Former CIA Analyst Sues Defense Department to Vindicate NSA Whistleblowers
by Jenna McLaughlin, The Intercept
The controversy dates back to 1996, when Ed Loomis, then a computer systems designer for the NSA, along with his team worked to move the NSA’s collection capabilities from the analog to the digital world. The shift would allow the NSA to scoop up internet packets, stringing them together into legible communications, and automating a process to instantly decide which communications were most interesting, while masking anything from Americans. The prototype, called GrandMaster, would need to ingest vast amounts of data, but only spit out what was most valuable, deleting or encrypting everything else.
Then in the fall of 2001, four passenger airliners were hijacked by terrorists as part of a suicide plot against Washington, D.C., and New York City. The U.S. intelligence community faced a disturbing wakeup call: its vast collection systems had failed to prevent the attacks.
Yet, in response, the NSA simply started collecting more data.
The NSA sent out a bid to multiple defense contractors, seeking a program that could collect and analyze communications from phones and the internet. Science Applications Internal Corporation, or SAIC, won the contract, known as Trailblazer. Meanwhile, internally, NSA employees were developing a similar, less costly alternative called ThinThread, a follow-on to GrandMaster. ThinThread would collect online communications, sort them, and mask data belonging to Americans.
Those involved in ThinThread argue that their approach was better than a collect-it-all approach taken by NSA.
“Bulk collection kills people,” says Bill Binney, a former NSA analyst, who rose to be a senior technical official with a dream of automating the agency’s espionage. “You collect everything, dump it on the analyst, and they can’t see the threat coming, can’t stop it,” he says.
Binney built a back-end system — a processor that would draw on data collected by ThinThread, analyze it, look at whether or not the traffic was involves American citizens, and pass on what was valuable for foreign intelligence.
“Bulk acquisition doesn’t work,” agrees Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA senior analyst, who was trying to help convince NSA of ThinThread’s value at the time.
The analysts are drowning in data, and Binney and Wiebe believe ThinThread would have solved the problem by helping the NSA sort through the deluge automatically while protecting privacy using encryption.
But Binney and Wiebe say advocates of ThinThread hit every possible bureaucratic roadblock on the way, sitting in dozens of meetings with lawyers and lawmakers. In the meantime, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA at the time, said he decided to fund an outside contract for a larger effort, focused on gathering all communications, not just those over the internet, as ThinThread was designed to do.
Additionally, while ThinThread masked American communications, Hayden’s legal and technical advisors were concerned the collection itself would be a problem. Some of Hayden’s senior officials at the NSA came from SAIC, the company that won contract to design a proof of concept for Trailblazer.
“A tiny group of people at NSA had developed a capability for next to no money at all to give the government an unprecedented level of access to any number of foreign terrorists,” Eddington says. “Instead that system was shut down in favor of an SAIC boondoggle that cost taxpayers, by my last count, close to a billion dollars.”
He argues the contract, and the “incestuous” relationship between the NSA chief and the contractor never received the scrutiny it deserved. “It was clearly an ethical problem,” Loomis said.
The watchdog agency tasked with oversight of the Department of Defense completed a full investigation into the battle between ThinThread and the Trailblazer. The Pentagon inspector general published a heavily redacted version of that investigation in 2011; that report is now the only public record available, aside from the account of the whistleblowers who exposed it.
Despite everything that’s come out about its surveillance programs, the NSA still won’t release the full ThinThread investigation. “I don’t really know what they’re trying to hide,” said Loomis.
Loomis says he thinks those redactions were more for the sake of Hayden’s reputation than protecting real classified information.