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Some Pioneers of Digital Spying Have Misgivings

Some Pioneers of Digital Spying Have Misgivings
January 24, 2014 9:28AM

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An Internet intelligence pioneer, Thomas Drake, says it is a "heavy burden" to have broken new ground with digital-surveillance software and techniques decades ago only to see those tools now being used to collect email, Internet use, credit card and cellphone data from Americans as part of a system he considers unconstitutional.

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The system was never used, he says. Instead, the NSA adopted a more invasive intelligence-gathering program, much of which became public knowledge through Snowden's leaks.

In their recommendations, the former spooks urge the administration to have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA's secret surveillance programs, make all its rulings public. They also want to outlaw secret searches and see effective whistle-blower protections for national security employees.

Obama said that some FISA rulings are being declassified and that some additional restrictions will be imposed on what can be searched. With regard to whistle-blowers, however, Obama said individuals who publicly disclose classified information may endanger the nation.

Drake, who started working for the NSA as a contractor in 1989 and a staffer 2001, disclosed an electronic espionage program that he saw as invasive in 2002. He was indicted under the Espionage Act, but the felony charges were dropped before trial. He was found guilty in 2011 on a lesser charge and sentenced to a year of probation and community service.

Another team member, William Binney, who left the NSA with Drake, has no remorse about his 30 years of intelligence work and technological advances at the agency. He blames officials for overstepping the bounds.

"I don't feel bad about it," he says. "The technology side was something I had to work on in order to solve foreign threats. That's like saying you would never have invented the pistol because it might be used to kill people."

By no means are all former intelligence agents troubled -- or taken aback -- by the recent disclosures.

"Anything that surprised me? No, not really," Tim Sample, a former CIA analyst who worked on Capitol Hill with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, says with a laugh.

"I am very confident and comfortable with the fact that everything has been done within a legal framework that was approved by the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch."

And even Friedberg, who was at the forefront so many years ago with that first email content grab, follows up on his misgivings about privacy with concerns about security: "On the other hand, given the heightened need to try to prevent terrorist attacks -- instead of reacting to them after they succeed -- it may be necessary to conduct these very broad data collections to enhance intelligence agencies' ability to connect the dots in advance of the bad guys acting."

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