NEW YORKER: While most of the N.S.A. was reeling on September 11th, inside SARC the horror unfolded “almost like an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment,” according to J. Kirk Wiebe, an intelligence analyst who worked there. “We knew we weren’t keeping up.” SARC was led by a crypto-mathematician named Bill Binney, whom Wiebe describes as “one of the best analysts in history.” Binney and a team of some twenty others believed that they had pinpointed the N.S.A.’s biggest problem—data overload—and then solved it. But the agency’s management hadn’t agreed. Binney, who is six feet three, is a bespectacled sixty-seven-year-old man with wisps of dark hair; he has the quiet, tense air of a preoccupied intellectual. Now retired and suffering gravely from diabetes, which has already claimed his left leg, he agreed recently to speak publicly for the first time about the Drake case. When we met, at a restaurant near N.S.A. headquarters, he leaned crutches against an extra chair. “This is too serious not to talk about,” he said.
Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” According to Binney, Drake took his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, became a political target within the agency. Binney spent most of his career at the agency. In 1997, he became the technical director of the World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, a division of six thousand employees which focusses on analyzing signals intelligence. By the late nineties, the N.S.A. had become overwhelmed by the amount of digital data it was collecting. Binney and his team began developing codes aimed at streamlining the process, allowing the agency to isolate useful intelligence. This was the beginning of ThinThread.
In the late nineties, Binney estimated that there were some two and a half billion phones in the world and one and a half billion I.P. addresses. Approximately twenty terabytes of unique information passed around the world every minute. Binney started assembling a system that could trap and map all of it. “I wanted to graph the world,” Binney said. “People said, ‘You can’t do this—the possibilities are infinite.’ ” But he argued that “at any given point in time the number of atoms in the universe is big, but it’s finite.” As Binney imagined it, ThinThread would correlate data from financial transactions, travel records, Web searches, G.P.S. equipment, and any other “attributes” that an analyst might find useful in pinpointing “the bad guys.” By 2000, Binney, using fibre optics, had set up a computer network that could chart relationships among people in real time. It also turned the N.S.A.’s data-collection paradigm upside down. Instead of vacuuming up information around the world and then sending it all back to headquarters for analysis, ThinThread processed information as it was collected—discarding useless information on the spot and avoiding the overload problem that plagued centralized systems. Binney says, “The beauty of it is that it was open-ended, so it could keep expanding.” Pilot tests of ThinThread proved almost too successful, according to a former intelligence expert who analyzed it. “It was nearly perfect,” the official says. “But it processed such a large amount of data that it picked up more Americans than the other systems.” MORE
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