Transcript of Interview with Tim Shorrock
Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Tim Shorrack, who's an investigative journalist, and I think, the leading expert on the relationship between the government and America's private sector in terms of the government's intelligence and surveillance activities. And Tim has a new book, essentially on that topic, entitled "Spies for Hire, the Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing," and Tim also recently wrote a piece for Salon last week that received a lot of attention on potential plans of the Congress to establish a Church Committee-like enterprise to investigate Bush surveillance and other activities and possible crimes. So, Tim, I'm really excited to have you, thanks for joining me.
Tim Shorrack: Thank you.
GG: So I want to begin by making an observation and then asking you a question, and my observation is this: you know, one of the interesting aspects of, about being able to write politically and sort of focus on these issues full time, is you realize how many things you don't know about, when all you're doing is kind of paying attention in sort of a standard way, by reading the New York Times and, you know, being a kind of high information citizen. One of the things that I really realized, since I started writing politically full time in 2006, is that there's, it almost is true there's, the most consequential things about our government, that our government does and that determine what kind of country we have, are in a lot ways the least discussed issues in mainstream political discourse.
There's almost an inverse relationship between how important something is politically and how much attention it receives in our mainstream political discussions. And, you know, one of the things that I've come to realize, really only quite recently, is that, is just how sprawling America's surveillance state has become - how limitless and out of control it is. And, I think, more importantly, how inextricably linked it is to what the private sector is doing, what telecoms are doing, what private military and intelligence-like corporations are doing, and how so many of these activities now reside in the private sector. These awesome intelligence and surveillance actions on the part of our government. It's very hard, though, to write about it, or to convey the magnitude of it. So, if we could just begin by having me ask you to sort of to describe what that, this behemoth is and what it's become, and sort of what the scope of it is in a kind of summary way. I think that'd be really helpful.
TS: Okay. Well, we have the most powerful collection, intelligence collection, of agencies in the world based in the United States. Let's start with the National Security Agency, which has, you know, this whole network around the world where they track, pick up telephone calls, cell phone calls, emails, all of this and try to download them and then monitor them and run them through databases. They can track anybody in the world. We've seen examples of how they've done this in Afghanistan and Iraq where they've used cell phone communications to track people to an exact spot and then blast them, and they can follow them around from place to place.
The United States can do this there; of course, it can do that here. It has extensive, the technology is as you say, awesome. There's another intelligence agency called National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for imagery and mapping and they too have incredible technology at their fingertips where they can, they send out U2's, and overhead spy planes, and also satellites that pick up imagery in incredible detail, and they can do, they do this and it's often used in Iraq to track, you know, to track insurgents and to track people that are fighting the United States, but of course that technology too can be used here in the United States and is used here in the United States.
And when you combine those two technologies - the eavesdropping the NSA does and the imagery that the NGA does - you have, they're starting to combine them in like single platforms, so you can actually watch people in real time. That's an incredible and incredibly powerful and also incredibly potentially dangerous technology to be in the hands of our security agencies as well as in the hands of the private sector.
And there's also one other agency, which is called the National Reconnaissance Office, which is the part of the Pentagon that manages all the spy satellites that they launch around the world, and they operate ground stations where all the data and information from the NSA and the NGA is combined and their analysts put it together and create intelligence, what they call actionable intelligence, out of all the information they receive and then they send the reports on to other agencies and up the chain of command, up to the President of the United States.
And, as you also said, all this technology and much of the analysis is provided by private sector companies. And, you know, they're active in all these areas, and so, we don't only have telecom communication, telecommunications companies that are cooperating with the NSA in terms of giving them access to their telephone, global telephone networks - we've got these, large number of companies which supply information technology and supply many of the analysts that do all this work inside the agencies. And so it's a, the line between private and public has disappeared, in my mind.
GG: So, let me ask you about that last observation. Can you give some sense for the trend in terms of, I mean I assume it's always been the case at least since World War II and during the World War II, that government and private companies have cooperated to one degree or another. But can you give some, convey some sense for what the trend is in terms of what proportion of our intelligence and surveillance activities are now undertaken by private corporations, as opposed to government agencies?
TS: Well, last year at Salon, and I reported this in my book of course, I got documentation, unclassified documents, showing that 70%, seven oh percent, of the entire intelligence budget is spent on private contracts. And when I went to that, took that number and tried to, you know, confirm it with the national intelligence officials, I got, I didn't get a, they wouldn't confirm it yes or no, but they did say, well, that's kind a historical figure, and also it covers everything from pencils to satellites, therefore, indirectly confirming the 70% number, but that number has been, this 70% has been there for quite a long time.
We've always spend a lot of money on corporations building things like U2 spy planes, the satellites that spied on the Soviet Union, on the, all the expensive cameras that went in those satellites. But over the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of that money that's spent in the private sector has begun to flow to actual analysis of intelligence, into covert operations that are undertaken by the CIA and Pentagon Military Intelligence Agency, for what's called, you know, human intelligence.
And so more of that percentage now is being spent on actual spying and surveillance and analysing data and so as a result the corporations have become a much much bigger player in the actual intelligence enterprise. And, both in, they supply the technology and analyze the intelligence that comes out of it, but also, they provide, you know, consulting, they help manage these agencies, that the Office of Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed, which is by law now supposed to be managing all of intelligence, a huge portion of their staff is contracted, and supplied by large corporations, like Science Applications International Corporation has one big contract to provide personnel there. And so they're thoroughly integrated up and down in the intelligence and that's what's different: is that in the past they used to be primarily supplying technology and then they would hire individuals to come back to an agency to consult with, but now it's spread across all areas of intelligence. So that...
GG: And so, right, and so, just in terms of the numbers, when you say 70% of the overall intelligence budget roughly is spent on, private corporations, is basically paid to private corporations to perform these functions, what amounts are we talking about?
TS: Well, we're talking, if the budget is 60 billion, and it's at least 60 billion now, I think. There's even estimates, estimates I've seen on the last couple of days, based on recent reporting, that it may be up to 66 billion dollars. And so that's the total intelligence budget and that includes of course supplementary funds that have been provided by Congress to the Bush Administration to, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we're getting close to 70 billion. So that's about, if you take that 70%, that's, you know, that's 45 - 50 billion dollar industry. That is how much money is going into the private sector.
GG: I ask that because I know that during the debate over telecom immunity and whether the telecom industry ought to be immunized for their participation in illegal spying programs, you know, it was often raised, the question was, well, what motive would telecoms have to agree to participate in programs that they knew were illegal? Why wouldn't they just tell the Bush Administration that they would, why wouldn't they just refuse? And it seems rather evident that if you're a high level executive at a telecom industry or any of these companies which could get part of that 60 billion a year pie, that last thing you would want to do is alienate the federal government and the first thing that you would want to do is cement your relationship with them. Is that, do you agree with that?
TS: Absolutely. And I think that what goes for the telecoms goes for these other companies too and I've been arguing in my book that, you know, when we talk about responsibility and, you know, legal protection, that the telecoms were clearly involved in supplying, you know, basically pipes to their international communication systems, to the NSA and other agencies. Well, and, they knowing did it when the program operating without warrants. They knowingly did it, you know, probably with some kind of assertion from the Bush administration, some kind of protective language from the Bush administration that what they were doing was legal. But the companies that supply the IT, the information technology and analysis must have known also they were dealing with information and data and intelligence that was obtained without warrants. And so I would say they're also culpable in the same way that the telecom companies are.
GG: Right. Well, let me ask you, let's take a step back a little bit, and, you know there's been some discussion, I started off by saying that these issues rarely get discussed I mean, there's been some discussion of having the government outsource what ought to be, you know, military and intelligence activities as a result of things like controversies over Blackwater in Iraq and private military contractors and there's been some discussion as a result of the telecom issue and the fact these telecoms are working so closely hand in hand with the NSA.
But at the end of the day, you know, in terms of this trend that you've described, where, it used to be that corporation would get paid to develop technology and then turn it over the government to administer, but now the telecom, the private corporations themselves are actually carrying out these functions, and the line between where the government ends and the corporations begins has almost blurred to the point of non-existence. Why do we really care? I mean what difference does it make if, you know, it's the NSA carrying out a certain program, or if AT&T is doing, of if the US military is doing something versus Blackwater, or if someone in the DNI is a private corporation employee rather than a government employee? Why do we really care about who's doing it?
TS: Well, let's start with the DNI, okay? Okay, with many of their employees, and we're talking senior level people, are actually working for these corporations. So in the last couple years, within the intelligence community outsourcing and contracting has actually become a big issue. Like at the CIA, there is concern because some companies were actually recruiting in the CIA cafeteria, and they were offering jobs to people, you know, at double or triple the pay, was having, it was having an impact on the CIA workforce and the CIA was starting to feel, well, you know, they actually, Director Hayden actually said, you know, the CIA has become the farm team for the contractors.
Well, if you get a high-level contractor at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and contracting itself is a political issue within the agency, and say the Director of Nation Intelligence walks out of this office and talks to his administrative aides, I see, I wonder if we should be outsourcing anymore, I wonder if we should cap it or something. Well, that aide who works for SDIC or one of these other companies, it doesn't really quite seem to be in his interest say, oh absolutely, we should stop contracting, we've gone way too far.
I mean you have this sort of built-in conflict of interest there, and that's at all levels I think. And that's just, that's one part of it. But I think, YK, when you have these corporations, like, I've done a lot of work on this new proposal by the Bush Administration and the intelligence agencies to create an office called the National Application Office that would basically be a clearing house to make it easier for domestic law enforcement and the FBI to obtain information and intelligence from spy satellites, from military spy satellites.
And, the government report that was, that formed the basis of that policy was written by a study team that was appointed by the DNI as well as the Department of Homeland Security. It was led by a high-level executive from Booz Allen Hamilton, this corporation that has a very key advisory role in intelligence, and half the staff came from Booz Allen, a couple of, the rest of them came from some other large companies like L3 Communications and Northrop Grumman and there was two or three government people in there in this study team. And you know naturally they came to the conclusion that such an office, National Application Office was necessary.
But what they don't say of course is that Booz Allen itself has a big stake in that because they provide services that allows intelligence agencies and military agencies to combine unclassified and classified information in one platform so to speak. And, so, of course, if they expand it, they're going to win business, and it's going to affect their bottom line - they'll make profits off of this very policy they're advocating. And I think there's lots of other examples of that kind of policy-making by corporations where, yes, it's just advisory role, but the agencies take it very seriously and they move on it and they act on it, and yet these corporations have a stake in the outcome, and I think that's really dangerous.
GG: That's interesting and, as you describe it, it's easy to see how that happens. What about the issue of oversight? You know, obviously, Congress, at least in theory, has the power to exert fairly stringent oversight over executive agencies with regard to spying and all other intelligence activities. They don't really exercise it these days but at least in theory they do have that ability. what if, you know, we are, instead of having these agencies engaged in these spying activities, and monitoring the activities of Americans, and collecting dossiers and things like that, these private corporations are essentially doing it instead. How does that affect whether there's oversight on these activities?
TS: Well, because most of these contracts, at least 80% in intelligence are classified, and they're you know, top secret often, Congress has had very little information, actually, about the size of the contracting work, how much contracts various agencies let out every year, and they've been asking for this information for a couple years. I think that it cripples their oversight capacity because so many programs are folded into what these companies do, and the oversight is limited anyway over intelligence. And so because it's all folded, these contracts are folding into a secret, secret compartments, within a larger secret budget, it's very difficult for Congress to actually get in and look at the details of these, of these contracts, especially the bigger contracts, what they're actually doing for the NSA and the CIA and other agencies. And it's become an issue over the last couple years annual intelligence spending bills which are just vetoed every time by President Bush because of various language the Congress puts in
But over the last years, particularly on the House side they've been demanding more transparency, more information about contracting and the whole size of the contracting work-force and, you know, what kind of jobs are outsourced and so on.
And, interestingly last year in 2007 House Intelligence budget report they actually said flat out that the government has no standards to determine whether something is inherently governmental or not, or whether it should stay in the government or be privatized or outsourced. And that was after 10 of expanding outsourcing, and so, they really have no, the government doesn't have any standards, and Congress doesn't have the information, and this year's bills are now pending, and they've asked for, you know, more transparency once again. And they've actually tried to set some standards for, you know, what should be done and what should not be done by private corporations. And there is a part of the bill that's in, that both the Senate and the House have approved, that would ban the CIA from using contractors for interrogation. Only the CIA; it doesn't apply to military intelligence agencies, which is also, which also do a lot of interrogation. But at least they've drawn the line at the CIA doing it. But, that's, once again, President Bush is going to veto it, because he thinks it puts too much controls on their, you know, intelligence effort, or as Cheney calls it, the 'dark side'. They don't want any controls, basically.
GG: Right, well, one of the things that you've written about I find really interesting is the idea that by transferring more and more of these activities away from the public sector, away from the government, into the private sector, you're basically draining the entire institutional memory of the intelligence agencies and the other defense contractor, defense agencies. And so that the real knowledge about how these programs function exists and resides in the private corporations, and no longer in government, career government employees, so that the government is reliant on, so dependent on, these private entities. And one of the, there was an article yesterday that I read about briefly, but that really illustrated how, kind of dangerous and even creepy this is. Which is, that Congress has been attempting for quite some time as you just suggested, to find out information from the telecoms about what they did with regard to Bush's spying program, because the Executive Branch won't help them.
And so, the Congress goes and says to Verizon and AT&T and these other companies, here's a subpoena, here's a letter, here are questions that we have about what you've been doing, we want you to tell us, the government, the congressional branch, the people's representatives, what it is that you've been doing, and these corporations say right to the Congress, we're sorry, we cant talk to you about that, because that involves national security, and that not something that we ever discuss, we wont answer your questions. And they've been telling state legislatures who are inquiring about spying programs on their citizens the same thing: national security prevents us from speaking about these things. It's almost as though, not almost as though, it is the case that these private corporations act like government entities. I mean they, in fact, more powerful than government entities, they know more than the Congress knows about what the government does and how Americans are spied on, and they exert superior authority to decide what will be disclosed and what wont be disclosed.
TS: That's right, and it's all within this framework of secrecy and you're right, it really is, you know, it's sort of an awesome situation where you have corporations, and they're a permanent part now of our intelligence apparatus, it's not like they're just outsourcing, you know, a few task, they are a part of it, they're integral, as you say. And they can, when Congress, I forget with committee it was, asked AT(&)T and Verizon and Qwest and other companies for information on wiretaps that they provided help with with the government. This was in 2007, most of them, with the exception of Verizon, for some reason, they all refused, you know, as you said, saying it's secret, we're told this is state secret, it's all classified, we can't give you any information. Verizon gave a lot of information, sent a very long letter to the, I think it was to one of the House committees - it wasn't Judiciary, it might have been one of the Commerce committees - sent them fairly extensive logs of and, you know, details about all the different wiretap programs they'd been involved with with the Bush Administration, with the exception of NSA, of course, they won't talk about that.
But they're, it's all this veil of secrecy hides all these activities and also, I believe, it really is a cover for, it prevents accountability Because, you know, Congress can't look at it and even when the case is, when people sue the government, sue the NSA, they use this state secrecy privilege and that's gone pretty far in the courts. The courts have basically gone along and said if it's a state secret the courts can't hear it. And of course now by Congress passing the immunity bill, those cases will never go forward anyway. But I think it's really, people, Listeners should understand that we're not just talking about, you know, outsourcing this and this and this, we're talking about a very close relationship between the private sector and our highest ranked, highest levels of intelligence.
GG: Right, now, speaking of that relationship, you wrote an article prior to, right after, I think, the President nominated Michael Mukasey(sic) to be the Director of National Intelligence, but before the Congress confirmed him for that position, in which you laid out in amazing details, with all sorts of public sources, you know, confirming it indisputably, just how inextricably linked Mike McConnell was to the telecom industry, and specifically to it's efforts to grow this framework between the private sector and the government. The same, the very same Mike McConnell who now that he's in government, is the one we all listen to about how the telecom industry that he used to serve needs immunity and needs all these protections and how important it is to continue to expand this relationship. Talk about what Mike McConnell did and what Booz Allen was in these issue.
TS: In that article which I believe appeared just as he was entering the nominating process back in January 2007, going back to his record at Booz Allen, he had been an advisor at Booz Allen, he had come there right after being Director of the National Security Agency under the Clinton Administration, and then he went directly to Booz Allen, where he became their top expert on this, you know, protecting national security communications systems. So he was very involved within communications and that, as you said, the telecom industry. And within a couple of years, he rose up the ranks and became actually the director of all of their military intelligence programs within Booz Allen. And Booz Allen of course has been working closely, advising the military, the Pentagon, various agencies there, since World War II. So it's had a very close relationship with the Department of Defense.
And of course the Department of Defense controls about 80% to 85% of the intelligence budget. All these agencies we talked about at the beginning of the show, NSA, NGA, NRO, for example, the big collection agencies are under the command and control system of the Pentagon. And, so, McConnell was running those programs as a Booz Allen executive, but playing an advisory role. If you look at his biography from the time when he was at Booz Allen, it actually states that he advised all the key agencies including the NSA, all the key collection agencies, and the Joint Chiefs, and the, you know, Secretary of Defense. And so he was right up there, he knew all about these programs and if you look at his record, you know he became Director of National Intelligence around February '07, and, you know, right away he starts talking about the need to have immunity for these companies, the telecom companies, within a few months he had actually stated, he was the first person to state publicly from the government side that indeed, they had received private sector support. And he became sort of the administration's key defender of giving them immunity and talking about the importance of having the telecommunication industry involved in intelligence.
But, to me, it was striking how quickly he could talk about the details of these surveillance programs that the NSA was running. Obviously he didn't have much of a learning curve. And as I showed in that report, Booz Allen under his directorship had been very involved in some of the most secretive aspects of Bush's so-called war on terror, including this so-called terrorist surveillance program that was run out of the Defense Research, DARPA Administration, that was run by Admiral Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame. And, you know, Congress started learning about this there started to be reports about it in the press that they were developing this massive database of American, you know, Americans, tracking their financial transaction and travel and so on. And people in Congress got a little bit leery about it, saying this is too much violation of our privacy laws. And they cut off funds for it, but the program continued to exist within black budgets within these classified budgets of the NSA.
So McConnell was very involved in these programs for the last dozen years, and I think his record as DNI shows that he is paid, he's really, very, his real loyalty to the private sector in the companies that have been involved. One term I picked up from him in some of his testimony before the House, before the Senate, a couple times he mentioned this, I talk about this in the book, he uses this term 'communications intelligence', and basically I think what they've done is moved from sort of being outside communication, being outside the intelligence system of the, that runs around the globe, to being an integral part of. And they use these privately controlled communication networks to spy on people. And they've burrowed into it. There was a 2000 report that the NSA did for the incoming Bush Administration where they said, one of the things they said there was from now on we have to live on the Internet. And by that, they meant, tracking everything that goes through, including telephone calls and e-mails, and these, the new forms of communication, at the time, cell phone, you know, Internet phone like we're talking on right now, and making sure they're collecting all of that, in addition to the communications that move over radar and move through the air, that are beamed from one country to another.
GG: Right. And I guess the most recent FISA bill, was most notable and disturbing aspects of it, was it really authorized the government to tap right into the telecommunications networks that are physically located in the United States without warrants for the first time. And it sort of established their permanent presence within the physical networks in the way that you were just describing in close cooperation...
TS: Yeah, that's right, it really gives a legal cover to this, and it makes it a permanent kind of effort where these companies are more or less permanent part of our intelligence infrastructure.
GG: Right. Now let me ask, I just wanted to, and we just have a little bit of time left, by asking you about the piece you wrote last week for Salon about the prospects that the Congress in the next session will convene some sort of Church Committee, to investigate all these intelligence abuses. Now, I have to say I read your piece, and obviously there was a lot of good work that went into it, and good journalism and there's something there, there's obviously people in Congress who would like to do this, and they might be even dreaming about it or fantasizing about what this might look like, but I have to say I'm quite pessimistic about the prospects that the Congress, certainly under the current Democratic leadership would do anything of the kind.
I mean, they would basically have to swim against the conventional Beltway wisdom that it's better to look to the future and forget about things that have happened in the past. they've shown no inclination whatsoever to investigate these sorts of things, and in fact, they've done the opposite as you said before where, they concealed and covered up these things by immunizing the law breakers. And many of them, many of the Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harmon and Jay Rockefeller were briefed, at least to some degree, about these programs and seem to have done nothing to stop them, and in some cases actually expressed their support. So, how likely do you think it really is especially all the laws of secrecy that we've been talking about layers have been put on top of it to ensure there's no transparency, how like is it that we'd have meaningful unearthing process that we had in the mid 1970s with regard to many of these surveillance programs?
TS: I share your skepticism and I try, my report was worded very carefully because I didn't to, you know, exaggerate the discussions that are going on. I thought it was significant that a former Church Committee staffer had written a memo outlining how such an investigation could work and had had discussions with these groups I named, in fact, you know, some aides to some to these, to Pelosi and others, had, you know, at least played a bit part in some of these discussions. But, you're right, the Democrat leadership completely folded on the FISA immunity issue, after making lots of noise, and, you know, even Obama talked about it as a candidate, and said he would not go for immunity, you know. But he went, in the end he voted for it, and many of these people were briefed, to what extent we still don't know, but they did approve these programs including the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, better known as torture, that clearly people like Jane Harman knew about.
So I think the chances that Democratic leadership will try to do anything that will expose their own leaders, top leaders, to that kind of scrutiny is unlikely. So I think that it's really going to take public pressure as well as, you know, maybe some more, you know, the media breaking more stories about domestic surveillance and how extensive it really is. And of course, they running into the whole issue of secrecy. Reporting that story was extremely difficult. I found people who know a lot about these programs, they just will not talk. They're afraid to. These are highly classified, compartmentalized, you know, even this dispute between Ashcroft, the Justice Department and the Bush White House over the approval of the surveillance program in '04. Even the Justice Department people who exposed that - James Comey for example, he talked about that confrontation in the hospital - they won't talk about the details because it's so highly classified, you know, even years later.
So it's really difficult to penetrate that sort of cloak of secrecy and get beyond, but it's going to take public pressure and I think we in the journalism community have a responsibility to keep digging into this because that's the way the Church Committee got started. Sy Hersh had this incredible story in, I forget what year it was in the 70's, about the CIA's domestic spying on Americans and dissidents, people opposed to the war. And we know that they'll been compiling these lists but we just got to keep picking and I think the important thing about the Church Committee that I try to bring out a bit in the article was that they didn't look only at the Nixon Administration, they went all the way back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, at the twilight of the, the beginning of the Cold War. The very beginning of the dawn of the Cold War I should say. And they unraveled all kinds of programs that had never seen public light and they, you know, exposed the NSA's warrantless wiretaps of Americans which led to FISA and in an investigation like that where you have subpoena power and you can go back and, you know, interview government officials and former government officials they could dig out a lot but I think it's going to take the same kind of pressure, you know, bloggers like yourself put on Congress around this immunity bill.
GG: Yeah, and I think you're right. Obviously Congress has the ability the establishment media has the ability, and with very rare exceptions, they, they're failing to do it and so I do think it takes the work of independent journalists like yourself and you're definitely doing your part. I think your reporting on these issues has been truly excellent and a truly great resource for me. I haven't read your new book yet, but I intend to, and I hope other people will as well. It's "Spies for Hire, the Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing," and with regard to this issue that's received way too little attention given it's importance your journalism is definitely leading the way. So I appreciate that and I appreciate your taking the time today to talk to me.
TS: Thank you very much, I really enjoyed being on your show.GG: My pleasure.
[Transcript courtesy of Peter Grey]