“I need you to know that I would never deliberately commit suicide”
If any of you “Person of Interest” fans out there still wondered whether or not our government was capable of and/or currently practice many of the same programs its fictionalized establishment utilizes, William Binney would like to tell you the definitive answer: yes. If anyone were to know it’s him, a former technical director at the NSA recruited into the agency during the Vietnam War. He’s a master with algorithms and worked tirelessly alongside Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis, and Thomas Drake to invent ThinThread as an early detection system to prevent impending terrorist activity. And it worked—too well. In an age of bureaucracy where money spent equals success rather than results, Binney and company were too efficient to be profitable. Heroism is no longer enough.
That’s the story Freidrich Moser‘s documentary A Good American tells. It’s hard to refute since the aforementioned quartet and House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark were on the inside throughout the program’s lifespan as its champions while also serving as proof of its success. Was the NSA as negligent as they describe? As far as the evidence gathered explains, yes. No one named as spearheading the corruption (Michael Hayden, Sam Visner, or Maureen Baginsky) responded to Moser’s request for comment and that silence is damning. When you see redacted documents of unclassified material, see nepotistic hiring with direct ties to the third party contractors you’re employing, and hear statements like “9/11 was a gift” financially, it’s impossible not to angrily choose sides.
Don’t think this one-track narrative makes the film less impactful, though, since it was never meant to be an objective look at our government’s greed. Instead A Good American is a portrait. It’s the Bill Binney story and it just happens to take us through the dark abyss of corruption within what should be our most trusted institution. Binney isn’t one to be modest and nor should he. The people Moser talks with corroborate how the NSA was ill-equipped to approach the turn of the century’s digital age boom correctly whether through hubris, incompetence, or both. Bill was positioned to invent the crazy idea of mapping every person on the internet through meta data and figure out which threads between them were causes for concern. He succeeded.
This success spurs the too-insane-not-to-be-true plotline of failure on behalf of the NSA to prevent lost lives. ThinThread’s unwittingly positioned itself to destroy those in power, prove millions spent on an inferior project code-named Trailblazer were an unequivocal waste, and conclude that the transition from government standing as an entity to protect citizens into one profiting off their wellbeing had completed. Could ThinThread have prevented 9/11 if those in position to allow it to do so didn’t have dollar signs clouding their vision? Moser delivers myriad first-hand accounts saying yes and no evidence other than hearsay has been found to hypothesize it couldn’t. And for Binney this sense of defeat wasn’t new—he saw this same dissolution of trust in the 70s yet believed it may yet change.
It’s therefore crucial to delve back into the past via Binney’s stories juxtaposed against silent, highly-produced re-enactments. We must understand what it is he does and how well-respected he became as a result to comprehend just how bad things got to suddenly dismiss him and the work he had created so vehemently. Unfortunately, because the film is really little more than a talking head account of events interspersed with media scenes from the aftermath of tragedies, it can be very dry. Don’t get me wrong, Moser does a wonderful job adding attractive computer-illustrated representations of ThinThread and constructs the plot’s trajectory out of order for larger impact, but it’s difficult not to wish for more regardless.
I therefore see A Good American as a fantastic appetizer explaining what exactly went on. It depicts a hero to applaud and sympathize with while also ensuring we know who the enemy is at the top of the pyramid. But it’s just one piece of the bigger issue. This is “Person of Interest’s” Harold Finch creating his super computer with an understanding of its reach while the government pries it from his hands to exploit that reach at the detriment of our privacy and lives. But where does it go next? Binney and the others aren’t in hiding like Edward Snowden because they pretty much blew the whistle on unclassified facts their former bosses were simply trying to hide from view. What’s the larger story at-hand?
I initially took this question as a slight, but it’s actually a commendation. Moser set out to share one man’s tale of heartbreak in the country he could have helped remain safe without going to the “dark side” and in turn lose the moral high ground inhabited before the War on Terror. That goal was met and exceeded because I now know who Bill Binney is and what ThinThread can do. It’s so enlivened me with anger, disappointment, and excitement that I want to learn more. The film is a call to action and if audiences around the country leave feeling as I do, maybe officials with clear eyes to revisit ThinThread’s blind encryption can be elected. There’s still an opportunity to do the right thing.
courtesy of the film’s website