The Key Was the Metadata
“A Good American” tells the story of Bill Binney and ThinThread, the NSA project he believes may have prevented 9/11
Bill Binney wasn’t exactly beloved by everyone at the NSA. As the Austrian director Friedrich Moser describes in his deeply informative new documentary “A Good American,” Binney — by his own admission — was referred to as “The Great Satan” or “The Evil One” or, perhaps more flatteringly, “the super crypto mathematician.”
Binney began his career as a codebreaker with the Army Security Agency during the Vietnam War before leaving for the NSA in 1970. He describes in the film how he wanted to engage with Vietnam on his own terms: He didn’t want to kill anyone. Early in the film he describes how one of the worst things about war is it forces people to be “just as vicious” as those who attacked them. Arguably, that moral compass has served him well, though it would lead inexorably to his parting ways with the NSA shortly after 9/11.
“Human behavior is extremely patterned,” says Bill Binney. That fundamental belief underpins his conclusion that the solution to developing a successful surveillance system lies in examining metadata. “The key was metadata,” says Binney. “You don’t have to look at the content. Just the relationships of what you want to analyze.” The results are trusted enough that, as former NSA Director General Michael Hayden infamously said, “We kill people based on metadata.” Specifically, this metadata came from communications, not just from U.S. citizens, but also from people all over the planet. When an employee complained about the potentially infinite complexity of examining all the conceivable relationships to be found among calls from 2.5 mobile phones, Binney pointed his colleague to the universe. Imagine the universe and all the molecules in it, he says. There are a finite number of molecules. Observing them would be difficult. Your job is much simpler than that is his point.
“There’s no chaos. Nothing is infinite. Everything is structured. It’s just a matter of finding that structure.” — Bill Binney in “A Good American”
And so arose Binney’s “Graph” also known eventually as “The Big-Ass Graph” (or BAG). The Graph essentially created a multi-dimensional model of the networked relationships of all those cell-phone wielding people, allowing for individual relationships to be teased out and examined in detail. Most, importantly, however, the identities of U.S. citizens were anonymized and encrypted and could only be accessible via warrant on court order. Binney’s colleague Ed Loomis developed the “sessionizer” to help parse the data the Graph collected. The result? The sessionizer was successful. Too successful. Binney and his small team had more results than they knew what to do with. The program which produced all of this surveillance technology was dubbed ThinThread.
Trouble is, post-9/11 the government had more money to throw at the NSA than it knew what to do with. Even before 9/11, in 2000, when one official came to Binney asking what he could do with $1.2 billion, Binney came back with a plan for everything his team deemed necessary to a surveillance effort using ThinThread for $300 million. The official came back and asked what Binney could do for $1.4 billion. It was clear they weren’t operating on the same page.
Indeed, it seems clear project management at the NSA became a boondoggle. Former NSA Signals Intelligence Director Maureen Baginski is even quoted as saying, “9/11 was a gift to the NSA.” So if Binney’s six-person team wasn’t willing to do the work this way, the NSA would find a third-party consulting group with hundreds of employees to do the job. For billions of dollars. In fact, Trailblazer, the replacement project for ThinThread (and a pet project of Gen. Hayden’s since 2000) would eventually burn through $3.8 billion. Not only that, but it failed in the areas of “volume, veracity and variety,” which Binney says ThinThread had already solved for. Additionally, Trailblazer removing all of the encryption and privacy safeguards Binney had built into ThinThread. And the rest, sadly, is history.
After the film concluded at the IFC Center for the DOC NYC festival, Patrick Eddington a policy analyst at the CATO Institute joined the filmmaker, Binney and several of his former NSA colleagues on stage. Before the Q&A session, Eddington answered the question, no doubt, lingering on everyone’s mind: Where’s the evidence?
Certainly, the film depicts a bunch of highly intelligent people — most of them former NSA employees sharing some very detailed information and making some very compelling arguments. But where’s all the documentation supporting their claims? As Binney demonstrates on camera, much of the supporting evidence has been redacted from any published reports — most damningly, that even includes information clearly intended to be on the public record.
Therefore, Eddington told the audience, he plans to sue the government to release the documentation, which he has seen and he believes will expose the government’s incompetence and the subsequent coverup detailed in the film.
Though it’ll be compared to Citizenfour, A Good American isn’t that film. It’s not as immediate, nor as naturalistic. It dramatizes many of the events it depicts from Binney’s past, capturing them in shadowy, noirish scenes, whereas Laura Poitras’s documentary benefits from the eerie, almost clinical introduction of its protagonist Edward Snowden in what feels like real time. Nonetheless, A Good American stands on its own strength. And it does make for a deeply complementary companion to Citizenfour. Former NSA members Ed Loomis, Kirk Wiebe and Tom Drake also appear in the film, granting it additional authority, too. So does Diane Roark of the House Intelligence Committee. She filed the complaint along with Loomis, Wiebe and Binney against the NSA for its waste and incompetence with Trailblazer. All told, A Good American proves a detailed and trenchant depiction of a passage of U.S. history Americans should be intimately aware of. Sadly, at this point in time, scarce few of them are.
The film debuted in North America scarcely two days after the Paris attacks and some government officials are already blaming the availability of encrypted services like the Tor Browser and WhatsApp, which they say (so far without evidence) allowed terrorists to communicate without fear of discovery before the attacks. We can only hope that as the inevitable backlash unfurls there are loud voices coming from individuals like Bill Binney to protect the need for such encrypted tools for at-risk people around the globe. People such as journalists, human rights workers and LGBTQ individuals require these tools to protect both their identities and their communications. Increasingly, so do innocent everyday civilians whose every digital sigh is being monitored, filtered, captured, and filed away for future reference.
As for the NSA, what does Bill Binney think of the agency today? His answer to the audience question was short and blunt: “They traded our security for money. They’re criminals.”