«This film is  about a brilliant mind.»

Friedrich Moser’s captivating documentary A Good American drags viewers into the core of US intelligence operations and portrays the fascinating Bill Binney, a former NSA data analyst, who had devised a program that could have detected the 9/11 terrorists. An interview with Bill Binney, Friedrich Moser and senior producer Michael Seeber.
Bill Binney, you are the protagonist of Friedrich Moser’s A Good American, can you introduce us to the circumstances that led shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to your retirement from NSA where you had used to work as one of the leading data analysts and where you had developed a program called ThinThread that allowed to analyze data efficiently without violating people’s privacy. Some persons in the NSA management seemed to have a completely different view on this subject and would rather install a different program which was less efficient, definitely more expensive and provided the citizens with mass surveillance.
BILL BINNEY: You have to think about it this way: If you’re the manager of an organization and you want it to grow and you lock yourself into collecting everything that is passing around in the world every year, you’re dealing with an ever increasing amount. You’re locking yourself into needing more and more money year after year and you build your empire that way. Plus, if you feed your contractors they’ll give you a nice bonus, you’ll get a nice big salary, you’ll get your contacts, more contracts etc. I call that the military-industrial-intelligence-complex-happiness-management program. How you embezzle money from people, put them at risk so that when they get hurt, you can get by fear-mongering even more money.
As a government employee (which I was until October 2001) you’re required to report fraud, waste and corruption. So we did. We went directly to the Intelligence Committees in the House, and also to the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG), later to the Department of Justice Inspector General using the proper channels you’re supposed to use when you’re reporting fraud, waste and abuse. We thought by using them we’d try to stay within the government’s channels to be able to try to change them back to doing something that was constitutional and not illegal because they were violating all kinds of laws – including the privacy acts.
What was the outcome of your procedure?
BILL BINNEY: Everybody covered up for everybody else. They were all part of it. The Intelligence Committees, the FISA Court (US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), the White House, the Department of Justice, the NSA, CIA, FBI all of them, they all covered up because they knew they were all culpable. And we reached the point where they wanted to keep us really quiet because we kept going to other people in Congress, we would not stop with the Intelligence lying to everybody . After we did that, they sent us the FBI to raid us and fabricated evidence against us, which I caught them at, fortunately. I threatened them with malicious prosecution, which means disbarment and criminal charges and also because of what they were doing gave us grounds for a law suit, so they dropped everything and ran away from us. Only because I had found out what they were doing, if I didn’t, they could have done what they did to Chelsea Manning – send her to jail for 35 years. They didn’t take any action. I had evidence, I was waiting for them to do something, but they were too afraid. Sunlight scares them, when you expose them to public scrutiny, they look really bad, so they backed off.
Surprisingly, it was not a fellow American filmmaker who took up your story but an Austrian. Fritz, when did you come across Bill Binney’s case?
FRIEDRICH MOSER: After the Snowden revelations I wanted to know when and how the intelligence services started to spy on us instead of spying on our enemies. That’s when I contacted Bill Binney asking him whether he was up to making a film together with me on his career. I invited him over to Vienna in October 2013.
MICHAEL SEEBER: You always wanted to make a film about spies (laughs).
FRIEDRICH MOSER: That’s the other thing. I love spy stories. I am a big fan of James Bond or Jason Bourne. I particularly love the spy stories of the sixties and seventies. I didn’t know of any documentary about a spy. As a historian, which is my academic background, I was wondering when they started to spy on us instead of spying on our enemies. I thought the best way to tackle the question would be by the story of only one person. That’s when I came across Bill again, he was on my list of interview partners from a previous film project. In late October 2013 he came over to Vienna, and he started to talk to me about ThinThread. That was the first time that I heard about this program and I was flabbergasted. It seemed just unbelievable that nobody has ever made a film about it. It seemed to me as bold as a fiction story could be. The US Intelligence Services is the last remaining super power and we had a huge case of corruption linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which is the major turning point in our recent history. I was simply amazed.
How did you make your way into the subject apart from interviewing Bill?
FRITZ MOSER: There was not much around when I started to dig for more information. There were some interviews, a very good article in the New Yorker Magazine about Tom Drake that mentioned ThinThread before, and some more in media like Wired Magazine or the Rolling Stone. It was clear to me that there must have been something and of course I knew that Bill Binney was a very trustworthy person. I also tried to talk to other participants in the ThinThread project to see whether there were any contradictions. But there were not. It was obvious that what I had heard about ThinThread was real. A very crucial moment happened in May 2015, when the editing of the film was almost done, we met Pat Eddington who used to be a national security staffer; as such he had access to the classified version of the DoD IG report about ThinThread. He couldn’t give us any details on the content of this report, but he was able to confirm that everything  told in our film was true. I also was invited to an informal meeting of technology people in the US in September 2015 where I met some of the founding fathers of the internet, old-school technology people, and also a man who was very much interested in the film. He had researched through his own NSA channels and confirmed everything we had found out during the film project. That meant that we had two independent sources saying that it was all true:  this is conform to the golden rule of Seymour Hersh, one of the most prolific investigative reporters in the US.
Who was ready to talk to you in front of the camera?
FRIEDRICH MOSER: The people ready to speak were Bill Binney himself, Ed Loomis who had developed ThinThread together with him, Kirk Wiebe, a project manager in their team and a very experienced analyst. From the outside we had Tom Drake, a software engineer. After Bill, Ed and Kirk retired from NSA, Tom Drake tried to revive ThinThread and he managed to do a test run. In this test run – that was based on the knowledge from before 9/11 –, he found the names of the 9/11 terrorists in the NSA database.
BILL BINNEY: We hadn’t updated ThinThread then. So all what they had to do was run the program. If they had had it running, they would have picked out those guys before they went on a plane in Kuala Lumpur.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: And then we also talked to Diane Roark, she was the relevant person for the NSA account in Congress. That means we had a look from three different angles. This was enough to tell the story. Of course I would have loved to talk to Michael Hayden and to the people who messed it up before 9/11. They are all now with private companies earning huge amounts of money. I asked them to participate in a film about ThinThread, but in the end nobody got back to me.
BILL BINNEY:  One of the reasons I went with Fritz right away was that nobody in the US would do anything about this. They are all too afraid. After the attack on James Risen, a NYT journalist who exposed the mass surveillance in a December 2005 article, everybody was afraid to say anything dealing with national security. This is not national security, it’s national insecurity we are dealing with, right?
How did you find the producer who, like you,  believed in the potential of this story?
FRIEDRICH MOSER: I had been a producer myself for a long time. What I had wanted to do this time was to concentrate on the creative part of the project. I was looking for a team to take care of the production itself. I met Michael Seeber while I was negotiating with a German producer about a possible collaboration.  We came to talk about our favorite documentary film, Man On Wire, and either of us put forward exactly the same arguments why the film worked that well.  I knew after a few minutes, this was the guy I wanted to do business with. The same day I met Michael I also received Bill’s email saying that he was in. This was fate. And it was actually a really good starting point for the project. I had moved to Vienna in 2010 only and I didn’t know anybody from the Austrian industry. Michael brought me together with all the interesting people who really helped the project.
MICHAEL SEEBER: We spontaneously understood each other really well and I was completely hooked  when I heard about this project. We developed the concept, the treatment together. I’d say I took Fritz by his hand and guided him through the enterprise, advising at all levels of production and  bringing in some of the team members like Peter Janecek, our executive producer, the composer Christopher Slaski, the editor Kirk von Heflin.
BILL BINNEY: I looked at it this way: Working with you guys has been a pleasure compared to trying to work with anybody inside NSA. It was great, from my perspective:  I’ve been talking about these things inside the USA, but I’ve been explaining the technology, people didn’t get that right away. When Fritz asked me, I said to myself  – “Great, that will be another way. Getting an artist in and being able to depict it in a film, that would get a much wider audience, convey the meaning and then be able to discuss it.”
MICHAEL SEEBER: I’d like to say that beside the fact that I’m very happy to have made a good  film, I’m very glad I had the chance to meet a person like Bill.
BILL BINNEY: I certainly hope we stick together for a long time to come, but I know, you guys will be busy doing other things. We are friends I would say.
As you mentioned before, you are a big fan of spy movies. A Good American is both a gripping documentary  and a political thriller. Can you tell us how you developed the narrative together with your visual language?
FRIEDRICH MOSER: From all the things Bill Binney had told us, ThinThread was the backbone of the film. Our challenge was to find a way to integrate the other stories into the core story. We thought we’d absolutely need Bill’s backstory in the Cold War, to also be able to visualize things. Now in the digital age everything is abstract. Nobody can associate anything visible with it. In the analogue age it was much more simple to illustrate what he was going after. The lucky effect that he came across the basic element of his traffic analysis by analyzing metadata already back in the sixties helped a lot to explain what the concept of metadata is, how it actually works. There hasn’t so much changed from the days when he spied on the Soviet military compared to spying on terrorists nowadays: there are patterns created through human behavior, through things that you do, not through things that you say. Giving a stronger accent to the things that are done instead to things that are said, is so crucial in understanding why we are currently failing in detecting terrorist attacks. Because intelligence services look at what they are saying and not enough at things they are doing.
MICHAEL SEEBER: The story is extremely complex and you need so much information to understand everything. The question was how to do this in a good cinematic way. By concentrating on ThinThread as the core of the story we had found the solution.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: For a long time we had been shuffling around the scenes. We knew that the scenes per se worked, but the ensemble of the scenes did not. We spent half a year on that. This was when we decided to bring in a friend of mine from Denmark, Jesper Osmund, who is an editor and story-doctor. He had a fresh look and he edited the film from the rough cut stage to the final version.
Another problem to solve was:  there was absolutely no archive material about Bill Binney’s work at NSA. How do you make a historical film about a person without having any archive about this person? I suggested to use subtle re-enactments, Michael warned me not to use too much of them, as it might turn too fictionalized. He came up with the idea to use reenactments by our protagonists playing nowadays in a different environment instead of having them played by actors on a set. We show Bill at home going through old files, old photos, doing things he would do back then – but we could watch his face, his emotion now and make it tangible. That was a very smart advice.
MICHAEL SEEBER: Reenactment is usually a reenactment of drama. We instead wanted to have a reenactment of gestures, things, instruments, work processes, which gives a strong feeling of authenticity.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: Instead of drama we wanted to have flavor. This adds to the fact that while Bill is telling his story the images never grow bigger than the story. They are supporting it. We both don’t believe in the documentary dogma that everything has to be vérité. I don’t buy it. There are things you can’t do with vérité. My approach is more of  “form follows function”. I’m not a purist. I am absolutely eclectic when it comes to it. Documentary is more than vérité. It’s a good concept to start with, but it’s a very limited concept. As I am operating the camera myself, I know that there is something outside the frame. Vérité is not the truth, it’s a style, nothing more.
BILL BINNEY: This is why I went with these guys. They can get now this message out to a much wider audience and get them to understand it. I‘d rather go through the numbers and letters, that’s what people don’t understand (laughs). So I would only reach a certain audience.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: Given Bill’s personality – which we discovered from the first test interviews on –, we knew from very early on that we wanted to make it a very personal film. It’s not a film about surveillance, it’s a film about a brilliant mind who get’s together an amazing team in order to develop an amazing product. It’s the story about a thorough thinker able to analyze what is going on in the world and what he is personally going through and reflecting it. It’s also the story of a friendship, the story of building something together. It’s multilayered. It’s the film about a good American, a guy taking you on a journey into the NSA, into the Cold War, into History, into mathematics, into philosophy, a specific point of view on life. This makes the film very rich – and it makes it difficult for broadcasters to understand where to put it.
MICHAEL SEEBER: I very much like the German word “Welthaltigkeit”. I think this film has very  much of it.
When you shot with Bill, you very often chose a surrounding of nature. It seemed to me as if, after all that had happened, Bill had gained a completely different, peaceful connection to life. What were your thoughts behind these images of nature?
FRIEDRICH MOSER: Originally it was meant to be completely different. Bill’s partners like Kirk Wiebe told us how much Bill loved nature. He would feed the birds, the deer coming in his back yard. He would spend whole afternoons observing what the animals would do in his garden. First we decided to shoot these pictures in order to show that Bill loved nature. This became quite obvious. So we asked ourselves why we didn’t take these pictures and use them as a backdrop to his reflections upon how to best carry out his job. I think this added another layer to what he is saying. I like to play around with metaphors. You have e.g. a little woodpecker picking up the seeds in the feeding tube while Bill is talking about the analysts confronted with too much data to go through in order to find the right target.
We shot with Diane Roark at the waterfalls and at the coast. We had different images at certain stages and we ended up using these ones because of the sheer magnitude of what they had to cope with. The things that they are dealing with are massive and they affect the entire globe. This is why we used those images. I filmed Diane walking along the beach alone, the sand is being blown and it tells something about the hard wind they had been facing.
MICHAEL SEEBER: Nature being that present has also something to do with Bill’s view on the universe. It corresponds with his thinking that the universe is structured, that the world is not infinite. This is a quite Buddhist view by the way.
BILL BINNEY: They can have that too. They’re allowed (laughs). Anything you say that it is infinite you defeat yourself mentally immediately. You can’t put your mind around the infinite. But you can, if you bound it. Otherwise you’re lost. Everything is finite and ordered. It’s just a matter to find the order. The principles of privacy and liberty and freedom are universal. It’s not only a matter for American citizens. I was trying to do a job and succeed at it while respecting everybody’s rights, privacy and liberty and doing it in such a way that it would be acceptable in any court of law anywhere in the world as well as in any congress or parliament and even in the public. If an intelligence service exposes how it’s proceeding in the public, it won’t stop it from succeeding. The fact that you tell that you’re doing it lawfully doesn’t change anything. There’s no risk to that. It’s a lie that they keep saying that it’s a risk to talk about what they are doing.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: This film is a mental journey that takes you from a point where you have no idea about intelligence gathering to a point where you understand how the system works. At the world premiere of A Good American in Copenhagen in a theatre with 650 seats you could hear a needle drop. The same thing on week later in New York, people were glued to the screen. The film worked exactly how I had wanted it to work. I’m convinced as a citizen that we need a political change with regard to the way intelligence services work. It has to happen before the Internet of Things unfolds. With the Internet of Things, any given device may be operated remotely, your car may be stopped in the middle to the street, electricity might be shut down etc. These things are unfolding now. This will bring total control. If we don’t fix this now, we will run into a totalitarian nightmare which will exceed Orwell’s 1984 by far. People should think about it. This is not about technology, this is about principles. During analogue communication there was a law that said, whoever breaks an envelope is going to be punished. We need the same thing here. We need control. What has been evolving since 2001 is a silent coup by the military-industrial surveillance complex. They have taken over the government. That should not be the case, if we want to keep the 21st century democratic.
Do you think there is still time to install efficient means of control?
BILL BINNEY: Absolutely. We suggested to the president 21 things he should do to fix NSA  in January 2014. One of it was to take hackers. We have never had anything but trust with the intelligence agencies. They claim they have an oversight group, but it’s a worthless group. Even the judge of the FISA court says that he has limited capacity to say what NSA was doing. That tells right away that the oversight group is worthless. So we suggested for all the federal courts and the Congress to set up technical people – I suggested hackers – have them in for three years and then rotate them, get them clearances and the authority to go to any agency at any time into any database, look at all the data they have got to look at and see if what intelligence services were doing was lawful. That would give the verification process something really valuable, no head of any agency nor the White House could stop this person on reporting to all the courts and the committees in Congress. It would be a free group of technical people who have the responsibility to everybody including the public.
FRIEDRICH MOSER: Bill has been invited to speak to the Austrian parliament in late November 2015. It’s great that they listen to Bill and his expertise. He was the technical director of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world. He has real knowledge and 37 years of experience. We want to raise awareness about the principles that have to be installed. Technology changes, but principles have to remain, if we want to stay democratic countries.
MICHAEL SEEBER:  The film is called A Good American, because it’s a film about values and principles.
BILL BINNEY:  Technology evolves, but technology can also control technology.
How did you feel about seeing the movie for the first time on a huge screen at its world premiere in Copenhagen?
BILL BINNEY: I was actually more interested in the audience and how they were reacting. It was all pretty silent back there.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
November 2015
«This is not national security, it's national insecurity we are dealing with.»
Bill Binney