This article originally appeared in Techstory.
William Binney and the NSA was a drama that was 30 years in the making. The Stellar Wind program and the NSA’s surveillance systems were his main target. Here is what went down between the two.
About William Binney
William Binney was born in September 1943 in Rural Pennsylvania where he grew up and spent his childhood. He received an undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Science) from Penn State University. Throughout his college days and as a teenager, Binney had keen interests in STEM subjects like math, data analysis, and computer and cryptic code.
During his youth and after graduation, he volunteered as a soldier for the US Army stationed in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After the war, he served as an agent in the Army Security Agency (ASA) from 1965 to 1969. The next logical step for Binney became the NSA, which he joined in 1970. His tumultuous history with the National Security Agency is what shaped most of his career.
As an agent at the NSA, William Binney specialized in Russian deals, coordination, and security. He started small at the agency as an analyst but quickly climbed the ranks.
After being an agent, he soon became a Technical Director at the NSA. Soon after, he started serving as the Geopolitical World Technical Director of the NSA.
Binney spearheaded multiple projects during his time at the agency but there are a few particular ones that stand out. He co-founded a unit on signal intel with Dr. John Taggart – another colleague of his in the 1990s.
He was an expert in intelligence analysis, traffic analysis, systems analysis, knowledge management, and mathematics (including set theory, number theory, and probability), which derives from his affection for the abstract sciences.
His illustrious NSA career culminated as Technical Leader for Intelligence in 2001. William Binney retired from NSA in 2001 and made a private intelligence agency with J. Kirk Wiebe after having certain internal conflicts with the NSA. His 30-year long dance with the security agency had come to an end. Or so, he thought.
The “internal conflict” that Binney had with the NSA did not stay secret for long after his departure. In 2002, he and J. Kirk Wiebe asked the U.S. Defense Department Inspector General (DoD IG) to check on the NSA as they were wasting “millions of dollars” on a piece of software called Trailblazer.
Now, Trailblazer was a system made to analyze the data about people the NSA has mass collected from various sources they had access to. William Binney heavily criticized this system.
Trailblazer was an expensive, unjustified, ineffective, and an extremely intrusive move made by the NSA, the ethics of which was on the edge when it came to civilian privacy. Not to mention that Binney made an alternate system called ThinThread over which Trailblazer was chosen.
ThinThread, on the other hand, was claimed by Binney to be much less intrusive and more effective. However, his venture was shot into oblivion by the NSA.
He says 9/11 was a result of the NSA slacking off coupled with the ineffectiveness of Trailblazer. The attack could have been easily intercepted and prevented had trailblazer not been the system of choice.
In 2006, the effectiveness of Trailblazer was looked into, mainly due to the questions raised by Binney and the service was eventually discontinued.
However, Binney didn’t stop at Trailblazer. Turns out, he had other serious problems with the ways in which the NSA operated post 9/11. He pointed out that after 9/11, NSA also set up wiretapping rooms.
This was an invasion of privacy and it gave NSA access to most phone and internet traffic and communication without consent. This means their unethical practices had not ceased. Binney then and also later cited that the NSA was using a piece of technology he created to spy on civilians under the Stellar Wind Program.
All in all, the NSA was operating under major ethical complications and Binney made sure not only to not partake in the system but also to call it out through official channels.
At the Gunpoint
In 2005, the New York Times published an expose piece on the NSA’s “warrantless eavesdropping program” that was Stellar Wind. Post the article, Binney became a subject of inquiry conducted by the FBI on the NSA. Binney was cleared of any wrongdoing by the FBI in early 2007, but later in July, the FBI raided his house, unannounced and unwarranted.
“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. ”
So, going through the DoJ and official channels had not worked for calling out the NSA, according to Binney. So, he decided to switch gears. William Binney started going public with his information. Many call him the original Edward Snowden.
“That’s the reason I’ve been coming out publicly – because where I see it going is towards 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.”
He started making high profile appearances – press conferences and rallies and made his activism very public.
He also agreed to testify in an inquiry conducted by the German government about the NSA. In the inquiry, he said that the NSA wanted “total control”.
Since his activism went public, Binney has been unstoppable. He stood up for the privacy of civilians and the general population and went beyond his call of duty. His whistleblowing may have been just a small speed bump in NSA’s modus operandi, but he continues to call it out, make the public aware, and show what it means to be a true American hero.