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A Good American

Distributed by Collective Eye Films, 1315 SE 20th Ave. #3, Portland OR 97214; 971-236-2056
Produced by Friedrich Moser
Directed by Friedrich Moser
DVD, color, 100 min.
College - General Adult
Government, Terrorism

Reviewed by Brian Falato, University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 10/5/2018

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought down the World Trade Center towers, damaged part of the Pentagon building, and caused the deaths of 3000 people. But it all could have been prevented, says former National Security Agency employee Bill Binney, if the NSA had recognized that intercepted messages in the NSA database revealed the terrorists’ plans for the attacks.

Binney is the focus of the documentary A Good American. As an NSA analyst and technical director, Binney developed a program named ThinThread that could ferret out patterns in data that would provide clues to potential terrorist threats. ThinThread looked at external signals, the metadata, in the information it received. It wasn’t looking at the content of each message or conversation. Rather it would analyze things like who contacted whom, how frequently, and the duration of conversations. “Human behavior is extremely patterned,” says Binney in the video, and it’s those patterns that ThinThread was designed to pick up on.

Recognizing that mass government surveillance of a citizenry goes against the grain of a democracy, Binney built in privacy protections to ThinThread. Communications of a U.S. citizen would be analyzed only if the person receiving the communications was in a suspect class. Otherwise, the data was discarded before it went through the analysis phase.

Unfortunately, Binney’s superiors in the NSA were not as enthusiastic about his program. As Binney’s associates discuss in the video, the NSA was woefully behind the times in tracking digital communications. There was originally little interest in tracking the Internet because it was supposed to be open, so why would anyone try to send secret communication on the Internet, as the NSA leadership saw it.

When Binney arrived at the NSA, analysts had all the intercepted communications dumped on their desks and told to look for keywords, essentially looking for needles in haystacks. Binney recognized this was a colossal waste of analysts’ time and that it would be much more productive to automate the processes as much as possible, focusing on the patterns in the metadata rather than the content of individual communications.

Binney was confident his approach would provide valuable information because he had seen it happen in the military. Based on his analysis of patterns, he was able to predict that the North Vietnamese would launch the Tet Offensive, Arab states would attack Israel to start the Yom Kippur War, and the Soviet Union would invade Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. These events were generally seen as surprise attacks, but Binney knew when they would happen each time.

Of course, the information gleaned from analyses doesn’t have much worth if it’s not acted upon. Military leadership ignored the warnings about the Tet Offensive, and the result was a debacle for the U.S. that proved to be a turning point in American views against the war. Similarly, the NSA rejected ThinThread in favor of outsourcing data analysis to a private company. ThinThread was terminated by the NSA three weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A later analysis by ThinThread of communications in the NSA database showed the methodology of the attacks. The whole operation could have been thwarted if this knowledge was utilized by the government.

Binney and two colleagues involved in ThinThread retired in disgust on October 31, 2001. When they set up a private company and tried to work with other government agencies, they were shut down each time by the NSA. They filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office about the NSA’s actions. The resulting report was 98% redacted from public view, even when it wasn’t discussing confidential information. Binney and the others figured the real reason was that the report revealed the ineptitude of the NSA.

To make things even more infuriating, the data gathering project NSA outsourced to a private company was stopped in 2005 because it was such a failure in producing any useful intelligence. And the NSA started using the analytical capabilities of ThinThread, but they removed the privacy protections that been built in, supposedly for greater efficiency.

Although Oliver Stone is listed as an executive producer, this video was made by an Austrian filmmaker, with financial support from the Austrian Film Institute. One can wonder why Americans didn’t uncover this story, but all viewers should be grateful that the story has been told. This is highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.