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Systematic Deceit from the NSA

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When General Michael Hayden sat down to tape Fox News Sunday, he blinked quickly and acknowledged Chris Wallace's introduction. Then, in response to Wallace's third question, he proceeded to tell a huge whopper, without ever losing eye contact with the camera and the audience. That would be us.

General Hayden disputed the fact that Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who disclosed the wholesale electronic surveillance of Americans, is a whistleblower. Because Snowden did not make his disclosures through internal channels at the NSA, Hayden strongly implied - without actually saying so - he is a traitor.

Look, a whistleblower is someone who raises concerns within our government in order to affect change. There is no evidence whatsoever that this young man warned anyone, went to his supervisor, his supervisor's boss, even to the congressmen. No evidence of that whatsoever. What he did was go to Glenn Greenwald and some other news outlets and publish information that he may, in his own conscience, believe we need to be concerned about. But what he did was not tell the appropriate authorities. He told the world, including our enemies. And he's made it more difficult for our security services to keep America safe.

To be sure, Snowden did not go to his supervisors or to the Congress. He did not do this because four other NSA whistleblowers (only three of whom are public) had already done it, and they had been subjected to demotion, termination and FBI raids. One of them was indicted under the Espionage Act and investigated for four years before the charges imploded. The unfortunate Congressional staffer who supported their allegations was also raided at home by the FBI and is now suing the government for the return of her personal effects.

Snowden did not follow this same course because he was aware of what had happened. He has said as much.

Even more to the point, Hayden knew all about this, too. In fact, General Hayden was at the top of the internal channel that meted out such vicious reprisal against the previous NSA whistleblowers. William Binney, a heavyweight whistleblower at the NSA (and GAP client), spent the better part of a van ride back to the agency from downtown Washington, D.C. telling Hayden - then NSA Director - that the surveillance program Trailblazer was an unconstitutional, inoperative, overpriced boondoggle cobbled together by SAIC, and it should be stopped. Hayden did nothing, and when he found that Binney had taken his evidence to a Congressional Committee, he retaliated mercilessly. He had Binney demoted and he informed the staff at the NSA that no one was to tell Congress anything different from what he - Hayden - told them to say. In October 2001 Binney resigned from the NSA, disgusted at the way in which the agency's ineptitude left the US vulnerable to the attacks of September 11.

Nonetheless, the General had no problem at all staring straight into the camera yesterday morning and deliberately misleading his audience about the effectiveness of internal channels for whistleblowers at the NSA. Note the care with which Hayden chose his words. He didn't actually say that Snowden should have used internal channels. He only said there's no evidence that he - Snowden - did so.

In contrast, we have mounting evidence that those who should inform us about the activities of the intelligence community cannot be trusted. Like Hayden's Fox News interview yesterday, their statements are designed to mislead. James Clapper said exactly that when he admitted that he provided an open congressional hearing on March 12, 2013 the "least untruthful" account of the NSA's surveillance operations possible. In other words, Clapper did not 'misspeak.' He carefully elaborated a false answer and then gave it to a Senate committee under oath.

The problem is not just these misleading officials, either. There is a structure of deceit around the NSA programs. The intelligence agencies constructed a system intended to mimic Constitutional checks and balances: a secret court and closed legislative briefings with gagged lawmakers. Spokesmen like current NSA Director Keith Alexander then claim the programs were vetted by all three branches of government.

Michael Hayden, Keith Alexander, James Clapper and their ilk represent a political force intent upon strengthening and expanding the surveillance of citizens, for whatever reason. Maybe it builds their fiefdoms, or enriches their contractor cronies, or assuages their paranoia. We don't know. What we do know is that they have a record of deceit in this regard. When they have to mislead the public or the Congress, they have done so, without even breaking the tell-tale Nixonian sweat.

They've been pretty successful. The budget of the NSA has doubled, at the very least, since 9/11 (it's a secret budget, so it's hard to tell), although the agency's record is a disgrace. Trailblazer, which Binney denounced to Hayden, was abandoned in 2005 as a dead loss. Two disturbed teenagers from Dagestan, who bombed the Boston Marathon finish line, evaded the NSA, although Russian intelligence tipped US intelligence twice that the brothers were suspect.

There's simply no accountability at the NSA - not for the crimes and not for the cover-up. Not for the deception, and not even for the poor performance. If anyone has betrayed the United States, it's Hayden and Alexander, not Edward Snowden.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.