“A Good American”: The story of Bill Binney, whose metadata analysis system at the NSA should have prevented 9/11

A Good American”, directed by Friedrich Moser and based on his book, tells the story of (Bill) William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, and of the metadata analysis tool he helped develop over several decades, which should have prevented 9/11.

The film opens with a woman calling her family from one of the hijacked planes, already knowing that other planes have been crashed. She may be on Flight 93. The film soon shows us the aftermath of the February 1993 truck bombing in the basement parking garage of the old World Trade Center, which had been intended to take out a load bearing abutment.

The film then gives us a retrospective biography of Binney, who enlisted in the Army into an intelligence program in 1965 to avoid drafting into combat.  One of my chess playing friends at GWU enlisted for Army intelligence for four years in 1967, so I remember this. Binney spent some time in Turkey spying on the Soviet Union (near a base that had been surrendered) after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Over time, Binney worked on tools that would enable the military to predict enemy events based strictly on metadata that did not require identifying people. It was possible to predict the Tet offensive in 1968, although the tool wasn’t used adequately.  It was used better in predicting the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia.

The NSA did not do a particularly good job at first in shifting from analogue to digital intelligence (Edward Snowden would not appear for some time). But other terror events, like in 1998, and then the attack on the Cole in 2000, would have made it apparent just how determined Al Qaeda was to undermine secular American life.

During this time, there was a lot of internal politicking to get funds from Congress, and a revolving door of people who retired from the NSA and became contractors at SAIC.  Financial gain compromised good judgment, as the metadata tools could have detected 9/11 if deployed properly.  Important components of the system were Trailblazer Project and Thinthread.

Binney retired on Oct. 31, 2001, after 9/11 and a horrible sequence of anthrax attacks. But in 2007, the FBI raided his home, claiming he had compromised classified information as a whistleblower after he left.

William Binney has been active recently in retirement on the post-Trump-election and Russia-gate investigations, meeting with Pompeo, NBCNews story here.  The details are likely to evolve quickly.

Name:  “A Good American”
Director, writer:  Friedrich Moser
Released:  2015
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant, 2017/11/7
Length:  100
Rating:  NA (PG-13)
Companies:  Gravitas Venturas
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2017 at 4:15 PM EST)

“Jason Bourne”: a recap of Ludlum’s novels, but also hits the cybersecurity issue hard

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Name: Jason Bourne
Director, writer:  Paul Greengrass (Robert Ludlum)
Released:  2016/7
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/8/14, Regal Ballston Common, small auditorium, sold out, Sunday night
Length 123
Rating PG-13
Companies: Universal, Kennedy-Marshall
Link: official site

Jason Bourne”, now simply the title of the latest movie of the franchise, directed by Paul Greengrass and produced in part by Matt Damon (so can he produce my “Epiphany”), is indeed a concoction of all the clichés from Robert Ludlum’s spy novels.

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But it covers the issue territory well.  We learn that CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, of course) can shut down any power grid in any country he chooses with Stuxtnet-like malware any time it suits the government’s purposes.  That already gives a nod to Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” (se Aug. 12).  And this time we learn the entire story of how Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, now all of 45 but still “thmooth” when it fulfills enough fantasies to so be) got into Black Ops (particularly “Treadstone”, which was supposed to stop the civilization-ending terror attacks like EMP), and how the government manipulated nis selective amnesia.

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The movie has enough exotic settings – the most realistic looking is Greece, and the film gives a nod to the debt problems and austerity imposed by the EU (the film was shot well before Brexit).   It touches Rome, and especially Berlin, Germany, the central station areas I roamed in 1999.  Finally, the film winds up with the greatest car chase of all time on the strip of Las Vegas, with enough one-way driving crashes to surely build up a huge fatality count. It missed a chance to over poker tournaments or the technique of card-counting (the movie “21”).

Then there is the Silicon Valley startup, “Deep Dream” founded by Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), although before the final car chase scene and mass shooting at a hotel event, there’s a welcoming that calls for a Jesse Eisenberg by “Now You See Me”.  The speech also pays a nod to Edward Snowden’s concern about privacy and surveillance.

Nicky (Julia Stiles) is the bad girl who does a lot of the hacking, and Heather (Alicia Vikaander) discovers the hack, probably not in time to save the world’s power grids forever.

Much of the film’s incidentals were shot in Tenerife.

(Published: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“1971” documents the activist breaking of an FBI office near Philadelphia, pre-Watergate

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Name: 1971
Director, writer:  Johanna Hamilton
Released:  2014
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Netflix, 2015/6/11
Length 79 minutes
Rating NA  (PG-13?)
Companies: Candescent Films, Fork Films
Link: Facebook

1971”, directed by Johanna Hamilton, documents the story of a break-in of a small FBI office in Media PA (suburb of Philadelphia) on March 9. 1971, exposing the FBI’s surveillance (“COINTELPRO”) on “dissident” groups opposing not only the Vietnam war but also promoting women’s and perhaps gay rights.  The group called itself the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI”   The film content would resembled that of the book by Betsy Medsger, “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret F.B.I.

The film starts with a shot of an attractive young man picking a lock.  The office was in the second floor of a humdrum four-story apartment building near the Delaware county courthouse.  In those days, files were mostly paper and had not been entered into computers.  The activists copied some files and mailed them to major newspapers.  The Washington Post was the first to publish.  The whole episode looks forward to the eventual publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times, but, more importantly, to the cascade of media-related events that would follow Watergate.

The film covers J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with non-conformity, including wearing long hair (something that bothered my own father). I remember my own father’s warning when I started to go to NYC to explore the gay community in 1973, “They’ll have you followed”.  I thought this was paranoid, but maybe he was right. In the book “Stranger Among Friends” (1996), by Bill Clinton supported David Mixner, the author reports being set up as “gay” by the FBI in 1969 in a shockingly transparent sting.  In fact, the very first print leaflet of the Washington Blade in 1969 shows this paranoia (see illustration).

Some of the activists were married with kids, and took the position that having families did not obscure their supposed “moral duty” to protest. I remember this attitude with the Peoples Party of New Jersey, which I “spied on” in 1972;  the people tended to look at even the professional middle class (me, at the time) as “parasites” needing Maoist re-education.

The film also covers a burglary of a draft board in Camden NJ (nearby).  The board would have used paper records and obviously raiding a draft board could comport with protesting the war.

The participants (like Bill Davidson, Bonnie and Bob Raines, Bob Williamson) escaped long prison sentences (because of jury sympathy) and led relatively normal, even professional lives.

(Published: Sunday, June 12, 2016, at 11 AM EDT)

“Killswitch” examines overzealous government copyright enforcement and surveillance on Internet

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Name: Killswitch
Director, writer: Ali Akbarzadeh
Released:  2014
Format:  regular aspect, video film
When and how viewed: 2016/5/25, from distributor site (small $$), Vimeo
Companies: Akorn, CineCities
Link: official site and viewing window

Killswitch”, in 73 minutes, shows us how Internet freedom is attack from established legacy corporate interests and from gratuitous government surveillance and prosecutorial overreach, often as an indirect result of corporate lobbying.  The film summarizes, with some detail in biography, the accomplishments and perils of Aaron Swartz (ending in tragedy) and Edward Snowden, and focuses on three main interview subjects: Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, and Peter Ludlow.  It also chronicles the defeat of PIPA and SOPA (Stop On-line Piracy Act of 2011) by Swartz’s activism, which included shutting down Wikipedia and some other free sites for one day in January 2012 to make a point.

The film characterizes “the hacktivist” as a nerd who repurposes the Internet infrastructure for activism. It cites Twitter as the most adopted platform for politics, citing the Arab spring, but neglecting to mention the abuse by ISIS “recruiting”.

The aggressive action by government against some infringers, mostly concerning copyright and “piracy”, has been abetted by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.   The Act, as per the film, views violation of a providers TOS (“terms of service”) as a possibly prosecutable crime. (The Act may have been motivated by a sensational Hollywood sci-fi film “War Games” in 1982.)  I can recall a cyberbullying prosecution back around 2007 justified by violation of Myspace’s TOS, in pre-Facebook days.  The government has, most of all in the copyright-related cases, tended to prosecute people to make examples of them (most of all Swartz, by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who also would be involved in prosecuting Dzhohkar Tsarnaev (the film shows a clip of the Boston Marathon bombing to make an indirect point).  The film notes the career of former Senator Chris Dodd, who went to work for the MPAA.  I’ve always wondered if what Hollywood worries about is not so much direct piracy (really, do  people who can’t afford $15 premium 3-D tickets but watch pirated DVD’s affect their bottom line that much), but “amateur” competition, from films like this one, which can capture not so much consumer dollars as consumer time at home.  (Even Mark Cuban admitted that to me an email about his “Blogmaverick” one time.) The film hints that government harassment is a way to send a message to introverted people (mostly young men) who are “too smart” to deal with other people more conventionally.

The NSA surveillance issue is a bit of a different beast.  Here the film takes the position that the government is collecting so much information that it really can’t see the real threats, missing 9/11 and the Boston Marathon incident.

The name of the film suggests another concept not covered: the idea of an “Internet kill switch”, which a president could try to pull in a national security emergency.  I think there are real concerns that Donald Trump in particular might use such a facility, particularly to shut down user generated “amateur” content that doesn’t pay for itself.

The film does not seem to be available on Amazon or Netflix, but can be watched on Vimeo from the Website for $5 by credit card or Paypal.  The technical production values are quite impressive.

Related films include “The Internet’s Own Boy” (2014, Brian Knappenberger), “Deep Web” (2015, Alex Winter), “Citizenfour” (2014, Laura Poitras)  and “The Thread” (2015, Greg Barker), and Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” (2014).

(Reviewed: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 67 PM EDT)