Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center
Physically, the NSA has always been well protected by miles of high fences and electrified wire, thousands of cameras, and gun-toting guards. But that was to protect the agency from those on the outside trying to get in to steal secrets. Now it is confronting a new challenge: those on the inside going out and giving the secrets away.
While the agency has had its share of spies, employees who have sold top-secret documents to foreign governments for cash, until the last few years it has never had to deal with whistleblowers passing top-secret information and documents to the press because their conscience demanded it. This in a place where no employee has ever written a book about the agency (unlike the prolific CIA, where it seems that a book contract is included in every exit package).
As someone who has written many books and articles about the agency, I have seldom seen the NSA in such a state. Like a night prowler with a bag of stolen goods suddenly caught in a powerful Klieg light, it now finds itself under the glare of nonstop press coverage, accused of robbing the public of its right to privacy. Despite the standard denials from the agency’s public relations office, the documents outline a massive operation to secretly keep track of everyone’s phone calls on a daily basis – billions upon billions of private records; and another to reroute the pipes going in and out of Google, Apple, Yahoo, and the other Internet giants through Fort Meade – figuratively if not literally.
But long before Edward Snowden walked out of the NSA with his trove of documents, whistleblowers there had been trying for years to bring attention to the massive turn toward domestic spying that the agency was making. Last year in my Wired cover story on the enormous new NSA data center in Utah, Bill Binney, the man who largely designed the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping system, warned of the secret, nationwide surveillance. He told how the NSA had gained access to billions of billing records not only from AT&T but also from Verizon. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he said. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” Among the top-secret documents Snowden released was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order proving the truth to Binney’s claim and indicating that the operation was still going on.