — all without a court order.
“I had to get out of there, because they were using the program I built to do domestic spying, and I didn’t want any part of it, I didn’t want to be associated with it,” he says. “I look at it as basically treason. They were subverting the Constitution.”
Binney says he and two other NSA colleagues who also quit tried sounding the alarm with congressional committees. But because they did not have documents to prove their charges, nobody believed them. Snowden, he says, did not repeat that mistake.
“He recognized right away, it was very clear to me, that if he wanted anybody to believe him, he’d have to take a lot of documentation with him — which is what he did,” Binney says.
‘Your Life Is Never The Same’
And that’s why, he says, Snowden has had such an impact. Others have tried to work within the system. For example, computer expert Thomas Drake thought blowing the whistle on what he considered unconstitutional NSA programs would shake things up there. Instead, what got shaken up was his own life.
“The only person who was investigated, prosecuted, charged in secret, then was indicted, then ended up facing trial and 35 years in prison was myself,” he says.
Thomas Drake (also shown here in Berlin on July 3), another NSA whistleblower, was charged with violating the Espionage Act for showing unclassified NSA information to a reporter.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
Drake had taken his case both to the NSA and Congress. After concluding his complaints were going nowhere, he showed unclassified information from the NSA to a newspaper reporter. For that he was charged with violating the Espionage Act. The FBI raided his home, too — four months after Binney’s.
“Your life’s never the same. All your colleagues and people you used to work with all disappear. You’re persona non grata, you’re radioactive,” he says.
“On top of that, you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars defending yourself with a private attorney. So now you’re practically bankrupt, you’re declared indigent before the court, your family’s questioning who you are and what you’re up to and why you brought all this on us.”
The case against Drake fell apart days before he was to go to trial in 2011; he got off with a misdemeanor plea bargain and these days works at an Apple store. Like Binney, Drake thinks what happened to him was a cautionary tale for Snowden.
“Snowden carefully saw what happened to me and others, and it was clear … there was no other recourse,” he says.
Not everyone agrees.