An NSA Whistleblower Speaks Out

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 support.

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 Tice.

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 a whistleblower.

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 on Americans.

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 bricks.

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 case.

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 Intelligence Agency?

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 on.

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 mess.

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 American citizens?

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 violated.

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 illegal.

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 on here.

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 laws.

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 clearance?

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 programs.

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 HPSCI.

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.

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