A new documentary from Austrian director Friedrich Moser details the existence of a surveillance project used by the National Security Agency (NSA) until shortly before the 9/11 attacks. According to the film A Good American, had the NSA continued the project—called ThinThread—they would have been able to anticipate the attacks.
A Good American follows the discontinuation of ThinThread and the NSA’s adoption of the newer project. William Binney, a senior NSA official and codebreaker involved in creating ThinThread, spoke out against Trailblazer, the project that replaced ThinThread three weeks before the 9/11 attacks. The documentary establishes Trailblazer as an inferior project chosen for careerist reasons within the NSA.
Both projects were intended to track data on large networks like mobile and email networks. Binney’s ThinThread project encrypted the output to guard personal information until a warrant was obtained. The project that replaced it, Trailblazer, did not encrypt the output of the data collected and was linked to the NSA controversy of warrantless mass surveillance.
Binney and fellow NSA analysts Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis worked with House Permanent Select Committee staffer Diane Roark to file a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) about the more expensive and less effective Trailblazer Project. The whistleblowers faced retaliation from the federal government, despite their use of the internal accountability system meant to protect them. They lost their security clearances and were engaged in lengthy legal battles.
“We had all this evidence of malicious prosecution,” Binney told POGO. In one instance, he faced indictment for being part of a meeting unrelated to his whistleblowing, which “had nothing to do with anything else.”
“These are the guys who took all the appropriate channels,” Moser told POGO, referring to the NSA whistleblowers he interviewed for the film. “You need to have protection in place for those who are speaking out about corruption and those who are speaking out about things that go wrong.”
While protections for intelligence community whistleblowers do exist, our current system lacks protections for contractor whistleblowers within the intelligence community, which is crucial given the increasing amount of work done in intelligence through contractors.
The details about Binney’s involvement in the ThinThread program, as well as about its termination, remain unavailable to the public. The DoD IG released a report on ThinThread and Trailblazer in 2004, though the only copy is heavily redacted. Those redactions largely pertained to unclassified information, dealing with “business practice, culture, corruption, contract fraud, and other criminal activities,” Binney told POGO.
Patrick Eddington, former CIA imagery analyst who read the unredacted report of the ThinThread and Trailblazer projects wrote in an email to POGO that the DoD IG report “contains roughly 100 paragraphs that are portion marked (U/FOUO), and that in my judgment, as a former professional intelligence officer, there is no legitimate national security justification for those paragraphs to have ever been withheld from public disclosure.”
The purpose of the documentary is largely to develop support for releasing a version of the DoD IG report with the unclassified material unredacted, and to emphasize the necessity for protecting those “that try to make the state more functional,” Moser told POGO. To him, the NSA whistleblowers represent the core values of “a good American.”
“The counter narrative [provided by A Good American] happens to be the truth, which is documented in the DoD IG report,” Moser told POGO. “I think these entire 15 years have to be rewritten in the books of history.”
Binney and Wiebe have outlined a plan to protect identities and to serve national security purposes in a March letter presented with the documentary. The letter suggests using encryption to hide the identities of innocent people from security intelligence or law enforcement agencies until a warrant is issued.
Moser called the mass surveillance that occurred following 9/11 a “complete overreach of the executive branch,” and regards Binney and Wiebe’s letter as a solution to protect the privacy of innocent people.
Moser and Binney will appear at the two screenings of A Good American at Landmark’s E Street Cinema on April 17 and 18, which is part of Filmfest DC, the Washington, DC, international film festival.