As America marks the 19th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers by terrorists, it is a good time to ask when General Michael Hayden, head of the NSA at the time of 9/11, will come forward and explain why the agency was unable to detect the chatter among those who had banded together to wreak havoc in the US.
Before I continue, let me point out that nothing of what appears below is new; it was all reported some four years ago, but mainstream media have conspicuously avoided pursuing the topic because it would probably trouble some people in power.
The tale of how Hayden came to throw out a system known as ThinThread, devised by probably the most brilliant metadata analyst, William Binney, at that time the technical director of the NSA, has been told in a searing documentary titled A Good American.
Binney devised the system which would look at links between all people around the globe and added in measures to prevent violations of Americans’ privacy. Cryptologist Ed Loomis, analyst Kirk Wiebe, software engineer Tom Drake and Diane Roark, senior staffer at the House Intelligence Committee, worked along with him.
A skunkworks project, Binney’s ThinThread system handled data as it was ingested, unlike the existing method at the NSA which was to just collect all the data and analyse it later.
But when Hayden took the top job in the mid-1990s, he wanted to spread the NSA’s work around and also boost its budget – a bit of empire building, no less. Binney was asked what he could do with a billion dollars and more for the ThinThread system but said he could not use more than US$300 million.
What followed was surprising. Though ThinThread had been demonstrated to be able to sort data fast and accurately and track patterns within it, Hayden banned its use and put in place plans to develop a system known as Trailblazer – which incidentally had to be trashed many years later as an unmitigated disaster after many billions had gone down the drain.
Trailblazer was being used when September 11 came around.
Drake points out in the film that after 9/11, they set up ThinThread again and analysed all the data flowing into the NSA in the lead-up to the attack and found clear indications of the terrorists’ plans.
At the beginning of the film, Binney’s voice is heard saying, “It was just revolting… and disgusting that we allowed it to happen,” as footage of people leaping from the burning Trade Centre is shown.
After the tragedy, ThinThread, sans its privacy protections, was used to conduct blanket surveillance on Americans. Binney and his colleagues left the NSA shortly thereafter.
Hayden is often referred to as a great American patriot by American talk-show host Bill Maher. He was offered an interview by the makers of A Good American but did not take it up. Perhaps he would like to break his silence now.