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Movie Review: ‘A Good American’ – Whistle-blowers and the NSA

When William Binney, former technical director of the NSA, met with whistle-blower attorney Jesselyn Radack, he said he would never commit suicide. Radack admits in A Good American that she understood the implications of Binney's comment after she heard what had happened to him at the NSA. He was one of a number of whistle-blowers with incriminating evidence against the agency which committed malfeasance then covered up its wrongdoing. Though suicide was never an option for Binney, the appearance of suicide is…

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Summary : What happens when whistle-blowers become the enemy for telling truth in the public interest?

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Frederich Moser, NSA, A Good American, William Binney, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis

The NSA complex from ‘A Good American’ by Frederich Moser (photo from the film)

When William Binney, former technical director of the NSA, met with whistle-blower attorney Jesselyn Radack, he said he would never commit suicide. Radack admits in A Good American that she understood the implications of Binney’s comment after she heard what had happened to him at the NSA. He was one of a number of whistle-blowers with incriminating evidence against the agency which committed malfeasance then covered up its wrongdoing. Though suicide was never an option for Binney, the appearance of suicide is a tactic employed by covert operators who need to silence perceived enemies. Radack was fearful for Binney’s safety during the whistle-blowing case.

The suicide comment, the tape recording of a Flight 93 passenger’s goodbyes, and archival news footage of the Twin Towers’ collapse combine for the striking elements that open A Good American directed by Friedrich Moser. These clips foreshadow the themes of the documentary which reveal how the NSA failed and continues to fail in its mandates to properly protect the American people and to uphold their right to privacy.

Terrorist events still occur (Boston Marathon bombing). Violations of the public’s constitutional rights revealed by Edward Snowden and NSA whistle-blowers like Binney still occur. Both are at the heart of Moser’s documentary which answers why the NSA, CIA, and FBI did not safeguard the American people against 9/11. It questions to what extent the 9/11 failure is part of a systemic ongoing failure today. It answers why there is intelligence monitoring of every innocent American citizen and indicates that there is a surveillance program that can insure a citizens’ right to privacy, while monitoring terrorists.

A Good American, World Trade Center, 9/11, NSA, surveillance

World Trade Center bombing from ‘A Good American’ by Frederich Moser (photo from the film)

Austrian Friedrich Moser, who also wrote and produced the documentary, levels numerous dramatic salvos against the NSA and indirectly other U.S. intelligence agencies that work in concert. Though commissioned to protect and safeguard the American people against terrorism, the evidence provided by the direct testimony of former NSA experts turned whistle-blowers indicates the agency failed miserably at doing its job. Clearly, 9/11 could have been prevented saving thousands of lives. Why didn’t individuals at the top levels of the NSA own up to the egregious negligence and revamp intelligence monitoring to make it more effective?

Moser damningly reveals mismanagement and fraud at the agency through interviews of experts (whistle-blower Thomas Drake-software engineer, former NSA senior executive, whistle-blower William Binney, whistle-blower Ed Loomis, former NSA senior computer programmer, whistle-blower Diane Roark, former senior staffer House Intelligence Committee-NSA account, whistle-blower J.Kirk Wiebe, NSA senior analyst), who were employees of the NSA at the heightened alert of terrorist monitoring in 1993 with the first World Trade Center bombing up until the time they left the NSA and tried to work with other US intelligence agencies.

William Binney, A Good American, NSA, code-breaker

Master NSA code-breaker whistle-blower William Binney, ‘A Good American’ by Frederich Moser (photo from the film)

Along with Diane Roark, these former NSA employees filed a DOD complaint against the agency for corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse, working with Thomas Drake who was still an insider. Ed Loomis states that the conclusions of the final investigative report, which took over 2 1/2 years to assemble, were 98% redacted. These redactions were a blatant cover-up. Today, the entire report remains classified; the systemic corruption at the agency continues covertly.

Using the whistle-blowers’ comments, the filmmaker specifically reveals the background of these events with recreations, interviews, voice-overs, visuals, graphs, archival news footage, and more. He chronicles the prodigious career of code-breaker William Binney who spearheaded an effective terrorist monitoring program. Affirming Binney’s mathematical genius in traffic analysis, Moser provides flashback recreations of Binney’s early service in intelligence and reveals his ethics and his imperative for accuracy. Binney cites hard lessons learned during the Viet Nam War when intelligence ignored by generals resulted in loss of life.

The filmmaker tracks Binney and the others as they explain their establishment of ThinThread, a program which collects metadata and monitors relationships and interactions between and among networks of individuals. ThinThread was digital and ahead of the curve at the NSA which was struggling to reconcile the rapid explosion of the Internet and digital technology. Once Binney and the others saw that the information collected was massive in its sweep, they created algorithms which masked the identities of innocent American citizens and safeguarded their privacy. The program was a powerful, predictive tool for analysts when specific targets were identified and tracked because it cut out all the unnecessary data overload that analysts would drown in. Massive amounts of data hamper analysts from targeting data of terrorist relationships, locations and interactions that move toward real life events.

Thomas Drake, whistle-blower, NSA, A Good American

Thomas Drake former NSA employee and whistle-blower, ‘A Good American’ (photo from the film)

ThinThread went into free fall, Moser reveals, after the leadership of the NSA changed, and General Michael Hayden took over. Binney and others discuss how the NSA was deflected from implementing ThinThread, which was reasonably priced and didn’t waste taxpayer dollars. General Michael Hayden, Maureen Baginski, Sam Visner, and other officials supported an expensive monitoring program created by an insider company (SCIC), tight with NSA former employees. Trailblazer was implemented over ThinThread and proved to be an abject failure as a terrorist monitoring system (stated in the investigative report by the Justice Department in 2005 to answer Binney’s and the other whistle-blowers’ complaint).

Diane Roark had investigated ThinThread and saw that it had proven itself to be worthy of metadata collection without the egregious invasion of American citizens’ privacy. But efficiency and effectiveness were not the mandate of the NSA according to the whistle-blowers. Money was the mandate. NSA officials pushed Congress to appropriate billions for Trailblazer, feathering the nest of the agency and insuring all involved would be paid handsomely.

ThinThread, A Good American, William Binney, NSA, terrorist monitoring system

Metadata program ThinThread that was rejected, ‘A Good American’ (photo from the film)

When 9/11 occurred, the agency was reeling. There was fear about how the agency “dropped the ball.” To counter that, word got out that no one should “embarrass large companies, and everyone was to do their part and if they did, they would get their share because there was plenty for everyone.”

It was around this time that Maureen Baginski (third in command at the NSA), made a cryptic remark, according to Thomas Drake in his interview with Moser. Baginski told NSA staffers, “9/11 is a gift to the NSA.” The irony was that the NSA used Trailblazer; it was inefficient at collecting specific terrorist intelligence but effective at collecting dollars from Congress. According to J.Kirk Wiebe, many millionaires were made. Terrorism intelligence had taken a backseat to the agency’s billion dollar funding.

A Good American, NSA, Ed Loomis, whistle-blower

Ed Loomis, whistle-blower, former NSA employee, ‘A Good American’ (photo from the film)

Because officials at the NSA were determined that ThinThread would not become an embarrassment to Hayden, it was not allowed to be used anywhere else in any U.S. government agency to track terrorist events. For the largest NSA failure in history (9/11), Hayden was promoted twice and Baginski went to the FBI.

Few surmised that 9/11 could have been prevented. To test the theory out, Thomas Drake discusses with Moser how he ran ThinThread for 24-36 hours and found devastating results about Al Qaeda that the NSA had in its data base, but never checked because they were ordered to suspend the program. ThinThread provided details of time, location, travel movements, dispersal patterns, and even showed parts of the plot that were unsuccessful.

NSA, whistle-blowers, A Good American, terrorist monitoring system

‘A Good American’ (photo from the film)

After 9/11, the worst part of the NSA fiasco for the whistle-blowers was that the agency continued to collect massive amounts of data on every American citizen with the back end of the ThinThread program, while the algorithm portion which protected Americans’ privacy was ditched. Every American’s phone records, Internet use, E-Z pass records, credit card usage, photographs (even ones of a very private, sexual nature shared in secret), were swept up by the NSA metadata monitoring system (see the interview of Snowden by John Oliver). According to Binney such massive data collection without protections was like a “Stazi operation on super steroids.”

The whistle-blowers filed a complaint against the NSA for waste, fraud, mismanagement, and negligence. They were operating in the public interest to bring the truth to light. And they were retaliated against.

In the interviews, they state they were arrested by the FBI who broke into their homes, confiscated their evidence and computers, and drew guns on them. They went to jail. Thomas Drake had the Espionage Act thrown at him. Meanwhile, those higher ups guilty of fraud and egregious negligence which cost American lives walked between the raindrops. It was Jesselyn Radack (of the Government Accountability Project), who helped get the whistle-blowers’ cases thrown out when it was proven the evidence against them was fabricated.

This is a devastating film. Its hard truths reveal what is at stake for our civil liberties. These truths are a slap in the face to the American taxpayer. They reveal deception covered up by an agency which is failing to protect us. The irony is that the jeopardy Americans face is from incompetent, self-interested leaders whose moral baseness allows corporate interests, monetary interests, and power to usurp the rights and safety of citizens. These whistle-blowers are true heroes who risked their lives and careers because of the public interest. Would that our elected and appointed leaders have that same moral courage. Sadly, the NSA higher ups refused to be interviewed for the film

These incidents are a tragedy that could be used to improve our terrorist monitoring agencies while protecting American’s privacy. As of yet this has not happened. As of yet only those who would inform/warn the public about what is being done with their money, privacy and safety, have been brought to task. Thankfully, they are alive to corroborate Edward Snowden’s testimony.

This must-see film opens in New York on 3 February and on 10 of February in Los Angeles.


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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.