I’ve been covering the National Security Administration for three decades, and I’ve written three books and many articles about the agency. I served in the Navy and have a law degree from Suffolk University. I just wrote a cover story for Wired magazine about the NSA’s preparations for cyberwar. At the heart of that story is the director of the agency, Keith Alexander. He’s the four-star general who is the quiet force behind the surveillance programs that hit the news this week. But spying on people’s phone calls, emails, web searches, and social media streams is just one element of Alexander’s job. It goes so much deeper.

Comments: 2168 • Responses: 19  • Date: 

toucher871 karma

What misconceptions are being accepted or reported that you would like to correct?

JimBamford1477 karma

There's two sides: There's misconceptions that the NSA listens to everyone at all times, which is not really true. At best, what they have is filters on all the internet and telecom systems, but what happens is that the computers are filled with software and it doesn't pick out and store everything, only information that has the right key words, target words, names, telephone information they're interested in. But in order to pick that out they need to have filters on all the major communications pipes. On the other side, the government is saying that we have all these protections - checks and balances - which is not really true, since the two they point out are the courts and Congress. But the FISA court has been largely nuttered and largely made ineffective by the passage of the FISA amendments act, so it doesn't act much as protection. Before, if they wanted to eavesdrop on somebody, they needed to present a name of a person to the court. Now, they can ask the court for permission to gather anyone's telephone records without really specifying any danger, which makes the court ineffective. The second court they point to is Congress, but Congress has gone from being watchdogs for the public to cheering galleries for the intelligence agencies. They're more interested in increasing agency budgets than in protecting the public from intelligence agencies.

JediCapitalist544 karma

So what scares you most out of everything you know about the whole thing?

JimBamford812 karma

To me what scares me most now is that you have this director of the NSA who now has under his authority the ability to actually destroy things. It's a thing called cyber kinetic warfare where you're using cyber not just to erase someone's hard drive but to actually blow things up. The largest dam in Russia for example, was destroyed. It wasn't cyber warfare but it was an accidental cyber event. The U.S. used that in Iran and destroyed the Iranian centrifuges...now you have this General who can not only eavesdrop on everybody but he can blow things up.

twinkletoes1384 karma

Now that we know Clapper knowingly lied to Congress, what needs to happen so he can be prosecuted for perjury?

JimBamford785 karma

Back in the 70s (I think), the director of the CIA, Richard Helms, was charged with perjury—for telling a lie to congress. If they don't enforce the perjury laws on government officials lying before congress, they're useless. I think they should have an investigation and see where it goes. It's interesting; one of the senators gave him opportunity to correct his statement, and he didn't. And they gave him the question the day before, so it couldn't have been an accident. If they go after whistleblowers, they should go after people lying to congress.

nickdngr322 karma

In your opinion, does the Prism documentation released by Snowden accurately depict the capabilities of Prism to pull information at will, or is it an internal PowerPoint document worded so that it overstates the influence and reach the system has in a fashion more inline with internal propaganda for a system that, in reality, is actually just a routine system to submit FISA inquiry requests?

JimBamford321 karma

I think there's confusion between what the NSA presents in the slides and the denials coming from the ISPs. I think that the system actually works in such a way as the ISPs serve a lock box capability or portal capability, so that the NSA will get access to basically all of their portals, communications coming in and out. That is the way they set it up with AT&T. A secret room where a copy of everything went into the room and they picked out everything they wanted. I would almost be sure that this is a similar system that they worked out, where a copy of everything goes in and then they pick out what they want. Otherwise, the system can't work - it's going by at the speed of light. And the access can be either overt or covert or a combination of the two.

JimBamford288 karma

Unfortunately I have to go now. Thanks so much for this really fascinating conversation!

_antagonist273 karma

How much access do you believe they have? Did they coerce the tech giants into submission or pay them off? What will happen to Snowden?

JimBamford526 karma

As for Snowden, when you're dealing with extradition, it has to be a similar crime in the country that you're seeking extradition from, like murder, robbery. There's no law in China against giving NSA secrets to the press. Secondly, you can't extradite somebody for a political crime. I think Snowden will argue that this is a political crime. Espionage is not an extraditable crime, really, because spying against the U.S. is not a crime in China.

JimBamford399 karma

I think it's mysterious, this cooperation between the NSA and ISPs, and the only thing I can compare it to is the deal with AT&T - where all data flows into their computers filled with software that does deep-pocket inspection, looking for target information and target names and so forth. Whether the NSA created some sort of lock box or portal in cyber space where they can do this, I don't know. But what you have is the NSA saying they have direct access to their servers. And what the tech giants are saying is that they don't give them direct access to their services. What we have then is something in between - is it semantics or truth or both? But eventually it will come out through investigative reporting or congressional hearings or something. I think Snowden is very courageous. He's doing something other people wouldn't do. He's not making any money on it, and he's facing serious repercussions. Last year, in my WIRED cover story on the NSA data-center in Utah, I interviewed a number of former senior officials, including Bill Binney, and they told me very similar things about getting data records from everyone at Verizon and so forth. But the NSA was able to largely brush off those accusations, and the mainstream media just believed them because General Alexander said it. This might have been one of the reasons why Snowden felt this information could only be taken seriously if the public actually got to see the documents. This way, there is no way to brush it under the rug, say these people are lying or exaggerating. A number of whistleblowers have said very similar things. The media and the public only believe it's real, despite the denials, when confronted with actual documents.

jzeroe243 karma

Are you afraid for your own safety after outing General Alexander? Do you think you're a special target for the NSA?

JimBamford504 karma

No I'm not afraid, because I've been doing this since 1982. In thirty years they haven't bumped me off. I've sort of given up worrying about the NSA coming after me at this point. Although they did threaten me for prosecution a couple times. When "The Puzzle Palace" came out, they demanded I give documents back I got from the Justice Department during the Carter Administration. I refused to give them back and they threatened me with prosecution. I got the documents under a FOIA so they were all declassified and they had to do with illegal eavesdropping that the NSA was doing. When NSA found out DOJ had given me those documents, NSA reclassified them as Top Secret and then demanded I give them back. I refused saying, 'The Carter administration released and declassified them.' They threatened me with prosecution if I didn't give them back but they never prosecuted me. They also raided one of the libraries I used -- the George C Marshall research library in Virginia -- I got access to documents from several senior NSA officials who left their papers. When the NSA found out after the book came out, they went down there, raided the library and ordered all those documents locked up.

bitcrunch157 karma

What kind of papers did NSA officials leave at the library? Was it like master's or doctorate theses that were on the shelves, or was it more like stuff people left there and forgot?

JimBamford295 karma

William F Friedman was one of the founders of the NSA and one of the founders of American cryptology, but, as he was retiring, they suspected him of taking classified documents home, so they raided his house. He wanted to leave his papers somewhere safe -- this library. I was only the second person to find them. The NSA was the first. When they found out that I had gotten access to the papers, they decided that shouldn't happen again...

nimblebooks101 karma

but wasn't all Friedman's stuff multiple decades old by then??

JimBamford250 karma

Some of the stuff I was looking at wasn't multiple decades old -- there were some letters Friedman had written after he had left NSA, some of them critical of the agency. And that's the really troubling stuff. That said, the letters did reveal some information about the NSA.

supermav27234 karma

Okay Okay. So you're in a room with Obama. You can say whatever you want. What do you say to him?

JimBamford538 karma

End the drone program. Open up NSA for more scrutiny. With regard to NSA, if you want to do these types of things -- eavesdrop on people's telephone data, basically get a copy of everybody's telephone bill everyday and store everybody's internet data and put filters on the info coming in -- do it in a democratic way. That's what the British are doing. They're having a debate on the same topic -- should the government get access to the metadata of everybody's internet communications? They were discussing publicly the idea of access and storage of people's internet data. The difference is that was because a bill was sent through parliament asking to create a law authorizing this. The bill was shut down last time. Now, it's being brought up again. That seems like a far more democratic way...Let's do this in a democratic way in the U.S. and have an up and down vote.

asdjmo220 karma

what tangible and practical things can the average citizen with a job, family, etc. do about encroachments on our civil liberties from the NSA?

JimBamford415 karma

There's not much people can do, except for protesting one way or the other - either writing their congressional representatives or letters to the editor, etc. Nothing is going to change unless there is a change in cultural attitude in the U.S. These politicians are always going to seek the path of least resistance; so if there isn't a large outcry from the public, they'll keep the status quo.

brotherclone112 karma

Did you get a sense that Gen. Alexander was comfortable with the outsourcing of cyber security? I'm particularly interested in a contractor executing an offensive. Seems like this could go very bad, very quick.

JimBamford188 karma

I didn't interview Alexander but he certainly has to be comfortable with it since he's done enormous amounts of it. Before 9/11 NSA never did much outsourcing. After 9/11 they went wild. They received money and they needed a place to spend it. Contractors had employees and access to employees who had clearances. I'm sure he's comfortable with it because they've been outsourcing so much. I think the whole intelligence community needs to be shrunk in the first place.

brotherclone64 karma

thank you.

JimBamford90 karma

my pleasure

jzeroe88 karma

How is it that nobody has ever heard of this guy or knows what he looks like? According to this piece, he's got to be one of the most powerful people in the world. Is the administration actively trying to keep him a secret?

JimBamford207 karma

The NSA is the most secret intelligence agency in the country. The old motto was that the NSA stood for "No Such Agency" and within the agency, the old joke was that NSA stood for "Never Say Anything." When my first book came out, the "Puzzle Palace," the new joke was that the NSA stood for "Not Secret Anymore" although that was definitely not true because NSA remains enormously secret. Unlike the CIA directors and other officials, the NSA director doesn't make himself available to the media, he's a very secretive person.

nicksimonis82 karma

What do you think think will happen now that (at least a portion of) their (the NSA's) secrets have been exposed? Do you think they will change anything about what they do and how they do it? Or do you think they'll just try to be even more discreet?

JimBamford142 karma

I think they'll probably try to do both. Based on what Alexander said yesterday, they'll probably try to come out with some kind of PR offensive, saying how this is both useful and innocuous. That's part of it, but they're always working behind the scenes on something else. I am sure they're looking for new avenues to the same information.

supermav2773 karma

Hi James, I would ask you a question, but the NSA is probably listening.

JimBamford232 karma

I doubt it... They're tired of listening to me.

stpbtrue58 karma

Burrito or taco?

JimBamford130 karma

That's the toughest question I've had all morning. I like em both!

TheTablebanger26 karma

Favorite type of music?

JimBamford39 karma

It's very eclectic. I listen to a number of online music streaming services. I try to listen for something I like and then find more music like that. So it varies from old folk music to new pop music - a variety.