‘A Good American’ screens Monday at Paepcke Auditorium
If You Go …
What: ‘A Good American,’ presented by the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Monday, Aug. 1, 7 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: William Binney, NSA whistleblower and subject of the film, will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A.
A provocative new documentary claims that the U.S. government shut down an intelligence program that could have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attacks just weeks before they occurred.
“A Good American,” directed and produced by Friedrich Moser, will screen today as part of the Aspen Institute and Aspen Film’s ongoing “New Views” series.
The titular American is William Binney, a mathematician and veteran data analyst who was forced out of the National Security Agency in the wake of 9/11. The film portrays Binney as the granddaddy of metadata — the so-called “data about the data” that received widespread attention following the Edward Snowden leaks. (Viewers may recognize Binney from “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary on Snowden and his revelations of global surveillance programs.)
This admiring profile of Binney traces his career from Cold War code breaker for the U.S. Army to groundbreaking systems developer up through his unceremonious ouster from the federal government.
Along the way, he developed a genius for cryptography and crunching data. Early in his career, in 1968, he predicted the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the bloody Tet Offensive in Vietnam by evaluating metadata. But, in what would become a common refrain through his intelligence career, his predictions fell on deaf ears.
After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the U.S. government began pooling together resources for better intelligence gathering on terrorists. Binney and a team of NSA analysts launched an initiative that would soon map the relationships among 2.5 billion phones and internet chatter around the world.
Binney developed a program called ThinThread as a way to combat terrorism in the digital age, tracking patterns of cyber and phone communication. (An animated visualization of the network of metadata does more to explain what it is than the past few years of news stories and congressional hearings since the Snowden revelations have.)
“This little research organization had the keys to NSA’s future,” Binney says in the film.
Binney’s ThinThread tracked relationships among billions of people having trillions of interactions in what would become the most powerful intelligence tool in history. But, realizing the threats to privacy it posed, he built in encryption and safeguards that would protect the privacy of ordinary people.
“You invade everyone’s privacy,” he says in the film. “That is just not compatible with a democracy. That’s like the Stasi on super-steroids.”
The program, Binney claims, “absolutely would have prevented 9/11.” But the NSA shut it down three weeks before the attacks in what “A Good American” portrays as a craven act of greed and cronyism by his superiors. A report on what ThinThread found on the 9/11 hijackers remains classified.
Binney will be in attendance today at the Aspen screening for a post-screening Q&A.
Former NSA Director Michael Hayden is the villain of the chilling film. Binney and his colleagues claim that Hayden and his underlings prioritized funding for NSA and money for defense contractors above good intelligence and saving lives.
“It wasn’t about money; it was about protecting this country and the free world,” Binney says in the film. “It was just sickening.”
Hayden, they claim, scrapped ThinThread for the far more expensive, far less effective Trailblazer program while flouting American citizens’ right to privacy.
They also claim the feds persecuted Binney and other whistleblowers, raiding their homes after they sought to make public the pre-9/11 intelligence failures. The film opens dramatically with Binney recalling his fear that the government might kill him.
In the months after 9/11, the NSA used Binney’s software to begin collecting data on every U.S. citizen, removing the encryptions that he installed to protect privacy rights and beginning the massive data collection that Snowden would reveal years later. When Binney learned that was happening in October 2001, he left the NSA.
Though much of “A Good American” is a sober and straightforward talking-head documentary, it plays out like a thriller and makes excellent use of a dramatic score and re-enactments of Binney’s early days in intelligence. It deftly characterizes the modern-day Binney by following him around as he attends to hobbies like working math proofs, playing chess and stargazing with a telescope.
None of Binney’s NSA superiors agreed to be interviewed for “A Good American,” which ends up only telling one side of the story. That said, it’s quite a compelling and disturbing story.
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