Professionalism/Corruption at the National Security Agency

Prior to 2001, the United States National Security Agency was developing methods for detecting serious threats to national security. A team led by Bill Binney, working within a skunkworks at NSA, had created an efficient data-collection program known as ThinThread. The program tracked billions of daily communications worldwide and performed analysis to determine potential threats. Although it contained privacy protocols to protect the rights of American citizens, the program was deemed too dangerous by government lawyers, and was not put into use. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NSA Director Michael Hayden authorized Trailblazer, an expensive, inefficient system that lacked the privacy protections contained in ThinThread. Not only did Trailblazer waste taxpayer dollars, but it also intercepted the communications of American citizens without a warrant. Many within the NSA and Bush Administration supported with the decision to use the program, but three officials in particular, Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and Diane Roark, stood up as professionals and blew the whistle.

Thomas Drake


During his time as a senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), Thomas Drake held himself to the highest standards of professional ethics. He spoke out both publicly and privately against the Trailblazer project. His actions demonstrated his sense of integrity, courage, loyalty, and duty. At great personal risk, he defied his superiors in order to find and spread the truth.

Thomas Drake acted with integrity as a whistleblower. When he saw the waste and inefficiency in the Trailblazer program, he tried to end it. He faced opposition at all levels – internally by the NSA, and externally by the Department of Defense Inspector General and the House intelligence committee. He even faced 35 years in prison and still, his attitude towards the truth never changed.[1] When offered a plea bargain to lessen his sentence, he responded, “I refuse to plea-bargain with the truth."[1] That statement also demonstrates his courageousness; Drake acted despite the threat of losing his career and spending the rest of his life in jail. The FBI conducted an armed raid of Drake’s home, but he remained true to his convictions even then.

To whom Drake owed his loyalty is unclear. One could argue that as a professional he was loyal to his superiors and the NSA; however, Drake believed his loyalty was to the American people. According the NSA’s website, “NSA exists to protect the Nation."[2] Even if Drake did not hold paramount loyalty to his superiors or the NSA itself, he certainly stayed loyal to the NSA’s mission. He recognized that the American people needed protection from a wasteful government, and that it was his duty to do what he could to stop it. He explained his motivations when he received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, “I did what I did because I am rooted in the faith that my duty was to the American people,”… “I knew that…we were accountable for spending American taxpayer monies wisely."[3]

Bill Binney


Through his actions as a whistleblower at the NSA, Bill Binney demonstrated the superior courage, integrity, and loyalty of a true professional. Bill Binney worked as a crypto-mathematician in the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center and led the Technical Director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group. He developed the ThinThread surveillance program and later blew the whistle on corruption related to the Trailblazer project and the illegal surveillance performed by the NSA after 9/11.

After 9/11, Binney thought that his program, ThinThread, could have prevented the terrorist attacks. He was outraged that Thinthread had been abandoned in favor of Trailblazer. “Those bits of conversations they found too late?” Binney said. “That would have never happened. I had it managed in a way that would send out automatic alerts. It would have been, Bang!”[1] Binney took action to report the corruption related to the Trailblazer program. He contacted Diane Roark at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in early 2000.[4] Following this complaint, he was demoted. Finally, in October 2001, Binney retired from the NSA, refusing to contribute to the violation of Americans’ rights. “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”[1] This course of action, through dissidence to self-removal, demonstrates courage in the face of superior and peer pressure.

Bill Binney’s loyalty the U.S. Constitution did not end when he left the NSA. In September, 2002, Binney co-signed a letter to the Department of Defense Inspector General about suspected corruption related to the Trailblazer project.[4] During the FBI raid of his house in 2007, Binney sat down with the agents and told them everything about the illegal surveillance he witnessed at the NSA.[1] In addition to this “in-system” whistleblowing, Binney has been in frequent contact with the press speaking out about illegal surveillance and data collection. He contributed to Mayer’s 2011 New Yorker article about Thomas Drake’s prosecution.[1] Also in 2011, Binney appeared on 60 Minutes with Thomas Drake.[5] In April, 2012, he appeared on Democracy Now! as an expert on NSA surveillance.[6] In July, 2012, he spoke out in Wired Magazine against statements by the head of the NSA General Keith Alexander. “The reason I left the NSA was because they started spying on everybody in the country.”[7] In August, 2012, he worked with Laura Poitras to create a documentary about the NSA surveillance activities.[8] In December, 2012, he did an interview with Russia Today again discussing illegal NSA surveillance.[9] Additionally, he has backed the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit against the NSA by issuing a Declaration of Support in Plaintiff’s Motion.[10] Bill Binney is not an exemplary professional because of his persistence alone. His loyalty to the Constitution transcended the duty of his post at the NSA and his integrity led him to continue opposing the corruption throughout the past decade.

Diane Roark


As a congressional staffer for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Diane Roark managed Congressional oversight on agencies like the NSA and CIA, and had significant access to the intelligence community. When she learned of potential lawbreaking within the NSA, she acted with professionalism and integrity, even though her actions did not immediately stop the Trailblazer program. She did not trust the leaders of NSA, believing that they were “trying to hide things”[1] and that it was her job to reveal those things to people who could affect real change. Diane Roark believed her duty was to the American people, and carried out that duty with courage. Later reports about the NSA scandal describe her as strong-willed and occasionally intrusive, virtues needed when those she oversaw were being evasive. She claimed to be a “champion of the little guy” and worked closely with Drake and Binney because she trusted their motives.[11] Many at the NSA resented Roark:

“Ms. Roark would form alliances with individuals in the Intelligence Community and have them serve as her spies. These spies were easy to spot -- they were the people who really believed in their own programs as being the best and needing support from Congress.”[12]

In order to carry out her duty to the American people, Roark aligned herself with other professionals in the community. After learning about the Trailblazer program from Drake and Binney, she attempted to blow the whistle through all possible official channels. She wrote memoranda to the members of her Congressional committee, contacted the staff of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and when these options failed went to a lawyer for Vice President Dick Cheney in the Executive Branch.[13] When she got no response from any level of government, she signed her name to the official complaint to the Inspector General, and then resigned feeling helpless. [1]

Over the last decade, Roark has consistently acted with integrity. Instead of immediately going to the press and being labeled a traitor, she used all official channels available to her, and resigned in 2002 because she did not want to be associated with a government that spied on its own people. The FBI raided her home in 2007, and took personal effects. She has never been officially charged with a crime, although the government has attempted to discuss plea bargains, all of which she has refused because they required her to lie.[14] The government claims the confiscated property contains entirely classified information, and yet Roark felt confident enough of her innocence that she waited 5 years to sue for return of the items.[15] Drake and others retain the highest level of respect for Roark:

“(Roark’s) unwavering commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law is an incredible testimony to her courage and integrity as she stood up against an unbridled and unaccountable national security state bent on subverting the Constitution for its own overreaching and unwarranted ends in secret, when there was never any reason to do so.[16]



Not much has come of this whistleblowing at the NSA. The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense corroborated the whistleblower’s concerns.[17] In 2011, thirteen senators signed a letter to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, expressing concern over the impact of section 702 of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act on the surveillance of American citizens.[18] The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an ongoing lawsuit against the NSA. The suit was filed in 2008 with the intention of stopping the illegal surveillance of AT&T customers’ communications.[19] Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado have spoken out against the concealment of Patriot Act legal theory governing NSA surveillance. As recently as December 2012, Senator Wyden spoke on the Senate floor. “There’s no requirement in the [FISA] law for the court to approve the collection and review of individual communications even if government officials set out to deliberately read the emails of an American citizen.”[20] On their website, the NSA acknowledges that surveillance of U.S. persons is possible. “The executive order, however, prohibits the collection, retention, or dissemination of information about U.S. persons except pursuant to procedures established by the head of the agency and approved by the Attorney General.”[21] More information can be found here: NSA warrantless surveillance controversy.

Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and Diane Roark carried out their duties to the American people with courage, loyalty, and integrity. They recognized a problem and worked through the proper channels to rectify it, but were unable to create any real change. In an interview with CNN on May 4, 2013, Tim Clemente, a former FBI agent, said that:

“No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It's not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out... All that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”[22]

Drake, Binney, and Roark were subjected to substantial whistleblower retaliation, and are still at odds with the government today. The general lesson from this case is that whistleblowing is not a foolproof method to create change. These individuals sacrificed their careers for their beliefs, but their actions failed to produce any significant change in NSA practices or public awareness.


  1. a b c d e f g h Mayer, J. (2011). The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?. The New Yorker. Retrieved from
  2. NSA. (2012). About NSA. Retrieved from
  3. The Ridenhour Prizes. (2012). The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling: 2011 Thomas Drake. Retrieved from
  4. a b Government Accountability Project (GAP). (2012). NSA Whistleblowers William (Bill) Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe. Retrieved from
  5. CBS. (2011). U.S. vs. Whistleblower Tom Drake. 60 Minutes. Retrieved from
  6. Democracy Now!. (2012). Exclusive: National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance. Retrieved from
  7. Zetter, Kim. (2012). Former NSA Official Disputes Claims by NSA Chief. Retrieved from
  8. Poitras, Laura. (2012). The Program. Retrieved from
  9. Russia Today. (2012) NSA Whistleblower: Everyone in US under virtual surveillance, all info stored, no matter the post. Retrieved from
  10. Binney. William. (2012). Declaration of William E. Binney in Support of Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgement Rejecting the Government Defendents’ State Secret Defense. Retrieved from
  11. O’Rourke, J. (2010). Act of Honor, or Betrayal? The Washington Post. Retrieved from
  12. Aftergood, S (2011). Diane Roark and the Drama of Intelligence Oversight. Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy. Retrieved from
  13. Radack, J. (2010). Part II: NSA Whistleblowers Asked Supreme Court to Review Warrantless Wiretapping. Daily Kos Blogs. Retrieved from
  14. Collins, P. (2012). Diane Roark, Former House Intelligence Staffer who Opposed the Illegal Domestic Wiretap Scheme. Peter Collins Show. Retrieved from
  15. Gerstein, J. (2012). Ex-House Intel Aid Sues over Property Seized in Leak Raid. Politico. Retrieved from
  16. Vlahos, K. (2012). Diane Roarks Talks NSA Retribution.
  17. Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense. (2004). Requirements for the TRAILBLAZER and THINTHREAD Systems. Retrieved from
  18. Wyden, Ron et al. (2012). Letter to the Director of National Intelligence. Retrieved from
  19. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). (2012). Jewel v. NSA. Retrieved from
  20. C-SPAN. (2012). Ron Wyden on NSA Spying & Secret Law. Retrieved from
  21. C-SPAN. (2012). Ron Wyden on NSA Spying & Secret Law. Retrieved from
  22. Greenwald, G. (2013). Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the U.S. government? The Guardian. Retrieved from