Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics

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Chris Pyle
Chris Pyle

HAVANA TIMES – As NSA director General Keith Alexander blasts the leaks that exposed widespread surveillance of Americans, we’re joined by Chris Pyle, a former military instructor who exposed the CIA and Army’s monitoring of millions of Americans in the 1970s.

Pyle discovered the Army and CIA were spying on millions of Americans engaged in lawful political activity while he was in the Army working as an instructor. His revelations prompted Senate hearings, including Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence, ultimately leading to a series of laws aimed at curbing government abuses.

Now teaching constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College, Pyle says the NSA is known for attacking its critics instead of addressing the problems they expose.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We want to go on to the National Security Agency director, General Keith Alexander, who testified before Congress Wednesday, a week after a trove of secret documents about his agency’s widespread surveillance program stunned the nation and sparked heated debate. During his testimony, Alexander denied claims he has personal wiretapping abilities at the agency and insisted phone data collection has helped prevent dozens of terrorist attacks. He refused to publicly answer questions about how the NSA had made the transition to collecting phone records of Americans. Alexander also said he hoped for greater transparency around the surveillance programs, but he argued some secrecy helps the agency’s mission. He was also asked about the impact of the NSA leaks. This was his response.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Great harm has already been done by opening this up. And the consequence, I believe, is our security is jeopardized. There is no doubt in my mind that we will lose capabilities as a result of this and that not only the United States, but those allies that we have helped, will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago. And so, I am really concerned about that. I’m also concerned that, as we go forward, we now know that some of this has been released. So what does it make sense to explain to the American people so they have confidence that their government is doing the right thing? Because I believe we are, and we have to show them that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The disclosure of the secret NSA surveillance program was based on information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who most recently worked inside the NSA’s Hawaii office for the private firm Booz Allen Hamilton. In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden said, quote, “I’m neither traitor nor hero, I’m an American.” He also said he intends to stay in Hong Kong until he’s asked to leave, and he intends to fight any extradition attempts by the U.S. government. Snowden also told the paper, quote, “People who think I made a mistake in picking [Hong Kong] as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Christopher Pyle, who first exposed domestic spying in the 1970s here in the U.S. Pyle discovered the CIA was spying on millions of Americans engaged in lawful activity while he was in the Army and worked as an instructor. After he left, he wrote about the Army’s vast and growing spy operations. His article from 1971 began, quote, “For the past four years, the U.S. Army has been closely watching civilian political activity within the United States.” Pyle’s story prompted Senate hearings, including Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence. These ultimately led to a series of laws aimed at curbing government abuse. Chris Pyle is the co-author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, Getting Away with Torture and The Constitution Under Siege. He now teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College and recently wrote a piece headlined, “Edward Snowden and the Real Issues.” He joins us from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Pyle. Talk about what you feel those real issues are. But before you do, explain what happened to you, how it was you revealed in the early ’70s what was going on in the military.

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: I received a briefing at the U.S. Army Intelligence Command that showed me the extent of the surveillance system. There were about 1,500 Army agents in plain clothes watching every demonstration in the United States of 20 people or more. There was also a records system in a giant warehouse on about six million people. I disclosed the existence of that surveillance and then recruited 125 of the Army’s counterintelligence agents to tell what they knew about the spying to Congress, the courts and the press. As a result of those disclosures and the congressional hearings, the entire U.S. Army Intelligence Command was abolished. This was before Watergate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Pyle, did you, at that time, suffer any repercussions from your willingness to step forward and reveal what was going on to Congress?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, two things happened. The Army created a 50-man unit in the Pentagon whose sole job was to discredit my disclosures. That effort failed: The disclosures were all quite accurate. I was also put on President Nixon’s enemies list, which resulted in a tax audit.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Pyle, let’s turn for a minute to the Church Committee’s special Senate investigation of government misconduct, which you played a key role in the mid-’70s, U.S. Senate committee chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho, who conducted a massive investigation of the CIA and FBI‘s misuse of power at home and abroad, the multi-year investigation examining domestic spying, the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, the FBI and CIA’s efforts to infiltrate and disrupt leftist organizations, and a lot more. This is Senator Frank Church speaking during one of the committee’s hearings.

SEN. FRANK CHURCH: You have seen today the dark side of those activities, where many Americans who were not even suspected of crime were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited and, at times, endangered.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is another clip from the Church Committee Senate hearing. This is CIA Director William Colby testifying. He was asked if he found the work of the committee unwelcome.

WILLIAM COLBY: No, I do not. I’ve—as I’ve said to the chairman, I welcome the chance to try to describe to the American people what intelligence is really about today. It’s a—it is an opportunity to show how we Americans have modernized the whole concept of intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-CIA Director William Colby. So, if you would, Chris Pyle, take this forward, from what came out of the Church Committee hearings, that started with your exposé from being a military whistleblower, to what you’re seeing today with Edward Snowden.

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, what we’ve seen in the ensuing years has been a vast explosion in intelligence-gathering capabilities. But the most significant part of that is the fact that civilian corporations are now doing the government’s work. Seventy percent of the intelligence budget of the United States today goes to private contractors like Booz Allen, which employed Edward Snowden. This is a major change in the power of surveillance. It now goes not only to the government, but to private corporations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you seem—in a recent article, you seem to raise what you think are the real issues in these Snowden leaks. You mention, one, the inability of Congress to actually do legitimate oversight over intelligence. You say that the secrecy system is out of control. And you also say that the system is also profoundly corrupt because of all this use of private contractors who make huge amounts of money that no one can actually hold them accountable for. Could you talk about those issues?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Yes. The forerunner of the PRISM system that Snowden disclosed was called Trailblazer. It wasted $1 billion on private contracts. It replaced a much less expensive system called ThinThread, which had more privacy protections and had been developed inside the government. Now, the reason that private contractors get this business is because members of Congress intercede with them with government agencies. And we now have a situation where members of the Intelligence Committee and other committees of Congress intercede with the bureaucracy to get sweetheart contracts for companies that waste taxpayers’ money and also violate the Constitution and the privacy of citizens. This is a very serious situation, because it means that it’s much more difficult to get effective oversight from Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to the Senate Appropriation Committee hearing with the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, defending the phone surveillance practices exposed by Edward Snowden.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: I thought the great part about this program was that we brought Congress, the administration and the courts all together. We did that. That’s what our government stands for, under the same Constitution. We follow that Constitution. We swear an oath to it. So I am concerned, and I think we have to balance that. I will not—I would rather take a public beating and people think I’m hiding something than to jeopardize the security of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pyle, could you respond?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, we all want to protect the security of the country. We all want to protect the Constitution. But when government agencies are totally unaccountable, we can’t do that. Members of Congress do not go to those briefings, even if they’re offered, because once you go to the briefing, then you can’t talk about what you’ve been told, because it’s classified. So the briefing system is designed to silence Congress, not to promote effective oversight.

Members of Congress don’t want to spend time on oversight. They’re too busy raising money. New members of the House of Representatives this winter were told by the Democratic Campaign Committee that they should spend between four and six hours a day dialing for dollars. They have no time to do the public’s business. They’re too busy begging for money. President Obama himself attended 220 fundraisers last year. Where does he get the time to be president when he’s spending so much time asking wealthy people for money to support his campaign?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chris Pyle, in Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Senator Dick Durbin asked NSA director, General Keith Alexander, why someone like Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden was in a position in which he had access to the classified information he leaked.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: He was a high school dropout. He was a community college dropout. He had a GED degree. He was injured in training for the U.S. Army and had to leave as a result of that. And he took a job as a security guard for the NSA in Maryland. Shortly thereafter, he took a job for the CIA in what is characterized as IT security in The Guardian piece that was published. At age 23, he was stationed in an undercover manner overseas for the CIA and was given clearance and access to a wide—a wide array of classified documents. At age 25, he went to work for a private contractor and most recently worked for Booz Allen, another private contractor working for our government. I’m trying to look at this résumé and background—it says he ended up earning somewhere between $122,000 and $200,000 a year. I’m trying to look at the résumé background for this individual who had access to this highly classified information at such a young age, with a limited educational and work experience, part of it as a security guard, and ask you if you’re troubled that he was given that kind of opportunity to be so close to important information that was critical to the security of our nation?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: I do have concerns about that, over the process, Senator. I have grave concerns over that, the access that he had, the process that we did. And those are things that I have to look into and fix from my end, and that across the intel community, Director Clapper said we’re going to look across that, as well. I think those absolutely need to be looked at. I would point out that in the IT arena, in the cyber-arena, some of these folks have tremendous skills to operate networks. That was his job, for the most part, from the 2009-’10, was as an IT, a system administrator within those networks. He had great skills in that areas. But the rest of it, you’ve hit on—you’ve hit on the head. We do have to go back and look at these processes, the oversight in those—we have those—where they went wrong, and how we fix those.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was NSA director, General Keith Alexander, speaking before the Senate on Wednesday. Well, in 2012, General Alexander spoke at DEF CON, the annual hacker convention. During his speech, Alexander tried to court hackers to work at the National Security Agency. The third bullet on his PowerPoint presentation that he refers to is privacy and civil liberties must be protected.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: I think the third bullet down is what we really want to do is innovate freedom, how we’re going to look at where we take this next. This is a great opportunity for not only our nation, but for the world. And, you know, one of the things that I’m really proud of saying is, when you look at Vint Cerf and the others, we’re the ones who helped develop, we’re the ones who built this Internet. And we ought to be the first ones to secure it. And I think you folks can help us do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was General Keith Alexander speaking in 2012 at DEF CON. For our radio listeners, I should note that he was in a black T-shirt and wearing jeans as he spoke to the hackers. Chris Pyle, your response?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, it’s true. NSA doesn’t want to hire people like you and me. We don’t know enough about the Internet. That said, it’s important to note that the vice chairman of Booz Allen happens to be Mike McConnell, who was former director of NSA and of national intelligence. There is a revolving door between high government positions and private corporations, and this revolving door allows these people to make a great deal more money upon leaving the government, and then being rented back to the government in a contractor capacity. And that’s part of the corruption of the system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, one of the things you’ve also said is that the top-secret designation is a way to—is more of a way for the government officials, the bureaucrats and the contractors not to be held accountable than it is to actually protect secrets that the government needs to protect. Could you expand on that?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, yes. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government, doesn’t bind corporations. That’s a serious problem. The reason we have privatization of prisons, in some ways, is for governments to escape liability. They put the liability on the private corporations that run the prisons, and they just charge their liabilities as an operating cost.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Pyle, the attack on Edward Snowden—I mean, you’ve got the pundits. What Jeffrey Toobin, the legal pundit, quickly blogged: Snowden is “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Thomas Friedman writes, “I don’t believe [that] Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower.” David Brooks says, “Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.” That’s the pundits. And then, of course, there’s the NSA. Can you talk about the attack on the whistleblower today and back when you were blowing the whistle?

CHRISTOPHER PYLE: Well, when I was blowing the whistle and they couldn’t get any dirt on me—I had led a very uninteresting life—they made up dirt and tried to peddle it on Capitol Hill in order to discredit me and prevent me from testifying before Senator Ervin’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. Every bureaucracy hates dissenters. They must expel dissenters and discredit dissenters, because dissenters force them to reconsider what it is they’re doing, and no bureaucracy wants anybody to interrupt what they’re doing. And so, this is the natural, organic response of any bureaucracy or any establishment.

Now, I think it is inappropriate and quite irrelevant to analyze Ed Snowden’s motivations. It doesn’t matter much—except in court, to prove that he either did or did not intend to aid a foreign power or hurt the United States. But separate from that motivation, whether he’s a narcissist, like many people on television are, no, I don’t think that’s relevant at all. He’s neither a traitor nor a hero, and he says this himself. He’s just an ordinary American. He’s trying to start a debate in this nation over something that is critically important. He should be respected for that, taken at face value, and then we should move on to the big issues, including the corruption of our system that is done by massive secrecy and by massive amounts of money in politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Pyle, we want to thank you for being with us, co-author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, Getting Away with Torture and The Constitution Under Siege. In 1970, Christopher Pyle disclosed the military’s spying on civilians and worked for three congressional committees to end it, including Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence. He now teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
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One thought on “Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics

  • Excessive government intrusion into the private lives and private affairs of citizens in unacceptable, whether it be in Cuba or the U.S.

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