The Woman Who Knows the NSA's Secrets

Evan Vucci/AP

Long before Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that the government was collecting every American's phone records, Marcy Wheeler knew something fishy was going on. She was one of just a handful of people who in 2009 suspected that the government was using the USA Patriot Act to collect Americans' personal records in bulk. On June 5, 2013, Snowden proved her right.

You've probably never heard of Wheeler, a Michigan blogger who plies her trade far away from the closed world of Washington, D.C., but her work enables journalists, lawyers, advocates and experts to unmask the government's secret spying apparatus.

"She's really a wealth of knowledge," said Amie Stepanovich, who does policy and litigation work on domestic surveillance for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy group. As a resource Wheeler's blog is "just horribly helpful."

Wheeler, known to her Twitter followers and readers as emptywheel, pores over government memos, transcripts and court opinions in an upstairs room in her home in Grand Rapids. Bookshelves hold the thousands of pages she's read over the years and often returns to when piecing together her investigations.

The intelligence community's work is shrouded in secrecy, an endless series of documents from legal memos to internal audits, all of them classified. From the outside, the only way to peer inside secret government is to find clues within the documents we do have and begin to connect the dots.

Experts on domestic surveillance admire Wheeler's ability to connect current revelations to past mysteries. "You'll read through these dense documents, and it's about one thing; but she'll find a clue in there to something we've all wondered about on something else entirely, and the last citing of that issue was five years ago, and somehow she still remembered," said Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter late of The Washington Post who has worked with Snowden to break stories on the NSA this summer. "She's indispensable now with the NSA story, which is endlessly complex."

The all pervading secrecy of the surveillance state makes the work of outside investigators a guessing game – one that Wheeler has proved eminently good at. "When we go after a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] document, we have to have some proof that it exists," said Stepanovich. "If we can use people like Marcy who have made the connection to establish that proof, then we can go after the document."

It's like a neverending puzzle. "FOIA documents are these disembodied documents," said Wheeler. "You have to put them into the timeline and see what they were responding to. Documents in bureaucracies are always response and counter-response."

And she would know. Before she took up blogging, Wheeler spent years as a consultant for corporations on how to decipher complex government documents. So when Wheeler looks at a document dump from the NSA, she's reading them in a different way to lawyers and journalists, and that deeper understanding of what a bureaucratic document really means helps her find or infer information that others often miss.

This is how Wheeler snagged her most famous scoop. When the George W. Bush administration's secret torture memos were released in 2009, the press came at them from a political angle and they overlooked one important detail. "Everyone had been looking at those memos for an entire weekend, and I was the first and possibly only one to notice that they talked about the number of times that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded," she said, referring to the al Qaeda operative who planned the 9/11 attacks. That number was a startling 183 times in a single month.

When Wheeler graduated from college, she set out to discover how businesses use language – a strange pursuit for any 22-year-old, but one she explains by the fact that both her parents worked at IBM. After five years consulting for corporations, teaching employees how to write large documents for business, she returned to school and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature, where she studied a subversive writing form used in French, Czech and Argentine papers under authoritative regimes. Ultimately, her work lent itself more to blogging and close-readings of government memos than to teaching literature.

Her return to the real world coincided with a breast cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2002. Needing a job, she returned to consulting, this time for the auto industry in Asia, and slowly fell into blogging. When the Scooter Libby trial over the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame came along in 2005, she got hooked. Her coverage of the trial became a book, Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy, and since then she's written about the torture memos, the use of drones and now domestic spying by the NSA. It's not a particularly lucrative line of work, but she says she makes enough that her husband, an engineer, "doesn't kick me out."

Wheeler identifies with the civil liberties camp more than the NSA, and her work has appeared alongside progressive bloggers, including Jane Hamsher, whose website Firedoglake housed Wheeler's blog until 2011. "I had this very weird moment where I realized I had covered all these people in Argentina who had been tortured," she said, referring to her graduate school days. "I never imagined when I was in graduate school that I would one day be writing about our own country's torture." (Several experts who might be expected to have a more critical take on Wheeler's work, or are generally supportive of the NSA's programs, declined to comment for this story. "I don't typically read her blog. I'm pretty sure she doesn't read mine," one responded.)

Part of what concerns Wheeler about the NSA's bulk data collection is public safety. The NSA's top brass assumes that if a threat does not show up in its databases, it doesn't exist. The next terrorist attack will come from a group that stays offline, she said, "and we're going to be hit bad by it because we have this hubris about the degree to which all people live online."

Wheeler's work stands out because she works independently and is not beholden to an employer or constrained by Capitol Hill etiquette. "In D.C. culture, you're not supposed to say, 'Dianne Feinstein made a misstatement,' " she said, referring to the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman whom Wheeler tore into on her blog after a September hearing on the NSA. This isn't done much in D.C. because you risk losing access. Since then, Wheeler says, "Every time I've ever tried to call her office for comment, they don't talk to me."

Wheeler's maverick status is more of an asset rather than a liability, allowing her to make educated guesses and put them in the public domain, the kind of speculation and research that is vital to civil liberties groups but something a staff reporter couldn't do without risking the credibility of their newspaper. Her close-reading skills have become even more valuable in the current political climate, in which the Obama administration is cracking down on leaks, making it harder for journalists to obtain information through traditional sources.

Outside the D.C. bubble, Wheeler's days start around 7 a.m. She checks Twitter, maybe writes a post, and then walks her dog, MilleniaLab, for an hour. The rest of the day she's reading and blogging, sometimes late into the night. She'll often cook throughout the day as well, something she does somewhat obsessively. She makes time to watch football, but not much else. There are still times she wishes she had a normal job and the salary that comes with it. "But I just feel like there's this beat that is there that unless somebody else comes along and picks it up it won't get done, and I think it's really important," she said. "I feel almost compelled to do it."