“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)

“Legion of Brothers”: CNN airs Sundance documentary of the early days of Bush’s war in Afghanistan using the Green Berets

Legion of Brothers”, directed by Greg Barker, aired on CNN Sept. 24, focuses on the very beginning of the “War on Terror” announced by President George W. Bush after 9/11.

I remember a Sunday afternoon, around Oct. 6, 2001, when Bush announced from the White House his first major steps to the American public in a televised address. The major networks allowed an airing if a very personalized address from Osama Bin Laden to follow.  There would be another such video screed on December 13, the day of my layoff.

But this film follows what is rather little known, about the efforts of a group of about ten Green Berets to start the overflow of the Taliban, as a “Direct Action Team” (and phrase “Smoke ‘em”), which this film tracks for its 79 minutes. The battle scenes are quite graphic – it’s hard to believe that combat journalists could get such footage. The narrative intersperses with scenes back home, especially in Texas.  The two main soldiers are Jason Armine and Mark Nutsch.  Some men are badly ounded, as one loses an arm.

Sebastian Junger would interview Northern Alliance leader Massoud himself before the latter’s death.  Junger would later help produce “Restrepo” and “Korengal” and write the Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Into the Valley of Death”.

What would follow, of course, was Bush’s own war in Iraq, with over 7000 deaths (combined with Afghanistan), and the whole “Stop-Loss” issue (actually a 2008 film from Paramount) with what amounted to a backdoor draft.

It’s ironic that on Sept. 9, 2001, HBO premiered “Bands of Brothers”, set in World War II, both Europe and the Pacific.

Name:  “Legion of Brothers”
Director, writer:  Greg Barker
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/9/24
Length:  79
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN Films, Gravitas, Sundance Selects
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017, at 9:30 PM EDT)

CNN’s “The Reagan Show” looks like an oldie

CNN Films offered the collage “The Reagan Show” on Labor Day evening, directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez.

The film, running 74 minutes (allowing commercials to fit into a 90 minute format), written with Francisco Bello and Josh Alexander) is placed in the old 4:3 aspect ratio of television in the 1980s, and comprises many of Reagan’s speeches and appearances, particularly in relation to relations with the Soviet Union.

A highlight is Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars speech, which attracted some degree of ridicule;  nevertheless, that idea (34 years later) seems to be the buttress strategy for handling North Korea’s grandiose and acceleration of development of missiles and now thermonuclear weapons.   You would think that in this many decades, NORAD ought to be good at this.  Yet, I recall the film “War Games” (1982) and the two “Red Dawn” films.  We all know about the exchanges with Gorbachev, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall after Reagan left office, and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union as we knew it.

There’s one spot where Reagan says “Make America Great Again”.

There’s also some footage from all of his old black and white movies from the 1940s…

There is some coverage of the Iran contra with Oliver North (who would later have his own radio talk show in the 1990s).  But there is no mention of the AIDS crisis, or even of the 1981 assassination attempt.

Name:  “The Reagan Show
Director, writer:  Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez, Francisco Bello Josh Alexander
Released:  2017
Format:  1.37:1 TV
When and how viewed:  2017/9/4 CNN
Length:  74
Rating: NA
Companies: Gravitas Venturas, CNN
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 2 PM EDT)

“Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”, directed by David Fairhead, focuses on the work of the professionals at the NASA Mission Control facilities, especially in Houston, putting men on the moon.

The film opens with a shot of the work area, and oddly someone is smoking, but this is back in 1970 perhaps.  Then it recreates the dilemma of the blown oxygen tanks that created the story for the 1995 Universal hit “Apollo 13” (directed by Ron Howard), which I saw twice, the second time on a cross-country flight back from California.

The documentary presents the challenge of Sputnik in 1957, which I remember well.   These were the days when the mantra was “get all the math and science you can”, and JFK’s “Ask Not”.

I can imagine what working there on a mission would have been like.  Men wore jackets and ties then.  In my youth, I thought computer technology would take us to space by the time I was in middle age;  instead, it miniaturized and gave me the ability self-publish.

The film moves to the tragedy in 1967 with Apollo 1 when three astronauts were burned to death in a ground accident.  The workers were changed to face their personal accountability for mistakes that led to the fire.  Some of the veterans say that the lessons learned from this accident made the rest of the space program possible; a lot more mentoring happened in the workplace.

The film presents the December 1968 (Christmas Eve) manned Apollo 8 orbital flight around the moon, with real BW footage.

Soon it covers Apollo 11, which on July 20, 1969 landed man on another planet for the first time ever.  This happened three weeks after Stonewall.  I was at Fort Eustis but probably in the best physical shape of my life.  The world was pivoting, for the better for me.

The last part of the film reviews Apollo 13 — not only the problem in space, but the working conditions, the cigarettes, the BO, the 48-hours straight on the job.

What kind of mission control will it take to send a crew to Mars – six months each way, to live there.

What kind of person would want to go for several years, or maybe move there? Or perhaps live on a space station near Europa or Titan?

I visited the Houston center myself in 1984, Wiki link.

Name:  “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”
Director, writer:  David Fairhead
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  99
Rating:  G
Companies:  Gravitas
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017 at 1 AM EDT)

ELIAN: the controversy over returning a little boy to Castro’s Cuba in 2000

ELIAN” (2017), directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, tells the biographical story of Elian Gonzalez, now 23, who became the topic of an international controversy over immigration from Cuba late in the Clinton administration.

The film starts with the amateur boatlift in November 1999 of Elian’s mother and boyfriend, when the mother drowns (not being able to swim), and 5-year-old Elian is rescued (almost as if he were Moses) and brought to Miami.

The film gives a quick history of the rise of Fidel Castro and the expropriation of the wealthy, who fled to Florida in the late 50s.  It covers the Bay of Pigs but oddly omits mention of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the film covers the political effects of the anti-communist “right wing” in Miami on the Cuban issues, to the point that it sometimes could lead to political violence on both sides, with rather zombie-like behavior from crowds. It doesn’t directly mention the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which led for calls for people to host asylum seekers in some southern states.

The film returns to the narrative of Elian. Back in Cuba, Elian’s father starts the legal process to get Elian back, and soon a public legal battle erupts between the dad and the “extended family” in Miami.  Attorney General Janet Reno gets involved (the film mentions Reno’s role in Waco in 1993) with her determination to apply the law literatlly.   In a rogue video, Elian gives some evidence of wanting to go back. But later he records an indoor video saying he wants to stay in the U.S.

Eventually the courts decide to return Elian to Cuba and considerable controversy happens, with demonstrations, after the “shock force” INS raid necessary for Elian’s repatriation. The scenes in the film get pretty violent.  I don’t recall this from the news accounts.

The film maintains that the Elian incident helped Florida go for Bush, after the recounts.  But the film also brings up the fiasco with the chads in Palm Beach County.

Elian, as a grown man, is dedicated “to the people” and to modern communism, not to differentiating himself from others for his own sake (however articulate and charismatic his personal manner seems). Yet he was made what he is today in Miami, the film says. At the end, he addresses Cuban youth. “The American dream” was not for him;  a future Cuban revolution may be so.

Name:  “ELIAN
Director, writer:  Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, much footage is cropped
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/8/24
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN, Gravitas Venturas
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“Love v. Kentucky”: How the Bluegrass State worked its way into marriage equality

Love v. Kentucky” (2017), directed by Alex Schuman, documents the litigation by six same-sex couples in Kentucky and the role these cases would play in the final Obergefell v. Hodges opinion at the US Supreme Court in 2015, making recognition of same-sex marriages among all states the laws of the land.

The couples were often elderly.  At least one or two had raised children, and one had survived non-Hodgkins lymphoma of one husband, with the other shaving in sympathy.  One of the couples was Timothy Love and Lawrence Ysunza (USA Today story).

The state tried to use arguments based on “tradition” (Robert Schuler’s old idea from the “Hour of Power” at the Crystal Cathedral in CA back in the 80s), which amounted to nothing.  Then the state tried to make a connection to the need for reliable procreation.

But there was little said about how heterosexual couples were “injured”, other than the fact that their social supports didn’t stand out or identify them (as reproductively heterosexual) as clearly once gay marriage was legal.

The film doesn’t get to the narrative of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who went to jail for refusing to sign her name to same-sex marriage certificates, until the end. The governor pushed through a law saying that clerks don’t have to sign their own names to certificates if their religious beliefs are affronted (by lawful duties in their public employment which normally uses their names).  NBC News has a good summary of the story here.

The justices in Kentucky noted how quickly same-sex marriage had evolved in public opinion. In 2006, neighboring Virginia had tried to shut down same-sex marriage (and even civil union) with the Marshall-Newman amendment.

In the 1970s, I once reported to a manager whose last name was “Husbands”.

Wiki on same-sex marriage in Kentucky.

Wikipedia image of downtown Louisville KY, similar to film.

Fact table:

Name: “Love v. Kentucky”
Director, writer:  Alex Schuman
Released:  2017
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  Amazon instant; also YouTube is available $3.99 to $4.99
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Gravitas Ventures
Link:  official

Picture: My trip to Cumberland Gap, Aug. 2016
(Posted: Monday, April 17, 2017, at 11 AM EDT)

 

“Requiem for the American Dream” is Noam Chomsky’s best interview film

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Name: Requiem for the American Dream
Director, writer:  by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott
Released:  2015
Format:  video or film, standard
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/5/18
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Site: Link

Requiem for the American Dream” (2015), directed by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, is the best Chomsky interview film so far.  The film, stitched together from four recent interviews with Chomsky’s “ten points” (below), has plenty of interesting animation and a lot of interesting archival historical footage that is shown while he talks.  Most of the time, the view has something other than Chomsky to watch.

My own introduction to Chomsky came while I lived in Minneapolis. Late nights, I would pass Shinders book store on Hennepin on the way to the Saloon, in the months after 9/11.  I often saw paperbacks by Chomsky on right wing conspiracies in the stacks.

The title of the film tells us the theme: most average Americans have had most of their opportunity taken away from them by the wealthy and powerful. Chomsky calls our system now a “plutonomy”, extracting from a “precariat”, or “precarious proletariat” (and my first unpublished novel, after all, had been titled “The Proles”).  The plutonomy undermines democracy deliberately because it sees the “precariat” a threat that could rise up and expropriate, pretty much according to Marxist theory.

Let’s run through the ten methods that the ruling class uses.

(1)    “Reduce democracy”, the basic idea.

(2)    “Shape ideology”.  Donald Trump is trying to do that.

(3)    “Redesign economy”, particularly through “fincialization”, as explained in the book “Makers and Takers” by Rana Faroohar May 14 here. Sometimes Chomsky suggests that things are much more unequal know than ever before because of this process, but at other times, he admits that inequality and labor exploitation were pretty awful in past generations (slavery, the sweatshops of the industrial revolution).  Indeed they were. The 50s and 60s are a bit of a “golden age”, but not really, given the need for the Civil Rights movement, and then Vietnam.

(4)    “Shift burden”, particularly to workers, whose jobs become more precarious even if management says the issues are still mostly job performance.

(5)    “Attack solidarity”.  This sounds like something about labor unions, but that comes up later. This is more about social solidarity.  Michael Moore often criticizes the attitude “I got mine”.  There are questions like, why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have kids?  Chomsky talks about the proposals to privatize social security here and sees it as a wealth-sharing, whereas most of us feel we paid for our own benefits with our own FICA taxes, a point he doesn’t mention.

(6)    “Run the regulators”. This would seem to refer to loosening of financial regulations, that allow crashes (we didn’t have any in the 50s or 60s – the crashes really started with the savings and loan in the late 1980s, but the biggest was the 2008 crash, followed by the “too big to fail” idea.

(7)    “Engineer elections”, with more and more money for campaigns.

(8)    “Keep the Rabble in Line”.  Here Chomsky talks about unions, saying people don’t have sufficient right to organize (solidarity again).  He seems to be referring to “right to work” laws.  But there is also a problem in non-union salaried environments, where people with fewer responsibilities (often the childless) can work for less, or work free overtime, and lowball the system.

(9)    “Manufacture consent”, where he talks about public relations companies and consumerism, especially now online.

(10) “Marginalize populations”.  Here he says that free speech is not itself in the Bill of Rights (what about the First Amendment?) and didn’t come into serious consideration until the 1960s.  He says that the plutonomy tries to restrict the number of people who have influence, but totally misses the contributions of the “Fifth Estate”.

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In the end, Chomsky says that the ruling elite doesn’t like to see  ordinary people talking about “class”.  Indeed, “class” has something to do with what people you have some control over, at least indirectly.

Chomsky is indeed talking about how the “overlords” (to use a term of Arthur C. Clarke, as if we approached a “Childhood’s End”) manipulate classes of people, as if this were the main moral concern of the day.  Yet, at the same time, he says, “this is a free country”, as if to say that is pretty unusual in history as a whole.  My own writing inverts all this, and asks how the “man in the middle” (me) is supposed to behave, as if this is the moral question.  Maybe it’s like former Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne’s titling a book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” back in the 90s (1998, Liamworks, which I read after hearing Browne speak at a LPVA convention in 1996).  I indeed grew up with a certain class consciousness, and the idea that if I made good enough grades, I could move into the “good clothes” class and live off the real labor of “The Proles” (link). It sounds like a boorish, snooty, snarky idea. It brings up the idea of personal “rightsizing”, so far an essentially spiritual idea having to do with personal karma.  It would mean learning to walking the shoes of others whom you have depended on without feeling you are brought low yourself.  You have to deal with it.

Some good collateral reading would be Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951).

(Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:30 EDT)