Could ‘A Good American’ William Binney Have Prevented 9/11 and Other Terrorist Attacks?

Could 'A Good American' William Binney Have Prevented 9/11 and Other Terrorist Attacks?
Could ' Good American' William Binney Have Prevented 9/11 and Other Terrorist Attacks?

These are questions that have been raised in recent years in Madrid, in London, and in the US after 9/11. 

So in a tragic way, the latest atrocity makes the documentary “A Good American” even more timely. The film had its North American premiere at DOC NYC and hit theaters this weekend. For many it will make upsetting viewing. 

Directed by Austrian Friedrich Moser, it charts the former NSA analyst William Binney’s development of ThinThread, a targeted surveillance system that Binney and his colleagues claim would have categorically prevented 9/11 – had the agency not sidelined their work in favor of a rival system that was generating huge amounts of income for both the agency and the private sector, but proved to be a disaster. 

The film further deals with the NSA’s mass surveillance post 9/11, exposed by Binney himself when he turned whistleblower, and more controversially by Edward Snowdon, with the assertion that ThinThread would still answer the terrorist threat without snooping on innocent citizens.

With the ferociously intelligent and committed Binney at its centre, the film is a fascinating, sometimes jaw-dropping account of gifted individuals thwarted by self-serving superiors, with tragic results. 
Moser’s previous film was “The Brussels Business,” which investigated the questionable influence of lobbyists in the EU capital. I caught up with him as “A Good American” had its world premiere in Copenhagen.

How did you come to this story?

I was developing a film about how dictatorships around the world, as well as European countries are using illegally exported surveillance software from the United States. We were pitching this story at the Sheffield documentary film festival in 2013, when Snowdon came out with his revelations. And it was clear that those revelations were magnitudes bigger than ours. It was also clear that Laura Poitras would have to make the film about him. 

But I have a degree in contemporary history and am always interested in the evolution of things. So I was looking for somebody on my list of interviewees whose personal story could take us from the Cold War to the situation today. Binney responded very quickly. I had no idea about the ThinThread story at all. I had him come over to Vienna for four days of interviews. He tells me this story. And I go “holy shit.”

When I asked him why nobody had touched this, his answer was, “Nobody asked me.”This is very typical of Bill Binney, the modesty that he has, besides being brilliant. Austria is such a small, unimportant country that you don’t run across these stories. Being offered this one on a plate, I thought “I have to make this.”

Would you say there’s value in coming to it as an outsider?
I think what privileged me over American filmmakers was that when you are inside a forest, you can’t see the forest for the trees. I could see the forest. I could say, “The story is not the whistle-blowing. ThinThread is the story.” 
There are still so many strands that have ended up in the film: the creation of this incredible tool, the lost opportunity to prevent 9/11, the introduction of mass surveillance. Where do you see its focus?

One of the main things we wanted to get across was the Alan Turing, or “A Beautiful Mind” element, someone finding solutions for a problem in a beautiful way; and this is someone who cares about more than just his job, but the whole of society, who’s seen the bigger picture.

Storywise, 9/11 is the hook. But this is not just a film about the programme that would have prevented 9/11, it’s also about the perfect alternative to mass surveillance that has been kept secret by governments. The technology behind ThinThread hasn’t changed. Bill is in talks with one European government to implement this kind of approach.

The senior figures in the NSA declined to participate in the film, which leaves you with Binney and a few others either involved with or sympathetic to ThinThread. How disappointed were you not to be able to include the other side?

As a documentary filmmaker, I’m a fan of Errol Morris and Adam Curtis. If you think of “The Fog of War,” it’s not just about the factual aspects of the story, it’s about diving into somebody’s mind, and it’s about ethics. I thought that if Errol Morris could manage with one person, five should be sufficient. 

Can you say something about the title?

When my colleagues and I were brainstorming titles, I said “Actually it’s about a good American.” Bill is a patriotic person, but not the kind who shouts out loud and waves a flag and cries “We have to go to war.” It’s what I define as old school. When I was growing up in the Eighties, America seemed way more free than Austria at the time, more liberal and open as a society. They had Rock’n’Roll and we had [Kurt] Waldheim and all the old and new Nazis. Of course, you don’t see deeper into a foreign country’s society as a teenager. But I had this general impression that Americans were the kind of people who were standing tall, who would fight for their freedom of speech, for their rights and liberties. And strangely enough I rediscovered many of these character traits in Bill Binney and his story, at a time when his country had changed so profoundly and actually become the real threat to those values.

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