On September 12, 2001, Bill Binney snuck back into work at the NSA dressed like cleaning staff so he could try to help understand who had attacked the United States. A top NSA mathematician, Binney had rolled out a sophisticated metadata analysis system called ThinThread, only to have it canceled less than a month before 9/11. Top executives at the agency had decided a clunky program called Trailblazer, contracted out to the intelligence contractor giant SAIC, would be NSA’s future, not the cheaper, more effective and privacy-protective ThinThread.
While NSA Director General Michael Hayden had sent most NSA staffers home on 9/11 and the day after —hence Binney’s disguise — the contractors were hard at work. As Binney describes in “A Good American“ — a documentary about Binney due for wider release in September — some contractors working in his unit had gotten a warning. “While I was in there trying to look at the material on my computer, the president of the contracting group that I had working on ThinThread came over to me and said that he’d just been in a contractor meeting” with a former top SAIC official who moved back to NSA, supporting Trailblazer. The contractors, it turns out, were warned not to embarrass companies like SAIC, which (the implication is) had just failed to warn about the biggest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. “Do not embarrass large companies,” the former SAIC manager, according to Binney, said to the other contractor. “You do your part, you’ll get your share, there’s plenty for everybody.” Stay quiet about the failures that led to 9/11, and you’ll be financially rewarded.
It turns out there was plenty for SAIC and the NSA executives who had backed them to be embarrassed about. Binney and a bunch of close associates quit NSA when the Administration rolled out a new, illegal wiretap program called Stellar Wind in the weeks after 9/11. But another senior NSA official, Thomas Drake — an ally of Binney’s — decided to run the data already in NSA’s possession against ThinThread some months later to see whether ThinThread could reveal anything about the attack. Let’s “find out if there’s any information of the 9/11 attack that we should have known about but didn’t,” in Drake’s words.