A 2015 docudrama entitled “A Good American,” written, produced and directed by Friedrich Moser in Austria, exposes the world of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and claims that 9/11 could have been prevented. This film based on true events, with interviews with real people, tells the story of Bill Binney and several of his colleagues, who worked at the NSA and were eventually fired. Here is a brief summary of this explosive story.
Bill Binney was a mathematician and a brilliant data analyst, who early on saw that what mattered in decrypting masses of information was not what people were saying to each other, that is the content of a communication, but rather the analysis of the traffic, i.e. who was talking to whom, how often and from where to where. By analyzing this kind of information, he and others warned of the Tet offensive by the Communist Viet Cong in 1968, but due to “the arrogance of power” it was ignored by the US military in Vietnam. He was then able to establish a structure of the Russian military command from traffic analysis, before the advent of real computers, and he was able to predict the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 months before it occurred. Typically his warning was also ignored.
However, his work got him a job in the NSA, where he was given the task of expanding on his method of analysis. He established a small group and continued his approach of traffic analysis using raw date that was pouring into the NSA from many sources. At that time the work of NSA involved mainly total data capture and analysis for selected “red flags.” For example, the use of the word “revolution” might be searched for, and then in each case the conversation would have to be analyzed for its security threat, to distinguish between someone using the word “revolution” to mean let’s start a revolution against the US government, from someone who was talking about turntable speed, i.e revolutions per minute. This type of analysis involved a great deal of man hours, so much so that the NSA analysts were literally drowning in data.
The NSA had fallen woefully behind in computer technology, and so a new Director was appointed to update the agency, he was Gen. Michael Hayden. He decided on a new program called “Trailblazer” that would gradually update the hardware at NSA but basically continue the established analysis approach. The new computer hardware cost billions of dollars, and brought in even more data, thus preventing the NSA from actually doing its job effectively.
Meanwhile Bill Binney’s group had developed a program called ThinThread based on algorithms developed by them, that he showed using NSA raw data could identify groups (networks) constituting real security threats in real-time. Not only was this traffic analysis approach far faster than the”content analysis approach, and was independent of language, but it was also much cheaper. However, the leadership of the NSA rejected this approach,. How could 6 people with a small computer do anything better than 500 analysts with lots of huge computers? Ultimately Bill and his group were prevented from further developing their approach and eventually were fired. Trailblazer was used to analyze communications between US citizens and lacked the personal protections that had been included in ThinThread. It was this kind of unlawful intrusion into the lives of innocent US citizens that led to the actions of whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The failure of the NSA to predict the 9/11 attack, after the previous 1993 attack on the Twin Towers and the known threats emanating from al Qaeda, was one of the worst mistakes in US history, and led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 American and other citizens. Later Bill and his colleagues used ThinThread to analyze data that was actually already in the NSA system, and were able to show that they could have predicted the 9/11 attack before it happened from traffic analysis stretching from Afghanistan thru Hamburg and several US cities.
Bill and his colleagues set up a private company that tried to use ThinThread for other US Government agencies. But by this time the NSA was so defensive in trying to cover up their terrible blunder that they intervened in every case and got the contracts and contacts cancelled. Then one day FBI agents burst into the homes of several of the group, including Bill, co-worker Ed Loomis, and Diane Roark, who had worked for the Congress and had been convinced of ThinThread’s superiority to Trailblazer. They were arrested at gunpoint. But, when it came to trial the case was thrown out by the judge for fabrication of evidence by the NSA.
So let’s remember Bill Binney and his colleagues. They were trailblazing analysts who saw the superiority of traffic analysis, and who were whistle-blowers long before anyone else. They showed that the NSA was corrupt, incompetent and more interested in bringing in funds than doing its job of protecting the American people. And above all Bill Binney was a very good American. And by the way, Gen. Hayden was promoted and became head of the CIA.