William Binney

The first NSA whistleblower
William Binney


William Binney was once the man who designed the National Security Agency’s automated surveillance systems. But he left the NSA in 2001, when he discovered his employer had started spying on civilians.
William Binney Overview ‧ read
Whistleblower William Binney on NSA Spying
Binney didn’t just resign his senior post, though. He turned whistleblower on the NSA’s “unconstitutional” practices. And he’s been one of its most vocal critics ever since.

How brave do you have to be to take on the world’s most powerful spying organization? Let’s look at the life of William Binney, to find the answer.

Binneys early life

Binney grew up in a rural part of the US state of Pennsylvania. But he was no country boy, and completed his mathematics degree at Pennsylvania State University.

After college, Binney made the calculated decision to volunteer for the Army. It was during the Vietnam War and if he didn’t volunteer, he would have been drafted. As a volunteer, Binney got to take his pick of the work that interested him. And being a mathematician, he naturally chose analysis and code-breaking. Binney served in the Army Security Agency from 1965 to 1969.

It was ideal preparation for the NSA, which he joined in 1970. Binney rose through the NSA ranks quickly. One colleague described him as “one of the best analysts in history.” And by the time Binney quit the organization in disgust 31 years later, he had become its Technical Leader for Intelligence.

The NSA’s trailblazer crash lands

The problems started when the NSA was choosing its new system for signals intelligence in 2001.

Binney and his colleagues had developed a system called ‘ThinThread.’ The in-house system was proven to collect “actionable intelligence” . But instead of using ThinThread, the NSA signed a multi-billion dollar contract for a system called Trailblazer. It was “the largest failure in NSA history” and was canceled in 2006.

9/11 changes the NSA’s approach

Trailblazer was implemented just weeks before the September 11 World Trade Center attacks. Its failures left the NSA with no way to analyze the foreign signal intelligence flowing around the Internet at that time. Binney has claimed that if ThinThread had been chosen instead, it could have prevented 9/11 by intercepting key intelligence.

After 9/11, the NSA launched another new surveillance program called Stellar Wind. It used elements of ThinThread to set up wiretapping rooms, which gave it access to most of America’s phone and Internet traffic. The NSA then started to ignore the requirement to get a warrant before conducting surveillance on American citizens.

That made Stellar Wind unconstitutional, according to Binney.
“They violated the Constitution setting it up, but they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.”

Binney blows the whistle

Binney and his colleague J. Kirk Wiebe blew the whistle on Trailblazer’s costly failings. Instead of going to the press, Binney and Wiebe used the proper channels to inform US Congress and the Department of Defense about what happened.

Nobody at the NSA was held accountable for Trailblazer. But Binney and Wiebe suffered harsh retribution for trying to repair the damage.

Raided at gunpoint by the FBI

Binney left the NSA in 2001, after the Stellar Wind program started using his technology to spy on civilians. Then, in 2005, the New York Times published an article that exposed Stellar Wind as a warrantless eavesdropping program. Somebody in the US Government thought there was a connection, and the FBI carried out an armed raid on Binney’s home.

“They came up and pointed guns at my family and me as I was getting out of the shower,” said Binney. “The whole idea was retribution for our complaint against the NSA for corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse. That was the reason they raided us… We were a clear demonstration that official channels didn't work.

Speaking publicly about NSA surveillance

Whistleblowing through the proper channels hadn’t worked out for Binney. So he began to speak publicly about NSA mass surveillance:
“That's the reason I've been coming out publicly-because where I see it going is toward a totalitarian state. I mean you've got the NSA doing all this collection of material on all of its citizens. That's what the SS, the Gestapo, the Stasi did.”
Binney has since made many high-profile appearances in which he shares his NSA experiences. Binney testified in the German Government’s NSA inquiry, describing his former employer as wanting "total information control" over citizens.

Binney also featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and was the subject of the 2015 documentary A Good American. In the film, Binney re-states his claim that under better management the NSA could have prevented 9/11.

A true public servant

William Binney spent 30 years as the NSA’s top technical guy. He did more than prove himself as a crypto-science genius. He showed respect for the privacy of ordinary people, too. And he tried to do the right thing when bad NSA management wasted billions of American taxpayer dollars - by blowing the whistle through official channels.

Whistleblowing didn’t work out for Binney, though. The NSA ignored its mistakes, and the FBI literally put a gun to his head. But he continues to be brave enough stand up for his beliefs, risking his own safety to speak publicly about NSA mass surveillance.

It’s unfortunate Binney couldn’t set the NSA back on the right path. But we’re glad he’s still fighting to protect our rights and freedoms.

Featured image: “William Binney at CoPS2013” by Rama is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr.