The Other NSA Whistleblowers Hope This Time Is Different

Edward Snowden was not the first high-profile person to reveal secrets about the NSA's surveillance operations after September 11th. He was the third. The first two have come forward to express support for Snowden, in part, one can assume, hoping that this time something actually changes.

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Edward Snowden was not the first high-profile person to reveal secrets about the National Security Agency's surveillance operations after September 11th. He was the third. The first two — Thomas Drake and Mark Klein — have now come forward to express support for Snowden's revelations. Part of their motivation, it seems safe to assume, is to ensure that this time, something actually changes.

Klein is the better-known of the two. While working for AT&T in 2002, a representative from the NSA came to interview technicians in preparation for a special project. That project, details of which Klein later leaked to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, involved building a special room in an AT&T building in San Francisco, Room 641A. In that room was, among other things, a splitter, a device that took a stream of data from a fiber optic cable and split it into two streams. Think of a water pipe coming to a T and then flowing down two separate tubes. That's what the NSA had AT&T build, with one of those streams of data flowing to the agency.

Nor was this only in San Francisco. As Klein said in an interview with Wired in 2007:

I was trying to troubleshoot the network. And I found that when I bypassed the splitter (into the secret room) the network would work. They were screwing up their own network. They were degrading their own network.

I called the support line for help and told her what was happening with the cabinet and she said, "That's odd. They are having the same thing at the other offices." I said, "What other offices?" and she said, "San Diego, Seattle, San Jose."

Among the Snowden leaks was confirmation of what Klein described. One of the PRISM-related slides notes the "collection of communications on fiber cables … as data flows past." That's exactly what Room 641A — and, presumably, the equivalent rooms in other facilities — was built to do.

In a new interview with the Associated Press, Klein defends Snowden.

I don't expect this to happen, [but] Congress should give Edward Snowden retroactive immunity for standing and defending the Constitution. He's done a service for the entire country. What's revealed politically is that both parties are in on this.

That call for immunity is significant for Klein. One of the main legacies of Klein's leak was the inclusion of a provision in the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Services Act granting telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for assisting the NSA in establishing the "warrantless wiretapping" program. Then-senator Barack Obama pledged to remove that immunity; ultimately, the bill passed with the provision and with Obama's support.

Thomas Drake's story and background are very different. Drake served in a high position with the NSA, eventually leaking non-classified details of the agency's wasteful spending practices to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. After pleading guilty to a computer-related charge, he spent a year on probation.

Since, Drake has spoken out about the NSA's practices, including in a piece of commentary in The Guardian today.

In the first week of October 2001, President Bush had signed an extraordinary order authorizing blanket dragnet electronic surveillance: Stellar Wind was a highly secret program that, without warrant or any approval from the Fisa court, gave the NSA access to all phone records from the major telephone companies, including US-to-US calls. It correlates precisely with the Verizon order revealed by Snowden; and based on what we know, you have to assume that there are standing orders for the other major telephone companies. …

I was there at the very nascent stages, when the government – wilfully and in deepest secrecy – subverted the constitution. All you need to know about so-called oversight is that the NSA was already in violation of the Patriot Act by the time it was signed into law.

Snowden, Drake writes, has revealed only "the tip of the iceberg." Warning that Snowden will pay a "high price," for his actions, he nonetheless understands why it was taken. "I didn't want to be part of the dark blanket that covers the world," Drake writes, "and Edward Snowden didn't either."

Reuters spoke with Klein.

It's simply validation of this vast, systemic, industrial-scale, Leviathan surveillance system. And it's twelve years of growth. ... None of what I've seen published in The Guardian or the Post surprises me.

Wired's James Bamford describes some of the others who are likely not suprised: Bill Binney, who designed and then tried to expose the agency's eavesdropping system; Adrienne Kinne, who tried to reveal the agency's data collection. High profile or low, all of these people tried to do the same thing Snowden did, to bring members of the public's attention to what the NSA was doing in their name. Sometimes it has worked, but little has changed. Clearly, they all still hope it might.

Photos: Top, Mark Klein, via the AP. Inset, Room 641A, from Klein's legal affidavit.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.