Obama's Crackdown on Whistleblowers
If Trailblazer was a massive corporate boondoggle, ThinThread was the embodiment of the “skunk team” approach that had made the NSA the crown jewel of US intelligence. It cost less than $3 million, was small enough to be loaded onto a laptop, and included anonymization software that protected the privacy rights of US persons guaranteed in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). And while Trailblazer employed hundreds of contractors, ThinThread was the work of less than a dozen NSA employees and a handful of contractors.
It came out of the NSA’s SIGINT Automation Research Center, or SARC, where Loomis was director of R&D. In the late 1990s, he began working on tackling the Internet and the rapidly growing use of cellphones and e-mail. “I knew more and more intelligence and law enforcement targets would be making use of these cheap commodity electronics,” Loomis told me, sitting in the living room of his Baltimore home. “So I jumped in with both feet.”
The genius of the group was Bill Binney, Loomis’s deputy at SARC. An amiable man who suffers from diabetes, Binney joined the NSA in 1966 while in the Army and began working as a civilian in 1970. In 1997, he was named technical director of SARC’s World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group. “That’s when I started looking at the world,” Binney told me.
While the NSA brass and their corporate advisers believed the Internet could be tamed only by a massive corporate-run program, Binney found that cracking it was relatively simple. The secret was in the numbering system established by telecom providers: every phone has a number, every e-mail has an address, and every computer linked to the Internet has a unique identifier. The encryption systems from the past were “so much more complex,” he says. “This was simple shit.”
ThinThread was basically three programs. The front end, analyzing incoming streams of Internet traffic, had been developed by Loomis. “It could take massive amounts of input and reassemble it in a sensible order,” he says. “And then, with a minimum amount of bandwidth requirements, could provide it to whoever was interested in a particular topic and do it while accommodating all privacy concerns that are required by FISA.” The middle portion was the anonymization software that hid the identities of US persons until there was sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant (Trailblazer had no built-in FISA protections). The back end, built by Binney, was the most powerful element of the system. It translated the data to create graphs showing relationships and patterns that could tell analysts which targets they should look at and which calls should be listened to. Best of all, “it was fully automated, and could even be remotely controlled,” Binney says.
But there was another crucial difference with the Trailblazer model: ThinThread did its automated analysis at the point of interception; Trailblazer downloaded everything flowing over the Internet and analyzed it after the fact with key words and phrases. “Trailblazer made no distinction up front,” says Binney. “They didn’t try to determine ahead of the interception what to listen to. They just took it all.” This model of “taking it all” remains the NSA’s modus operandi, and it is why, Binney and Wiebe say, the agency is building a massive data center in Utah.
The ThinThread prototype went live in the fall of 2000 and, according to my sources, was deployed at two top-secret NSA listening posts. One was the Yakima Research Station in Washington State, which gathers electronic communications from the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. The other was in Germany and focused primarily on Europe. It was also installed at Fort Meade. In addition, several allied foreign intelligence agencies were given the program to conduct lawful surveillance in their own corners of the world. Those recipients included Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. “ThinThread was basically operational,” says Binney. “That’s why we proposed early deployment in January 2001.”
As ThinThread was being tested, word spread throughout the intelligence community that the NSA had a “cheap Trailblazer” that could help with surveillance. One day, Charlie Allen, a legendary figure who was head of collections for the entire intelligence community under George Tenet, came to see it. Black, Baginski and Visner were given demonstrations as well. “But Hayden never visited the SARC,” says Binney. “Not once.” Yet on August 20, 2001—“at 4:30 in the afternoon,” Loomis says, reading from his notes of the meeting—Baginski informed him that ThinThread would not become operational. Why? “It would have made Trailblazer meaningless,” says Binney.
During this time, Binney and Wiebe, who was working on the ThinThread team as a SIGINT analyst, were called in to describe their system to congressional oversight committee staff, in particular a GOP staffer named Diane Roark. Long concerned about the NSA’s technical problems, she demanded that it keep ThinThread alive and provided funds to keep it going (she declined to be interviewed).