This article originally appeared in WHO.WHAT.WHY
A congressional report found that, before September 11, 2001, intelligence agencies were poorly organized, poorly equipped, and slow to pursue clues that might have prevented that day’s terrorist attacks. The following story offers a unique insight into how that could be.
Bill Binney was, as far back as the 1960s, one of the NSA’s most distinguished analysts. He had almost a sixth sense for understanding the patterns behind the webs of relationships that would often prove to be even more valuable than the actual contents of intercepted communications.
This ability was a valuable tool in making sense of Soviet communications and intercepts. Binney’s work might very well have warned us of 9/11, and other terrorist attacks, had it been allowed to continue. Instead Binney was forced to become a whistleblower — and a crusader for both his work and the privacy protections of American citizens.
Using his methods, he anticipated the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and even the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The funny thing was that many of his higher ups in the intelligence community didn’t take him seriously. Even after he had proved himself almost prescient, they all felt that his methods were too inexpensive and too simple to be the real thing.
As the digital age arrived and Binney moved from the Army to the NSA, he was shocked at how primitive the NSA technology was. He tried to change that.
And while many of his colleagues liked to think the Soviet threat would be around forever, he foresaw the threats from international crime and terrorism and the need for appropriate programs of information collection.
In response, he developed cutting-edge computer programs of pattern recognition, with off-the-shelf software, to try to foreshadow these threats. The problem once again was that Binney worked too cheaply.
The leaders of the NSA wanted to spend well in excess of three billion dollars for projects that were unproven, and performed poorly when tested, compared to what Binney had created — for one-tenth the cost.
That’s when higher ups at the NSA, including then-director Gen. Michael Hayden, decided that Binney and his work had to be neutralized.
The harrowing story that follows is told by Binney in his conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman in this week’s podcast. Binney explains how his “ThinThread” program worked — how it protected privacy and passed Constitutional muster. He explains why he had to leave the agency when his work was shut down in favor of programs that didn’t work — ones that totally ignored privacy concerns, but that provided a gravy train for contractors and executives alike.
Binney’s story is the subject of a new documentary, A Good American, (available on Netflix) from executive producer Oliver Stone. For the full story, in Binney’s own words, this podcast is a must.