Back in 2010, a former senior employee at the National Security Agency by the name Thomas Drake was charged with espionage after having spoken to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun concerning a bloated, dysfunctional intelligence program that he believed would violate Americans’ privacy. Surprisingly, the case against him ended up falling apart and he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor. However, his career in the NSA was over.
Even though Drake was largely vindicated, the crucial question that he raised about technology and privacy has never been resolved ever since. It’s been almost seven years now but a former CIA analyst by the name Pat Eddington has been trying to Drake’s point.
Since Eddington was working for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., he had the unique opportunity to go through classified documents that outline the history of two competing NSA programs known as ThinThread and Trailblazer. Eddington saw an unredacted version of the Pentagon inspector general’s audit back in 2004 – of the NSA’s failures at that time and he filed the Freedom of Information Act Requests.
Back in January, Eddington decided to step up those efforts a notch higher by suing the Department of Defense to obtain the material. Eddington made it clear that those documents completely vindicate those who advocated for ThinThread at personal risk.
The controversy started back in 1996, when Ed Loomis, who was a computer systems designer with NSA back in the day, worked with his team in the migration of the NSA’s collection capabilities from the analog to the digital era. The transition made it possible for the NSA to scoop up internet packets and be in a position to string them together into legible communications, and automate a process that would instantly decide which communications were the most interesting as it masked anything from Americans. The original prototype was known as the GrandMaster and it needed to ingest large amounts of data but only output what was most valuable as it deleted or encrypted the rest.
It then followed that four passenger airliners were hijacked by terrorists in the fall of 200, as part of a suicide plot against Washington, D.C., and New York City. The intelligence community faced a disturbing wake up call after it failed to prevent the attack. In response, NSA started collecting more data.
A bid was sent out to multiple defense contractors, seeking a program that could analyze and collect communications from phones and the internet. SAIC won the contract, known as Trailblazer. In the meantime, NSA employees were developing a similar and less costly alternative called ThinThread, which was a follow-on GrandMaster. ThinThread would gather online communications, sort them, and mask the data that belonged to Americans. The employees involved in ThinThread revealed that their approach was better that the NSA approach which involved collecting-it-all.
As stated by a former NSA analyst, the bulk collection kills people, adding that whenever you collect everything and dump it on the analyst, they can hardly see the threat coming, neither can they stop it.
The idea was that ThinThread would have solved the complex problem by helping the NSA to sort through the deluge automatically while protecting privacy using encryption.
In the long run, the NSA went with Trailblazer as Hayden rejected the ThinThread proposal since it was not going to work on a global scale, and that it would vacuum up too much American data.
Hayden’s argument was based off the fact that ThinThread was not the answer to the problems that NSA was facing in regards to the volume, velocity and variety of modern communications.
However, back in 2002, Wiebe, Binney, Loomis, Drake, and Diane Roark who was a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee united to complain to the Defense Department’s Inspector General as they argued that ThinThread would be the best surveillance system.
Wiebe had previously talked to the others on the possibility of going to the press. However, Drake went on it alone without informing the colleagues on what he was up to. Unfortunately, stories of disagreements started cropping up in the headlines based on the leaks. The FBI was sent by the Bush Administration in 2007 to raid each whistleblowers homes who raised complaints to the Pentagon inspector general.
Drake faced espionage charges after speaking to a reporter from Baltimore Sun about the alleged mismanagement and waste that was going on in the NSA.
Its unfortunate that Drake lost his career in the government and he now works at an Apple store. Drake’s query on whether ThinThread would have provided a capability better that Trailblazer remains unresolved.