Because there’s always room for more outrage, herewith A Good American, an absolutely infuriating documentary about how 9/11 could have been stopped by intelligence software the National Security Agency had in its hands but didn’t use because of “corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse” within the agency, as a lawsuit brought by its inventor alleges.
I’m pretty good at following this sort of stuff and yet I’d never heard of NSA analyst Bill Binney or his program, ThinThread, before I saw this film. Why the hell did it take an Austrian documentarian, Friedrich Moser, to bring this story to light? There are shocking revelations here that everyone — in America and far beyond — needs to hear.
A whistleblower before Edward Snowden — Oliver Stone has called this movie a prequel to his Snowden, in fact, and he’s not wrong — Binney worked for the NSA for decades trying to wring useful info out of encrypted intercepted data before he figured out how to use what we today call metadata to make spot-on security assessments. Just by looking at who was talking to whom, for how long and in what patterns, without ever needing to have access to the content of those communications, he predicted the Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Six Days Wars, and other major military events. (As one of his insider colleagues explains, Binney was “the agency’s best traffic analyst, bar none.”) When that sort of data went digital in the 1990s and the NSA was sucking up more information than it could possibly analyze via its traditional — ie, non-Binney — methods, Binney developed software that could find the pertinent informational needles in data haystacks… and all without compromising the privacy of innocent citizens.
So what happened? A Good American makes it perfectly plain that ThinThread — which, as Binney says, “absolutely would have prevented 9/11” — was backshelved because it did not fit into NSA “protocols” (my term) that were far more about enriching crony contractors than about national security. (The unforgivable thing about ThinThread? It was too cheap! It did not require any lucrative outsourcing contracts to former agency employees turned consultants, or big bequests from Congress.) If you’ve seen The Imitation Game, the movie about Alan Turing’s efforts to build a codebreaking computer during World War II, here’s an analogy for you: Imagine if the generals who wanted to shut down his project because it was taking too long actually did so, and he never broke the Enigma code. Except this is worse, because Binney’s equivalent of Turing’s machine was already working.
Let me be perfectly clear about this: A Good American is a devastating indictment of the United States’ National Security Agency as an utter disgrace not fit for purpose. It was not a mistake, not incompetence that caused it to miss all the pre-event evidence that pointed to a devastating attack occurring on September 11, 2001. They had an analytical computer program — it ran on a desktop PC! — that would have uncovered the plot; the agency knew it worked, and they shut it down before 9/11 for no good reason. Binney changed the intelligence paradigm, and the NSA threw him and his work out. So that they could line their pockets; “9/11 is a gift,” one NSA honcho supposedly said; Congress would give them all the funding they asked for. And, it is implied, so that Americans could be kept fearful. It wouldn’t do to have all the terrorist attacks stopped before they can do any damage and incite terror, would it?
It sounds like a conspiracy theory. It would appear to be conspiracy fact.
If you’re angry about the state of the world in recent days, you need to back it way the hell up: bad shit that is not in our interest as ordinary citizens has been going on since long since before Donald Trump took office. #Resist.