Bill Binney Told You So

Remember when Bill Binney said NSA was compiling dossiers of Americans, but Keith Alexander said that wasn’t true?

A former NSA official has accused the NSA’s director of deception during a speech he gave at the DefCon hacker conference on Friday when he asserted that the agency does not collect files on Americans.

William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, said during a panel discussion that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander was playing a “word game” and that the NSA was indeed collecting e-mails, Twitter writings, internet searches and other data belonging to Americans and indexing it.

“Unfortunately, once the software takes in data, it will build profiles on everyone in that data,” he said. “You can simply call it up by the attributes of anyone you want and it’s in place for people to look at.”


Binney was contradicting statements made on Friday by Alexander, who told the crowd of hackers and security professionals that his agency “absolutely” does not maintain files on Americans.

“And anybody who would tell you that we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people,” Alexander continued, “knows that’s not true.”

The tantalizing reporting duo of Laura Poitras and James Risen (writing at NYT) report the NSA is … compiling graphs that show Americans’ connections with foreign targets, using both communications metadata and public resources like bank, insurance, Facebook, flight, voting property, and GPS information.

Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.


The policy shift was intended to help the agency “discover and track” connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States, according to an N.S.A. memorandum from January 2011. The agency was authorized to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier, the document said. Because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.

The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such “enrichment” data, and several former senior Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.

It sure sounds like a dossier to me.

But then, the safe bet was always to assume Keith Alexander (and James Clapper, who also denied this) was lying.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    And it’s a dossier that other agencies and even other governments can see and add to, but we can’t look at or correct.

    Thanks so much, NSA.

  2. TomVet says:

    A former NSA official has accused the NSA’s director of deception…(emphasis added)

    I think this is a wonderful new title for the prevaricating general.

  3. der says:

    – “In August 2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act,”

    With 225 million subscribers between them, Verizon or AT&T, you pick. You’re both right.

    – “the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion ‘record events’ daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.”

    To find Dick Cheney’s ticking time bomb. For god’s sake. As if the thinking is hackers and programmers go to work for the NSA and only the NSA or else forget everything they know. It won’t be long before someone comes up with a top ten list of “terrorist” searching trigger words that will then be sprinkled innocently among those 1.1 billion everyday conversation “events.” Just to fuck with Alexander. And in tracking those home grown terrorists phones the entire Homeland will be blinking RED, giving everyone in the Meade Startrek control room a Defcon 5 boner. It would be cheaper to pay every other person $20 grand to report on their neighbors/family/friends “suspicious activity.” Now that would help the economy and shut Dr. Black up. But they did find that guy who gave ten thousand to Somalia. Success!

    And on those troublesome terrorist words General Keith will ask Difi and Rogers to introduce some bi-partisan bill outlawing searches using bombs, pressure cookers, Washington in the same sentence.

    Watch what you say, watch what you do.

  4. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    NSA’s graph search is probably very similar to Facebook’s, ( but with all your data, not just what you choose to share. And NSA’s graph search would be missing a brilliant opportunity if it didn’t link out to all the rich Facebook info, so, you can be pretty sure that is exactly what they are doing. Oh, and then they could link out to the LinkedIn data, the Flickr and Tumblr data, and of course to the Google Knowledge Graph data, and why not also pull in everything in DBPedia, and the list goes on and on.

    The term “graph’ is a misnomer is some ways because it leaves us thinking about bar-charts and pie-charts when in fact the NSA’s graph is a spiderweb of nodes and links that build a relationship diagram about everything they know about you, and everything you’ve shared on any website, ever.

    See here

  5. Snoopdido says:

    After a dozen years of “taking the gloves off”, the NSA and Keith Alexander have long lost any skittishness about their domestic US communications collection activities and have now come to believe that there never really was a prohibition on targeting their fellow Americans. It must have only been their imagination.

    Memories are the perfect facility for forgetting.

  6. Valley Girl says:

    Youtube link below is Laura Poitras interview (or part of?) with Bill Binney. Has a bit of panel discussion at DefCon Las Vegas, which seems to be the same one mentioned. Doesn’t include the quoted statement, but some other bits.

    Not sure how I found this YT in the first place (a good while back), but imho it’s well worth watching- for my part it gave me an insight as to who Bill Binney “is”, what kind of person he is.
    The Program – William Binney Interview

  7. FFEIN says:

    @der: “It won’t be long before someone comes up with a top ten list of “terrorist” searching trigger words” — from a link in the NY Times the other day: a phrase generator — “Hello NSA: The government is listening to your internets. Generate a sentence with some of the keywords they’re looking for. Tweet or share and you could earn a new follower in Washington.”

  8. Everythings Jake says:

    If they have the technology, they will use it. Hedges is right, the elite understand that a resource crisis of their own making is coming, and they will do anything to preserve their privilege for as long as possible. From all “enemies” external or internal.

  9. TarheelDem says:

    Director of Deception…Don’t put that job title out there. Half of the Village will be submitting resumes and the other half will be using the NSA social network to get their info to you.

  10. GKJames says:

    (1) It confirms yet again that only a legitimate Art. III criminal prosecution of these senior civil “servants” would establish definitively who did what when.

    (2) What does it say about the “Think Tanks” and universities and other conference organizers who keep inviting the Alexanders and the Clappers and the Brennans? It’s as if there’s an addiction to being drenched in bullshit, as rapt audiences listen to these guys, no one either knowledgable or courageous enough to challenge the (always self-exculpatory) assertions. On the other hand, maybe at the heart of all this is a widespread consensus that the status quo is just fine (read, in the best of traditions, the progressive side of the spectrum is screwed).

  11. What Constitution? says:

    It’s, once again, probably about semantics. A quick search of online dictionaries shows that there are dictionaries out there which specifically define “dossier” as a “collection of papers”. “Therefore”, General Alexander may well be expected to claim that the NSA does not maintain “collections of papers” about Americans, because it’s all digital. They can play this game for hours, with an eye toward beating a criminal rap because, after all, they thought they were “being asked about paper file ‘dossiers'” … so this was the “least untruthful answer” that could be given. Makes me feel safer, how ’bout you?

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