The debate over the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records has reached a critical point after a federal appeals court last week ruled the practice illegal, dramatically raising the stakes for pending Congressional legislation that would fully or partially reinstate the program. An army of pundits promptly took to television screens, with many of them brushing off concerns about the surveillance.
The talking heads have been backstopping the NSA’s mass surveillance more or less continuously since it was revealed. They spoke out to support the agency when NSA contractor Edward Snowden released details of its programs in 2013, and they’ve kept up their advocacy ever since — on television news shows, newspaper op-ed pages, online and at Congressional hearings. But it’s often unclear just how financially cozy these pundits are with the surveillance state they defend, since they’re typically identified with titles that give no clues about their conflicts of interest. Such conflicts have become particularly important, and worth pointing out, now that the debate about NSA surveillance has shifted from simple outrage to politically prominent legislative debates.
As one example of the opaque link between NSA money and punditry, take the words of Stewart Baker, who was general counsel to the NSA from 1992 through 1994. During a Senate committee hearing last summer on one of the reform bills now before Congress, the USA FREEDOM Act, which would partially limit mass surveillance of telephone metadata, Baker essentially said the bill would aid terrorists.
“First, I do not believe we should end the bulk collection program,” he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “It will put us at risk. It will, as Senator King strongly suggested, slow our responses to serious terrorist incidents. And it is a leap into the dark with respect to this data.”
Previously, in December 2013, Baker wrote in The New York Times that “Snowden has already lost the broader debate he claims to want, and the leaks are slowly losing their international impact as well.” He made similar comments in multiple news outlets, and testified before Congress to defend virtually every program revealed by the Snowden documents. Baker at one point told intelligence committee lawmakers that The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald was simply on a campaign to “cause the greatest possible diplomatic damage to the United States and its intelligence capabilities.”
Baker has identified himself at various points as a former government official with the NSA and Department of Homeland Security and as a Washington, D.C. attorney. But the law firm at which Baker is a partner, Steptoe & Johnson, maintains a distinct role in the world of NSA contracting. At the time of his pro-NSA advocacy in 2013 and 2014, the company was registered to lobby on behalf of companies which have served as major NSA contractors, including Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), Leidos and Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC).
Asked about his law firm’s lobby work for NSA contractors, Baker responded, “If you’re looking for someone with a ‘financial stake in the surveillance debate’ you should start with your boss, Glenn Greenwald, who has a $250 million stake in continuing to present the debate as ‘Snowden good. NSA evil.’ And, of course, there’s you. You’ve got a ‘financial stake’ in keeping your job. Which means that you won’t have the balls to publish my reply.” (Pierre Omidyar made a $50 million contribution and $250 million commitment to First Look Media. Glenn Greenwald is the co-founding editor of the First Look publication The Intercept, not the holder of a $250 million stake.)
Due to the secretive nature of the agency’s work, NSA contracts are often shielded from public disclosure, and identifying financial links between pundits and the agency’s web of partners is tricky. But the work of journalists and whistleblowers such as James Bamford, who was assigned to an NSA unit while serving in the Navy, gives us a sense of which companies work for U.S. intelligence agencies. Drawing largely from these disclosures, The Intercept has identified several former government and military officials whose voices have shaped the public discourse around government spying and surveillance issues but whose financial ties to NSA contractors have received little attention. These pundits have played a key role in the public debate as the White House and the agency itself have struggled to defend the most controversial spying programs revealed by Snowden’s documents.
Keane has appeared on Fox News to discuss surveillance issues multiple times, coming down squarely in support of the NSA. Last year, as President Obama was developing reform proposals mirroring key provisions in the FREEDOM Act, including limits on the collection of phone records, he dismissed concerns about civil liberties.
“Well, I believe what the NSA has been doing has been right on the mark,” Keane told Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs. Backing down from any of the NSA programs, Keane said, would make America “less secure and more vulnerable.” In another appearance on Fox, Keane called the bulk collection of American phone records “vital for national security.”
Since 2004, Keane has served as board member to General Dynamics, a firm that contracts with the NSA — as occasionally disclosed publicly, as in October 2014, in 2010, and in 2009. For his service as a board member, Keane has earned about a quarter of a million dollars a year in cash and stock awards. According to a December 2010 Boston Globe article, Keane has also worked as a consultant to other military contractors, pushing government officials to hire his clients for government work, but failed to register his activities under the Lobbying Disclosure Act because he said his lobby activity fell below the statutory requirement for registration.
A spokesman for Keane said he “appears on TV news as much as 30 times per month, covering multiple topics at each appearance as a military analyst. He does not recall making comments on the topic you have mentioned.”
“The American people,” Clark said confidently during an interview on CNN, “are solidly behind the PRISM program and all that’s going on.” Appearing on Fox News, Woolsey referred to Snowden’s disclosure of documents as “damaging because it gives terrorists an idea of how we collect and what we might know.” Woolsey would later comment that Snowden “should be hanged by his neck” if convicted for treason.
The men are, and were at the time, advisors to Paladin Capital Group, an investment advisor and private equity firm whose Homeland Security Fund was set up about three months after the September 11 attacks to focus on defense and intelligence-related startups. Woolsey confirmed he is paid by Paladin Capital; Clark did not respond to a request for comment. In 2014, Paladin’s portfolio was valued at more than $587 million. At the time of Woolsey and Clark’s anti-Snowden statements, it included a stake in Endgame Systems, a computer network security company that had worked with the NSA, having reportedly counted the agency among its largest customers. Paladin was also invested in CyberCore, which had provided technological work to the NSA. Later, in 2014, Paladin invested in Shadow Networks, formerly known as ZanttzZ, which also provided tech work to the NSA.
At CPAC, Gilmore touted his credentials on the issue of homeland security as “the governor of Virginia during the 9/11 attack” and chairman of an advisory board on homeland security issues. But since 2009, Gilmore has also worked for a major NSA contractor as member of the board of CACI International, for which he has been compensated with more than $1 million in cash and stock awards. CACI, the firm whose contractors were behind the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, has steadily increased its stake in the cyberintelligence business, acquiring the firm Six3 Systems, an NSA contractor, for $820 million two years ago.
In an email to The Intercept, Gilmore acknowledged his relationship with CACI and noted that he served on advisory committee for Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), an NSA contractor. “I cannot confirm whether any [of] these companies contracted with NSA,” he wrote. “I do not feel I have a conflict of interest that would prevent me from commenting on public policy issues related to national security. Also, I have been very vocal in the past as to warning against the loss of civil freedoms due to reaction to the dangers we face in today’s world.”
The surveillance report was released last May by a group of former government officials, including CSIS president John Hamre. The year the report came out, Hamre received close to a quarter of a million dollars as a board member to NSA contractor Leidos, as he had the year prior. In 2013 and again in 2012, Hamre took close to quarter of a million dollars as a board member at SAIC, which has served as a major NSA contractor and which split to form Leidos. (Hamre did not respond to a request for comment.) Also responsible for the report was former NSA director Mike McConnell — only identified by “Former Director of National Intelligence” rather than as vice chairman of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, his role at the time. (McConnell “was not representing Booz Allen in his participation” in the report, a Booz Allen spokesperson said, responding to a request to McConnell for comment.)
“If journalists are writing about this they should not be naive about the immensity of the security establishment,” said Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin.
Gitlin says that he understands why media outlets would call upon former government officials to discuss NSA issues given that they have “earned their expertise by virtue of their institutional experience.” But, he adds, the onus for disclosure ultimately lies with reporters and news programs, who should be asking these experts to reveal potential conflicts of interest and to explain the basis of their assertions about national security.
“The security industrial complex, in which the revolving door is a fixture,” Gitlin remarks, “requires a high degree of caution on the part of journalists and a high degree of scrutiny.”
To critics of mass surveillance, the role of these pundits tied to the NSA contracting industry exposes deeper problems.
“The media is happy to let these people defend the surveillance state on air but less interested in reporting on how it butters their bread,” said Kevin Connor, the director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a think tank that studies political elites.
After Connor released a well-publicized report on television pundits with ties to defense contractors who stood to benefit from U.S.-led missile strikes in Syria, many of those pundits remained on the airwaves, continuing to advocate intervention without disclosing how their companies would benefit from such policies. “If you are an insider, you are a trusted expert, even if you happen to have a financial stake in the debate,” Connor continued, adding, “it also serves as a useful reminder of the myriad ways in which corporate America is implicated in the surveillance apparatus, profiting from it, and protected by it.”
For the NSA’s private sector partners, the Snowden disclosures not only invited unwelcome scrutiny of the surveillance industry, but also fears that Congress might cut back on intelligence spending.
Speaking with investors following the Snowden leaks, Bill Varner, an executive with ManTech International, which has contracted with the NSA, raised the possibility of losing business. “It is too soon to tell if there will be any fallout in terms of reduced mission scope for the intelligence community or for contractor support to that community,” he said. Speaking on an earnings call shortly after the first revelations, a financial analyst also worried that “negative media attention from Mr. Snowden” could impair future intelligence business for Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor that briefly employed Snowden. Booz Allen’s stock dropped nearly 5 percent following the news of his leaks. But within weeks, the company’s shares rebounded.
Alleen Brown and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research to this report.
Photo Illustration: Gilmore: Scott Olson/Getty; Keane: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty; Baker: Stephen Lovekin/Getty