Jeff L. Wright, Fruitland, attended the University of Maryland, he is trained in the fields of international law, political science and information technology. His professional background includes work with telecommunications industries, banking and credit systems, and with a naval intelligence department.
Given the recent revelations that the National Security Agency is mining data on private U.S. citizens via their mobile telephones and online communications, IdahoReporter.com spoke with Wright for his perspective on the controversy and to discuss his new book, “The Citizen’s Last Stand: Are You Ready?”
IR: Please give us your assessment of what we’ve learned recently regarding the NSA collecting data on private citizens.
Wright: As we peel back this onion, what I believe we’re going to find is that this type of surveillance is not new. It’s been going on for decades. I started as a cryptologist for the naval security group and eventually became a liaison for the NSA, and I then became a defense contractor. I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg on this. It has probably been since the mid-1980s that these types of programs were initiated under the Cold War, and they have all different kinds of code names and objectives. Everything that was initiated under the Patriot Act has been well in place for a number of years. It is just now coming into people’s awareness, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. But we’ll see it unravel more and more as the months go on.
IR: You say this is the “tip of the iceberg,” but how much will we ever know about this activity? Will we ever really see the “rest of the iceberg,” so to speak?
Wright: That’s the problem that I talk about extensively in my book, the fact that we don’t know about many of these things, and usually that which is revealed is very limited in scope. Most people don’t follow up enough, and don’t pay attention enough, and don’t push the issue far enough to get the next peel of the onion. But there are currently five different (intelligent gathering) centers being built by the NSA. Since Sept. 11, 2001, they’ve probably expanded their capabilities at least a hundred times, their ability to collect and archive information off telephones, off of email, and so forth. The Internet delivers to them virtually infinite capabilities to track and collect data on American citizens.
IR: As the avalanche of information about this so-called “mega data” collection emerges, one might wonder if there is any part of our communicative lives, any elements of our personal communication, that is not monitored by the U.S. federal government. What would you say about that?
Wright: Right now, they’re probably not monitoring snail mail (ground mail). If you go back to sending ground mail letters, you’re probably safe that way.
IR: Is there any form of email that is not monitored by the government? The website Reagan.com sells personal email addresses that are supposedly secure, while a Canadian-based web business, Hushmail.com, purports to offer secure email as well. Do any of these services actually provide secure email?
Wright: One can certainly encrypt email, and there are a number of browser services which allow one to browse the Internet without having their browser history tracked. The problem is that a lot of intelligence gathering is based on identifying where communication originates, and where it terminates, who is talking, how long they are talking, and so forth. Even if they don’t obtain the content of a message, they’re still able to understand a whole lot even with just observing communication patterns among people, how often you log in to Facebook, when during the day do you check email, those sorts of things. Even if they don’t monitor the content of your communication, they still have a lot of intelligence, if you will, about who you are communicating with, the length of your discourse, things like that.
IR: Are you surprised by any of the things we’ve been learning about our government in the past few days?
Wright: Absolutely not. I’ve been trying to warn people about this since I left the agency in the ‘80s. One of the phrases I use in the book is “they do this because they can.” It’s not a matter of whether it’s legal or constitutional or right, but they do it because they can. It has always been the intent of the agency to stay a generation or so ahead of our adversaries in terms of intelligence gathering, but also ahead of our allies as well, and our government has essentially done that.
IR: When you say “they do this because they can,” you’re obviously speaking to how technology has enabled our government to do these things. But is there a sense, do you believe, that the American citizenry has enabled our government to do these things simply because we are uncaring about our liberties or we pay no attention to our government?
Wright: When it comes to things that are labeled “national security” within our government, we have a tendency to just look the other way. We do this with foreign policy, and we do this with domestic policy as well. Look how quickly Americans ran straight to The Patriot Act after 911 and started this round of invasion of our privacy and personal information. People really have no idea what our government has been doing, and they give the government carte blanche to do what it wants.
IR: How do you respond to the person who says “I’ve got nothing to hide, I don’t do anything wrong, I’m not hiding anything, this doesn’t matter to me.” What do you say to that person?
Wright: I actually hear that all the time. I tell people that it’s not about whether or not you have anything to hide, or whether you’re guilty of wrongdoing. Under the Constitution, everyone has the right to be private in their affairs and activities, and to give up that right is a huge mistake. Most of us will only realize that it is a problem after the fact.