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Interview: Ex-Spy Christopher Boyce on Snowden, WikiLeaks, and NSA Backdoors


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A smart young dropout is welcomed into a promising career in the top secret world of U.S. defense contracting, but he’s quickly shocked to discover the deception practiced by America’s intelligence agencies at the highest levels. Disillusioned and outraged, he takes matters into his own hands and begins exfiltrating highly-classified documents right under the nose of his employer.

Today, that might describe NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But back in 1975, it was 22-year-old Christopher Boyce, who joined TRW as a telex operator and found himself handling some of the the government’s most sensitive communications. From inside TRW’s “Black Vault,” Boyce claims he learned the CIA was actively undermining the elected, left-wing government of Australia.

But instead of leaking to the press, as Snowden, and WikiLeaks leaker Chelsea Manning, would do decades later, Boyce became a spy. He embarked on a personal mission to damage the U.S. defense and intelligence complex, supplying classified crypto keys and program information to his friend Andrew Daulton Lee, who in turn traveled to Mexico and sold the information to the KGB.

Boyce and Lee were arrested in 1977 and both convicted of espionage.

In January 1980 Boyce escaped from the Lompoc federal penitentiary and went on the run, robbing 17 banks in Idaho and Washington State before being recaptured in August 1981. He was released from prison in 2002 and now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Cait.

The saga was the subject of the book and film The Falcon and the Snowman, but now Boyce, his wife Cait and their friend Vincent Font have published their own e-book sequel, The Falcon and the Snowman: American Sons.

Boyce spoke to WIRED about the changing face of espionage; WikiLeaks, Manning, Snowden and the radically changed world that awaited him when he walked out of prison.

WIRED: What do you think of the Snowden leaks?

Boyce: Well I think he’s done a service to the Bill of Rights. I think he’s protecting our freedoms. I’m glad he did what he did, I think it’s too bad that he wound up in … Putin’s Russia, he should have gone to Venezuela or somewhere else. But I’m glad he did what he did, and I’m glad Manning released what he released, and I hope there are other contractors our there contemplating a similar move.

I think that if contractors are going to leak info they need to go where they’re going to have asylum, stay there and then leak. And then that way the story becomes what they’re leaking and not the chase.

The chase is over, and it appears he’s going to stay where he’s going to stay and I’m sure theGuardian and other persons have copies of everything he got. It does seem like every time the government opens their mouth, he just releases more compromising information that makes them look like fools.

WIRED: If you were 30 years younger, do you think you would have been more like an Edward Snowden than someone who was going to sell secrets to the Russians?

Boyce: I have a quarter of a century of experience in the federal prison [system]. I almost spent 10 years in solitary confinement, and I just don’t think I could ever do that to myself again. I couldn’t bring the rage of the government down on my head again. Snowden’s a braver man than I would be now. I couldn’t do that again, and I’m sure there are hundreds and hundreds of other NSA contractors who also are thinking, ‘I couldn’t bring the power of the fed government down on me like that.’

He’s a better man than I am at this stage of my life, I suppose I’m a bit worn out by it all.

But there’s a big difference now — it’s so much easier to release stuff. Back then, even if you went to a New York Times reporter, how would you know they wouldn’t go to the FBI?

WIRED: Given that, do you think there’s a role for organizations like WikiLeaks?

Boyce: I think that eventually the U.S. government will get their hands on [Assange] too … I think they’ll eventually get him. But yeah, I wish there were another 100 outlets like WikiLeaks out there. And I’m sure there are many people that want to repeat WikiLeaks [MO] but the problem as I see it is I had always thought the Internet was going to be this thing that opened up the world. When I came out of prison I went “wow,” this was going to be what united people everywhere, what created a free flow of information.

But instead it seems to me that it’s become something for the government to monitor and watch us, to collect our emails and monitor who we’re calling and how long we’re speaking to them. I’m kind of shocked by that, by Snowden’s revelations. I thought the internet was going to be something that broke down secrecy, but it appears that the NSA and the British are using it for evil purposes and destroying our civil liberties in the process.

WIRED: What would you like to see happen? At what point would you be satisfied that things are on track?

Boyce: Well I think that I’d like to have real review and then specifically why should the government record all of our email? Why do they need to keep a record of everyone we call and how long we speak? Things like these are abuses, I think.

They need to go. Will they go? I doubt it. In this country, all of our addresses and return addresses on all our packages and letters are photographed now by the post office. Why is that necessary? That just seems to me like overkill.

I think everything since 9/11 has been. The Patriot Act and all this, it’s all overkill. It’s overreach by the surveillance state.

WIRED: Assange thought that if he published a whole bunch of information and enlightened the public with these revelations that things would change. Nothing has really changed since the WikiLeaks dumps.

We’ve got Ed Snowden also, who’s releasing all these secrets. Things might change but nothing has yet. So to what degree do you think the ‘problem’ is the public doesn’t have access to enough information about what governments are doing versus the problem being just general apathy?

Boyce: Well, I agree with what my wife Cait said here not so long ago: The average American is more interested in how much cream and sugar he has in his coffee than his civil liberties.

I have to tell you that I’m very pessimistic. I think the surveillance state will get stronger and stronger. I’m not optimistic at all that civil liberties are going to be protected, and I think that’s the direction that we’re headed. [...]

What shocked me was the NSA is forcing the communications and internet companies and the security companies to leave these backdoors in their security systems, so we really don’t have any privacy whatsoever. But the good thing you can say about Snowden is that now this has all come to light people are talking about it. Will Congress do anything about it? I doubt it, but at least this allows Google and the other internet companies to push back and to fight this intrusion into the internet.

But you can tell just from talking to me, I’m not a technical person. I’m 60 years old and I lost 25 years of my life while all this developed.

WIRED: We’ve taken information and made it infinitely and instantly replicable, which is why we’ve wound up with WikiLeaks and people taking huge caches of documents. So the idea of using a camera to smuggle out a few documents [like you did] these days is just completely foreign.

Boyce: I used to smuggle out secret documents hidden in potted plants. If Snowden had to do that he would have been at it for a million years. Especially Manning, God.

WIRED: What do you think Andrew Daulton Lee would think of you now?

Boyce: Well the truth is, when I escaped that made his incarceration much more onerous. Bad things happened to him. He was taken to Eastern penitentiaries, he was assaulted and attacked. His life became much worse for him after I escaped, and he probably ended up doing more time because I escaped.

He holds that against me and I understand that, I just wasn’t, myself, going to stay in that prison if there was any way I could break out of it, [but] he was done taking risks with his life at that point. And so it’s legitimate, I think, the animosity that he has towards me. I definitely, from that point on, made his life worse.

You know, I think of Daulton as the friend of my childhood, a pal that I had that I flew hawks with and played football with and went to school with. I think of him like that, but I don’t really think of him now that much, other than I regret we’re no longer friends.

WIRED: We’ve got leakers like Chelsea Manning and Snowden. If I put you in the same category, the three of you had ideological motivations for taking classified information and pushing it out into the public domain. Except in your case you took this information and gave it to the Russians. I’m wondering how it is that you can morally justify the decision to hand over those things to an enemy of the U.S.

Boyce: Well, I myself did not sell them. My co-defendant did. I had never really intended that was how it should play out. But mainly I was just so fed up with the American intelligence community that I wanted to damage them. I just went off on a one-man war against the intelligence community. As ridiculous as that sounds, that’s was what I was doing.

WIRED: To what degree do you think your motivations and the motivations of someone like Chelsea Manning are actually the same? Because they seem strikingly similar.

Boyce: I had an utterly conservative upbringing, but as I grew up I watched the Vietnam War unfolding, I watched the assassinations, I watched all of the racial riots and I watched the impeachment of President Nixon.

The Federal government was becoming worse and worse and I really had no experience growing up as a young man in the national government becoming anything but more and more, in my eyes, evil, to the point where I just utterly rejected the whole thing.

I was looking for a big enemy to fight. I don’t know what’s in my personality that caused me to do that but I wanted a big powerful enemy to joust.

WIRED: Do you see common ground with Manning?

Boyce: I would think so. But I also think Manning was utterly repulsed by all of the content of much of what he was revealing. Honestly, I just feel sorry for the guy, and I feel sorry for Snowden because I eventually think they’ll get their hands on him and I think the Department of Justice is going to turn their lives into a living nightmare.

I don’t think that he’ll stay in Russia forever, and I think eventually they’ll get him.

But it’s my fervent hope that among those hundred, thousands of contractors that there are others like him who are just as appalled as he is who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect civil liberties. If we have any hope, that’s where it lies.


Edited by Matsuda
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