Former NSA Executive Paying Price in Washington Post

October 15th, 2010

Washington Post Staff Writer Ellen Nakashima reported Wednesday, July 14, 2010 on the case of Thomas Drake, an NSA official who leaked information about inefficiency, and privacy concerns, related to domestic intelligence gathering.

“For seven years, Thomas A. Drake was a senior executive at the nation’s largest intelligence organization with an ambition to change its insular culture. He had access to classified programs that purported to help the National Security Agency tackle its toughest challenges: exploiting the digital data revolution and countering terrorism.

Today, he wears a blue T-shirt and answers questions about iPhones at an Apple store in the Washington area. He is awaiting trial in a criminal media leak case that could send him to prison for 35 years. In his years at the NSA, Drake grew disillusioned, then indignant, about what he saw as waste, mismanagement and a willingness to compromise Americans’ privacy without enhancing security…

…The two were impressed by a project called ThinThread, developed in the late ’90s to provide the NSA with a way to sift through the massive volume of digital data the agency could vacuum up, then discern patterns and key pieces of information that would be useful to analysts. Drake and Roark viewed themselves as “champions of the little guy,” said a former NSA official. “The bureaucracy was the bad thing and entrepreneurial grass-roots efforts were the right thing.”

The people behind ThinThread were the right thing: They included two career employees, William Binney, a mathematician, and J. Kirk Wiebe, a communications analyst. A key component of ThinThread was privacy protection. The program could collect domestic data but would “anonymize” names and other identifying information with encryption codes until evidence was gathered to justify a warrant so that names could be revealed. Inexpensive and designed for off-the-shelf hardware, ThinThread was estimated to cost in the millions, not billions.

But there was dispute about how much data the program could handle, and anonymized or not, collecting domestic data without a warrant is illegal, NSA lawyers advised. Michael V. Hayden, who was then the new NSA director, decided to center a major modernization effort on Trailblazer, a $1.2 billion program that essentially performed the same functions as ThinThread.”

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