William Binney is a man on a mission. He spent nearly 30 years as a top executive in America's super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), now he wants you to know that same spy agency is pushing western democracies -- including Canada -- toward fascism.
Here's a clue about how he feels about his former employer's ability to carry out mass surveillance of citizens: "It's better than anything the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had." These words aren't meant as praise
Last Saturday Binney and I have lunch at a conference in Toronto. He's likely in his 60s, a thin, balding, passionate man in a wheelchair who you know without being told, lives and breathes his anti-NSA cause 24 hours a day. He's le Carré's Smiley not Fleming's Bond. The late Alec Guinness would play him. Not Daniel Craig.
William Binney is the world's most famous critic of the NSA spy agency and the damage it's done and is doing to freedom in the world's democracies.
He's deadly serious. He's NSA's remorseless whistleblower. Its worst nightmare. So threatening to the U.S. surveillance establishment that six years ago, armed FBI agents raid his home.
That's because he discovers NSA, the agency he served with great distinction for more than 30 years, isn't just spying on foreigners (like us Canadians) which is its job. It's also spying on Americans -- which is entirely unconstitutional and highly illegal.
Binney spends years trying to get the world to pay attention to his warnings. Then, comes Edward Snowden to confirm. (Snowden is the former NSA employee who leaks top-secret details about governmental mass surveillance programs to various newspapers, then, rather wisely, splits for refuge in Moscow.)
Binney is in Toronto to be keynote speaker at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Rights Watch Conference (motto: Civil Liberties and Democracy in the Digital Age: Privacy Media and Free Expression). His job is to warn us about the threats to our own freedoms too.
We get together the Saturday after his keynote speech the previous evening. I ask him about something he'd said in his speech. He remembers:
Binney: We have destroyed our democracy to an extent the terrorists never could have. We've changed our democracy into a semi-police state.
Tim: You called the U.S. pre-fascist last night.
Binney: Yes I did. That is what fascist states do. That is what totalitarian states do ... prompt our governments to think they need information about everybody.
Tim: Do they not?
Binney: (Swiftly and emphatically). No. they don't. You and I can associate here, and go away, and the government has no need to know that.
Tim: How quickly can it find us out? Now, this very moment?
Binney: Probably within a split second of when it's entered into a data base.
Tim: They could virtually see you and me sitting at this table right now?
Binney: If they want to.
Tim: Canadian government too? Would it take any longer? CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) seems very good at that.
Binney: If they're really interested, shouldn't take them more than a split second.
Tim: Was there a moment Bill, on the road to Damascus, when you found your soul? You found you were doing the wrong thing, the bad thing, working for NSA?
Binney: It was shortly after 9/11 when I found out they were taking in data on every U.S. citizen, using the telecommunication companies and their billing data. They were taking everything off the fibre lines which meant all this e-mail, stuff like that.
Tim: Is it fair to say that up until 9/11 you were a perfectly happy NSA employee?
Binney: No. I'd announced that I was going to get out of there ... because of all the corruption. Extracting money out of Congress ... pilfering money from the public domain and setting up contracts with selected contractors ... basically the military-industrial complex at work ... while they're trying to scare people with 9/11. They were trying to get as much [money] as they could because they were complaining that the world communications were mushrooming. All these cell phones are being added to the world. All these fibre lines are being laid ... all these computers are here. And all these people doing illegal things ... smuggling dope ... smuggling weapons ... money laundering ... all kinds of illegal stuff. So they were saying we need more money to handle this. The idea was to keep the money flowing. But if they solved the problem, the money wouldn't be justified in Congress and the money flow must naturally dwindle ...
Tim: And there was that one key word 'terrorism' ...
Binney: It was the key that they used. They used that to scare people. They fear mongered for money. As part of that corruption problem, as far back at 2002 [a group of us] filed a report to Department of Defense about corruption, fraud, waste and abuse at NSA which was so damaging and embarrassing to NSA that they had to cover it up.
Tim: Anything else you'd like to say? To Canada perhaps?
Binney: Only that if people want to retain their democracy they've got to start standing up and saying something about this. And ensuring that governments pass laws and find means of verifying what these intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies are doing. If they don't have that verification process there's no insurance. All this only came out thanks to Snowden's disclosures. We've been saying it for years but we didn't have the hard evidence to show what was happening. But Snowden did and so exposed it. Now the governments can't deny.
Tim: It must have been a wonderful moment for you when you read about Snowden...
Binney: I thought it was great ammunition for the law suits we've got going.
While I'm lunching with William Binney, Andrew Clement who is a professor in the Faculty of Information at Ryerson University, takes some of the conference delegates for a "Surveillance Watch" walk.
When they get back, I ask him about the walk:
Clement: It was to look at the ways in which video surveillance cameras are embedded in our commercial urban environment and how little we know about what's going on behind the camera. In particular how the companies that have these surveillance cameras are not compliant with the law that requires at the very least -- since these cameras collect personal information, so it comes under the privacy law -- that they tell you about it. They're required to notify you of the data collections before they collect it. That's usually done by signs. And we have yet to find, at least in the private sector, a single video surveillance operation in Canada that has the minimum requirements of the sign. This suggests that there is at least a quiet conspiracy among private sector video surveillance operators that they don't want the people, the public, to know or care about the surveillance.
Tim: Any idea how many cameras you saw?
Clement: We did a previous inventory and found 399 cameras in and around the Toronto Eaton Centre alone.
I have edited and condensed both interviews.