An NSA Whistleblower Speaks Out
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Editor, The Konformist
An NSA Whistleblower Speaks Out
By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
Posted on January 7, 2006
Editor's Note: Bush's decision to order the National Security Agency
to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens was first revealed in the New York
Times in mid-December. The Times published the expose after holding
the story for more than a year under pressure from the White House.
Since the story broke, calls for Congressional hearings and the
possible impeachment of the president have intensified. Now Congress
is considering a new round of hearings on Bush's domestic spying
program, with a bipartisan group of Senators issuing their public
Former NSA intelligence officer Russel Tice recently announced that
he wants to testify before Congress. He was fired in May 2005 after
he spoke out as a whistleblower.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview between Amy
Goodman of Democracy Now! and former NSA intelligence agent Russell
Amy Goodman: This is President Bush speaking on Sunday:
President George W. Bush: I can say that if somebody from al-Qaeda
is calling you, we'd like to know why. In the meantime, this program
is conscious of people's civil liberties, as am I. This is a limited
program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America.
And I repeat: limited. And it's limited to calls from outside the
United States to calls within the United States. But, they are of
known numbers of known al Qaeda members or affiliates. And I think
most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy is
thinking. And that's what we are doing. We're at war with a bunch of
cold-blooded killers who will kill on a moment's notice. And I have
a responsibility, obviously, to act within the law, which I am
doing. It's a program has been reviewed constantly by Justice
Department officials, a program to which the Congress has been
briefed, and a program that is in my judgment necessary to win this
war and to protect the American people.
Amy Goodman: Two weeks ago, a former N.S.A. intelligence officer
publicly announced he wants to testify before Congress. His name is
Russell Tice. For the past two decades he has worked in the
intelligence field, both inside and outside of government, most
recently with the National Security Agency and the Defense
Intelligence Agency. He was fired in May 2005, after he spoke out as
In his letter, Tice wrote, quote, "It's with my oath as a U.S.
intelligence officer weighing heavy on my mind that I wish to report
to Congress acts I believe are unlawful and unconstitutional. The
freedom of the American people cannot be protected when our
constitutional liberties are ignored and our nation has decayed into
a police state." Russell Tice joins us now in our Washington studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
Russell Tice: Good morning.
Amy Goodman: What made you decide to come forward? You worked for
the top-secret agency of this government, one that is far larger and
even more secret than the C.I.A.
Russell Tice: Well, the main reason is that I'm involved with some
certain aspects of the intelligence community, which are very
closely held, and I believe I have seen some things that are
illegal. Ultimately it's Congress's responsibility to conduct
oversight in these things. I don't see it happening. Another reason
is there was a certain roadblock that was sort of lifted that
allowed me to do this, and I can't explain, but I will to Congress
if allowed to.
Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the letter you have written to
Congress, your request to testify?
Russell Tice: Well, it's just a simple request under the
Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which is a
legal means to contact Congress and tell them that you believe that
something has gone wrong in the intelligence community.
Amy Goodman: Can you start off by talking overall? Since most
people -- until this latest story of President Bush engaging in
these wiretaps of American citizens, as well as foreign nationals in
this country -- perhaps hadn't even heard of the N.S.A., can you
just describe for us what is the National Security Agency? How does
it monitor these communications?
Russell Tice: The National Security Agency is an agency that deals
with monitoring communications for the defense of the country. The
charter basically says that the N.S.A. will deal with communications
of -- overseas. We're not allowed to go after Americans, and I think
ultimately that's what the big fuss is now. But as far as the
details of how N.S.A. does that, unfortunately, I'm not at liberty
to say that. I don't want to walk out of here and end up in an
F.B.I. interrogation room.
Amy Goodman: Can you talk about your response to the revelations
that the Times, knowing the story well before the election, revealed
a few weeks ago about the wiretapping of American citizens?
Russell Tice: Well, as far as an intelligence officer, especially a
SIGINT officer at N.S.A., we're taught from very early on in our
careers that you just do not do this. This is probably the number
one commandment of the SIGINT Ten Commandments -- you will not spy
It is drilled into our head over and over and over again in security
briefings, at least twice a year, where you ultimately have to sign
a paper that says you have gotten the briefing. Everyone at N.S.A.
who's a SIGINT officer knows that you do not do this. Ultimately, so
do the leaders of N.S.A., and apparently the leaders of N.S.A. have
decided that they were just going to go against the tenets of
something that's a gospel to a SIGINT officer.
Amy Goodman: We talk to Russell Tice, former intelligence agent with
the National Security Agency, who worked with the N.S.A. until May
2005. Russell Tice, what happened in May 2005?
Russell Tice: Well, basically I was given my walking papers and told
I was no longer a federal employee. So --
Amy Goodman: Why?
Russell Tice: Some time ago I had some concerns about a co-worker at
D.I.A. who exhibited the classic signs of being involved in
espionage, and I reported that and basically got blown off by the
counterintelligence office at D.I.A. I kind of pushed the issue,
because I continued to see a pattern of there being a problem. And
once I got back to N.S.A., I pretty much dropped the issue, but
there was a report that came across my desk in April of 2003 about
two F.B.I. agents that were possibly passing secret
counterintelligence information to a Chinese double agent, Katrina
Leung, and I sent a secure message back to the D.I.A.
counterintelligence officer, and I said I think the F.B.I. is
incompetent, and the retaliation came down on me like a ton of
Amy Goodman: What would you say to those who say you are speaking
out now simply because you are disgruntled?
Russell Tice: I guess that's a valid argument. You know, I was
fired. But I've kind of held my tongue for a long time now, and
basically, you know, I have known these things have been going on
for a while. The classification level of the stuff I deal with,
basically what we call black world programs and operations, are
very, very closely held. And whether you think this is retaliation
or not, I have something important to tell Congress, and I think
they need to hear it. I'd like to think my motives aren't
retaliation, but, you know, after what I have been through, I can
understand someone's argument to think I have been jaded.
Amy Goodman: What about the risks you take as a whistleblower? I
wanted to play a clip of F.B.I. whistleblower, Sibel Edmonds. She
was working for the F.B.I. after 9/11 as a translator, translating
intercepts, and ultimately she lost her job. And I asked her if she
was afraid of speaking out:
Sibel Edmonds: There are times that I am afraid, but then again, I
have to remind myself that this is my civic duty and this is for the
country, because what they are doing by pushing this stuff under
this blanket of secrecy, what they are hiding is against the
public's welfare and interest. And reminding that to myself just
helps me, to a certain degree, overcome that fear.
Amy Goodman: That was Sibel Edmonds. Russell Tice, you are a member
of her group, the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.
Russell Tice: That, I am. National Security Whistleblower Coalition
is basically put together of people who are in sort of the same boat
that I am in, that have brought whistleblower concerns to the public
or to their perspective chain of supervisors and have been
retaliated against. And the intelligence community, all of the
whistleblower protection laws are -- pretty much exempt the
intelligence community. So the intelligence community can put forth
their lip service about, 'Oh, yeah, we want you to put report waste
fraud abuse,' or 'You shall report suspicions of espionage,' but
when they retaliate you for doing so, you pretty much have no
recourse. I think a lot of people don't realize that.
And Sibel has basically started this organization to bring these
sort of concerns out into the public and ultimately to get Congress
to start passing some laws to protect folks that are going to be in
a position to let the public or just, you know, to let Congress know
that crimes are being committed. And that's what we're talking
about. We're talking about a crime here. So, you know, all of this
running around and looking for someone who dropped the dime on a
crime is a whole lot different than something like the Valerie Plame
Amy Goodman: What do you think of the Justice Department launching
an investigation into the leak, who leaked the fact that President
Bush was spying on American citizens?
Russell Tice: Well, I think this is an attempt to make sure that no
intelligence officer ever considers doing this. What was done to me
was basically an attempt to tell other intelligence officers, 'Hey,
if you do something like this, if you do something to tick us off,
we're going to take your job from you, we're gonna do some
unpleasant things to you.'
So, right now, the atmosphere at N.S.A. and D.I.A., for that matter,
is fear. The security services basically rule over the employees
with fear, and people are afraid to come forward. People know if
they come forward even in the legal means, like coming to Congress
with a concern, your career is over. And that's just the best
scenario. There's all sorts of other unfortunate things like,
perhaps, if someone gets thrown in jail for either a witch-hunt or
something trumping up charges or, you know, this guy who is
basically reporting a crime.
Amy Goodman: And what do you think of the news that the National
Security Agency spying on American citizens without a court order
and foreign nationals is now sharing this information with other
agencies like, well, the other agency you worked for, the Defense
Russell Tice: Intelligence officers work with one another all the
time. As an analyst, you might have a problem. Everybody gets
together. It's just common sense to find out what everybody knows,
you know, come to a consensus as to what the answer is. It's sort of
like a puzzle, you know, chunks of the puzzle. And maybe you have a
few chunks as a SIGINT officer, and the C.I.A. has a few chunks in
their arena and D.I.A. has a few elements of it, and everybody gets
together and does a little mind meld to try to figure out what's
going on. So it's not unusual for the intelligence community to
share information. But when we're talking about information on the
American public, which is a violation of the FISA law, then I think
it's even something more to be concerned about.
Amy Goodman: Were you ever asked to engage in this?
Russell Tice: No, no, and if I did so, I did so unwittingly, which I
have a feeling would be the case for many of the people involved in
this. More than likely this was very closely held at the upper
echelons at N.S.A., and mainly because these people knew -- General
Hayden, Bill Black, and probably the new one, Keith Alexander, they
all knew this was illegal. So, you know, they kept it from the
populace of N.S.A., because every N.S.A. officer certainly knows
this is illegal.
Amy Goodman: What do you mean if you did so, you did so unwittingly?
Russell Tice: Well, there are certain elements of the aspects of
what is done where there are functionaries or technicians or
analysts that are given information, and you just process that
information. You don't necessarily know the nitty gritty as to where
the information came from or the -- it's called
compartmentalization. It's ironic, but you could be working on
programs, and the very person sitting next to you is not cleared for
the programs you're working on, and they're working on their own
programs, and each person knows to keep their nose out of the other
person's business, because everything's compartmentalized, and
you're only allowed to work on what you have a need to know to work
Amy Goodman: What about the telecoms, the telecommunications
corporations working with the Bush administration to open up a back
door to eavesdropping, to wiretapping?
Russell Tice: If that was done and, you know, I use a big "if" here,
and, remember, I can't tell you what I know of how N.S.A. does its
business, but I can use the wiggle words like "if" and scenarios
that don't incorporate specifics, but nonetheless, if U.S. gateways
and junction points in the United States were used to siphon off
information, I would think that the corporate executives of these
companies need to be held accountable, as well, because they would
certainly also know that what they're doing is wrong and illegal.
And if they have some sort of court order or some sort of paper or
something signed from some government official, Congress needs to
look at those papers and look at the bottom line and see whose
signature is there. And these corporations know that this is
illegal, as well. So everyone needs to be held accountable in this
Amy Goodman: When you come on board at these intelligence agencies,
as at the National Security Agency, what are you told? I mean, were
you aware of the Church hearings in the 1970s that went into the
illegal spying on monitoring, of surveilling, of wiretapping of
Russell Tice: Well, that's something that's really not drummed in
your head. That's more of a history lesson, I think. And the
reasoning, ultimately, for the FISA laws and for what's called USSID
18, which is sort of the SIGINTer's bible of how they conduct their
business, but the law itself is drilled into your head, as well as
the tenets of USSID 18, of which the number one commandment is 'Thou
shalt not spy on Americans.'
Amy Goodman: We're talking to Russell Tice, former intelligence
agent with the National Security Agency, worked at the N.S.A. up
until May of 2005. What is data mining?
Russell Tice: Data mining is a means by which you -- you have
information, and you go searching for all associated elements of
that information in whatever sort of data banks or databases that
you put together with information. So if you have a phone number and
you want to associate it with, say, a terrorist or something, and
you want to associate it with, you know, 'Who is this terrorist
talking to?' you start doing data on what sort of information or
what sort of numbers does that person call or the frequency of time,
that sort of thing. And you start basically putting together a
bubble chart of, you know, where everybody is.
Lord help you if you've got a wrong phone call from one of these
guys, a terrorist overseas or something, and you're American. You're
liable to have the F.B.I. camping out your doorstep, apparently,
from everything that's going on. But it's basically a way of
searching all of the data that exists, and that's things like credit
card records and driver's license, anything that you can get your
hands on and try to associate it with some activity. I think if we
were doing that overseas with known information, it would be a good
thing if we're pinning them down. But ultimately, when we're using
that on -- if we're using that with U.S. databases, then ultimately,
once again, the American people are -- their civil rights are being
Amy Goodman: Do you expect you are being monitored, surveilled,
wiretapped right now?
Russell Tice: Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, in - you know,
sometimes you just don't know. And being, you know -- what they've
basically accused me of, I can't just walk around thinking that
everybody is looking at my heels and are following me around. But in
one scenario I turned the tables on someone I thought was following
me, and he ducked into a convenience store, and I just walked down
there -- and I saw him out of my peripheral vision -- and I
basically walked down to where he ducked into and in the store, I
walked up behind him. He was buying a cup of coffee, and he had a
Glock on his hip and his F.B.I. badge. I don't think it takes a
rocket scientist to figure out what was going on there.
Amy Goodman: The National Security Agency, or I should say the
United Nations Security Council, there was a scandal a year or two
ago about the monitoring of the diplomats there. It was in the lead
up to the invasion, the U.S. wanting to know and put pressure on
these Security Council ambassadors to know what they were saying
before any kind of vote. What is the difference between that kind of
monitoring and the monitoring of American citizens?
Russell Tice: Well, if the monitoring was done against foreigners
and the monitoring was done overseas, as far as I know, that's
perfectly legal. It's just a matter of who you are monitoring and
where you're doing the monitoring. If it's done at home and they're
Americans, then you have a different scenario.
And we're all trained that, you know, hands off. If you
inadvertently run across something like that in the conduct of what
you're doing, you immediately let someone know; if it's involved in
something being recorded, it's immediately erased. So, you know,
it's something that we all know you just don't do. Overseas, okay;
here at home, not so okay.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to play for you the clip that we ran of
President Bush earlier and get your response. This is President Bush
on Sunday [replays the clip.]
Amy Goodman: Russell Tice, you were with the National Security
Agency until May 2005. If al-Qaeda's calling, the U.S. government
wants to know. Your response?
Russell Tice: Well, that's probably a good thing to know. But that's
why we have a FISA court and FISA laws. The FISA court - it's not
very difficult to get something through a FISA court. I kinda liken
the FISA court to a monkey with a rubber stamp. The monkey sees a
name, the monkey sees a word justification with a block of
information. It can't read the block, but it just stamps "affirmed"
on the block, and a banana chip rolls out, and then the next paper
rolls in front of the monkey. When you have like 20,000 requests and
only, I think, four were turned down, you can't look at the FISA
court as anything different.
So, you have to ask yourself the question: Why would someone want to
go around the FISA court in something like this? I would think the
answer could be that this thing is a lot bigger than even the
President has been told it is, and that ultimately a vacuum cleaner
approach may have been used, in which case you don't get names, and
that's ultimately why you wouldn't go to the FISA court. And I think
that's something Congress needs to address. They need to find out
exactly how this system was operated and ultimately determine
whether this was indeed a very focused effort or whether this was a
vacuum cleaner-type scenario.
Amy Goodman: Did you support the President, Russell Tice? Did you
vote for President Bush?
Russell Tice: I am a Republican. I voted for President Bush both in
the last election and the first election where he was up for
president. I've contributed to his campaign. I get a Christmas card
from the White House every year, I guess because of my nominal
contributions. But I think you're going to find a lot of folks that
are in the Department of Defense and the intelligence community are
apt to be on the conservative side of the fence. But nonetheless,
we're all taught that you don't do something like this. And I'm
certainly hoping that the President has been misled in what's going
on here and that the true crux of this problem is in the leadership
of the intelligence community.
Amy Goodman: You're saying in the leadership of your own agency, the
National Security Agency?
Russell Tice: That's correct, yeah, because certainly General
Alexander and General Hayden and Bill Black knew that this was
Amy Goodman: But they clearly had to have authorization from above,
and Bush is not contending that he did not know.
Russell Tice: Well, that's true. But the question has to be asked:
What did the President know? What was the President told about this?
It's just -- there's just too many variables out there that we don't
know yet. And, ultimately, I think Congress needs to find out those
answers. If the President was fed a bill of goods in this matter,
then that's something that has to be addressed. Or if the President
himself knew every aspect of what's going on, if this was some sort
of vacuum cleaner deal, then it is ultimately, I would think, the
President himself that needs to be held responsible for what's going
Amy Goodman: And what do you think should happen to him?
Russell Tice: Well, it's certainly not up to me, but I've heard all
of the talk about impeachment and that sort of thing. You know, I
saw our last president get impeached for what personally I thought
should have been something between his wife and his family, and the
big guy upstairs. It's not up to me, but if the President knew, if
this was a vacuum cleaner job and the President knew exactly what
was going on -- and ultimately what we're hearing now is nothing but
a cover-up and a whitewash -- and we find that to be the case, then
I think it should cause some dire consequences for even the
President of the United States, if he indeed did know exactly what
was going on and if it was a very large-scale, you know, suck-up-
everything kind of operation.
Amy Goodman: This investigation that the Justice Department has
launched - it's interesting that Alberto Gonzales is now Attorney
General of the United States - the latest story of the New York
Times: Gonzales, when he was White House Counsel, when Andrew Card,
chief of staff, went to Ashcroft at his hospital bedside to get
authorization for this. Can he be a disinterested party in
investigating this now, as Attorney General himself?
Russell Tice: Yeah, I think that for anyone to say that the Attorney
General is going to be totally unbiased about something like this, I
think that's silly. Of course, the answer is "No." He can't be
unbiased in this. I think that a special prosecutor or something
like that may have to be involved in something like this, otherwise
we're just liable to have a whitewash.
Amy Goodman: What do you think of the term "police state"?
Russell Tice: Well, anytime where you have a situation where U.S.
citizens are being arrested and thrown in jail with the key being
thrown away, you know, potentially being sent overseas to be
tortured, U.S. citizens being spied on, you know, and it doesn't
even go to the court that deals with these secret things, you know,
I mean, think about it, you could have potentially somebody getting
the wrong phone call from a terrorist and having him spirited away
to some back-alley country to get the rubber hose treatment and who
knows what else. I think that would kind of qualify as a police
state, in my judgment.
I certainly hope that Congress or somebody sort of does something
about this, because, you know, for Americans just to say, 'Oh, well,
we have to do this because, you know, because of terrorism,' you
know, it's the same argument that we used with communism years ago:
take away your civil liberties, but use some threat that's, you
know, been out there for a long time.
Terrorism has been there for -- certainly before 9/11 we had
terrorism problems, and I have a feeling it's going to be around for
quite some time after whatever we deem is a victory in what we're
doing now in the Middle East. But, you know, it's just something
that has to be addressed. We just can't continue to see our civil
liberties degraded. Ultimately, as Ben Franklin, I think, had said,
you know, those who would give up their essential liberties for a
little freedom deserve neither liberty or freedom, and I tend to
agree with Ben Franklin.
Amy Goodman: And your colleagues at the N.S.A. right now, their
feelings, the National Security Agency?
Russell Tice: Boy, I think most folks at N.S.A. right now are just
running scared. They have the security office hanging over their
head, which has always been a bunch of vicious folks, and now
they've got, you know, this potential witch hunt going on with the
Attorney General. People in the intelligence community are afraid.
They know that you can't come forward. You have no protections as a
whistleblower. These things need to be addressed.
Amy Goodman: What do you mean you have no protection?
Russell Tice: Well, like I said before, as a whistleblower, you're
not protected by the whistleblower laws that are out there. The
intelligence community is exempt from the whistleblower protection
Amy Goodman: So why are you doing it?
Russell Tice: Well, ultimately, I don't have to be afraid of losing
my job, because I have already lost my job, so that's one reason.
The other reason is because I made an oath when I became an
intelligence officer that I would protect the United States
Constitution; not a president, not some classification, you know,
for whatever, that ultimately I'm responsible to protect the
Constitution of the United States. And I think that's the same oath
the President takes, for the most part.
So, imagine if something -- if we were like, I don't know, taking
Americans and assassinating them for suspicions of suspicions of
terrorism, and then we just put some classification on it and
said, 'Well, this is super top secret, so no one can say anything
about that.' Well, at what point do you draw the line and say enough
is enough? We have to say something here.
Amy Goodman: What was your classification? How high up was your
Russell Tice: Well, clearances go up to the top secret level. But
once you get to the top secret level, there are many caveats and
many programs and things that can happen beyond that point. I
specialized in what's known as black world operations and programs
that are very closely held, things that happen in operations and
programs in the intelligence community that are closely held, and
for the most part these programs are very beneficial to ultimately
getting information and protecting the American people. But in some
cases, I think, classification levels at these -- we call them
special access programs, SAPs -- could be used to mask, basically,
criminal wrongdoing. So I think that's something ultimately Congress
needs to address, as well, because from what I can see, there is not
a whole lot of oversight when it comes to some of these deep black
Amy Goodman: Russell Tice, did you know anyone within the N.S.A. who
refused to spy on Americans, who refused to follow orders?
Russell Tice: No. No, I do not. As far as -- of course, I'm not
witting of anyone that was told they will spy on an American. So,
ultimately, when this was going on, I have a feeling it was closely
held at some of the upper echelon levels. And you've got to
understand, I was a worker bee. I was a guy that wrote the reports
and did the analysis work and -- you know, the detail guy. At some
point, your reports have to get sent up up the line and then, you
know, the management takes action at some point or another, but at
my level, no, I was not involved in this.
Amy Goodman: Has Congress responded to your letter offering to
testify as a former employee of the National Security Agency?
Russell Tice: Not yet. Of course, the holidays - you know, we just
had the holidays here, so everybody is out of town. I can't condemn
Congress too much yet, because I faxed it out on, I do believe, the
18th of December, and we're just getting into the new year.
Amy Goodman: And who did you send it to?
Russell Tice: I sent it to the chairs of the Senate Intelligence
Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, the SSCI and the
Amy Goodman: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Russell Tice: Well, I can't think of a whole lot, except ultimately
I think the American people need to be concerned about allegations
that the intelligence community is spying on Americans. One of my
fears is that this would cause, just going into the N.S.A. and just
tearing the place up and making the good work that's being done at
the N.S.A. ineffective, because the N.S.A. is very important to this
country's security. And I certainly hope that some bad apples, even
if these bad apples were at the top of N.S.A., don't ultimately
destroy the capabilities of N.S.A.'s ability to do a good job
protecting the American people.
Amy Goodman: Russell Tice, former intelligence agent with the
National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, worked
for the N.S.A. up until May of last year. Thanks for joining us.
Russell Tice: Thank you.