The Obama administration’s extraordinary secrecy and pursuit of leakers is usually viewed through the lens of the First Amendent: does a free press conflict with the imperatives of national security? But that’s really not the best way to view it, as this piece in the Nation on the National SecurityAgency illustrates. Here it was less about protecting important secrets from our enemies than keeping the lid on a massive NSA screwup.
At issue is a program called Trailblazer, a project that was supposed to spearhead the NSA’s 21st-century mission of sorting through the geometrically-increasing amounts of electronic data coursing around the world. It was also part of an organizational paradigm shift taking place across the government: let outside contractors do most of the work.
But Trailblazer was a bust; the NSA shelved in 2006. Meanwhile, a promising data sorting program called Thin Thread — devised in-house and much cheaper — was ignored amid the agency’s big move into privatization. Ultimately, Tim Shorrock writes (disclosure: Shorrock is a friend) not much intelligence got sorted, but private companies made a lot of money:
[H]ere’s the irony: Even though Trailblazer failed, the massive enterprise it created set the model for the wholesale privatization of national security work after 9/11. As I described in my 2008 book Spies for Hire, this tsunami of taxpayer largesse reached into every nook and cranny of the intelligence-industrial complex that had slowly been built over the 1980s and ’90s to service the vast CIA and Pentagon needs for surveillance, reconnaissance and advanced IT. In the end, a handful of contractors earned at least $1.2 billion from Trailblazer, and probably several billion more, since huge amounts were squeezed from other parts of the NSA, including its detachments in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
When whistleblowers called attention to some of the embarrassing facts and absence of accountability surrounding Trailblazer, they were investigated by the FBI. One of them, Thomas Drake, was indicted under the Espionage Actafter putting a Baltimore Sun reporter onto the story. (He now works in theApple Store in Bethesda, MD.) Ultimately, the government’s case against Drake collapsed: all espionage-related charges were dropped and he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor. The FBI also investigated three other whistleblowers. They weren’t prosecuted but their security clearances were revoked; when they tried to form a private data security company, they say the NSA blackballed them among potential customers.
There’s a lot more there, including the role of 9/11 and the rise of the omniscient, unchecked security state. But when you get down to it, it’s a straightforward case of CYA, the oldest story imaginable: if you have money and power, you will do everything to protect it.