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Privacy Security United States

Whistleblowers: How NSA Created the 'Largest Failure' In Its History (zdnet.com) 119

An anonymous reader writes: Former NSA whistleblowers contend that the agency shut down a program that could have "absolutely prevented" some of the worst terror attacks in memory. According to the ZDNet story: "Weeks prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, a test-bed program dubbed ThinThread was shut down in favor of a more expensive, privacy-invasive program that too would see its eventual demise some three years later -- not before wasting billions of Americans' tax dollars. Four whistleblowers, including a congressional senior staffer, came out against the intelligence community they had served, after ThinThread. designed to modernize the agency's intelligence gathering effort, was cancelled. Speaking at the premier of a new documentary film A Good American in New York, which chronicles the rise and demise of the program, the whistleblowers spoke in support of the program, led by former NSA technical director William Binney."
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Whistleblowers: How NSA Created the 'Largest Failure' In Its History

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  • by Nyder ( 754090 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @11:47AM (#50980257) Journal

    Only goes to show. Of course, we have no proof that thin thread would of actually worked, but instead of caring about America's safety, the NSA only cared about getting more money.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:01PM (#50980331) Homepage Journal

      Greed is supposed to rule in Corporate America. But Corporate America is not supposed to rule America.

      • by seven of five ( 578993 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:10PM (#50980375)
        When the buck is almighty in any system, you end up with Hell wallpapered in dollar bills.
        • God dam it. I asked 100 dollar bill wallpaper!
      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:16PM (#50980415)

        "But Corporate America is not supposed to rule America."

        Actually you are incorrect. Big business has always ruled america.

        Those who own the country ought to govern it.--John Jay, 1745-1829

        • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @01:53PM (#50980769) Homepage Journal

          Big business didn't exist in America until after the Civil War.

          • by TimSSG ( 1068536 )
            I agree with the approx. time period; but, think it was the continental railroad that resulted in Big business in American; by being the first Big business and helping create the later Big businesses. Tim S.

            Big business didn't exist in America until after the Civil War.

        • "But Corporate America is not supposed to rule America."

          Actually you are incorrect. Big business has always ruled america.

          Those who own the country ought to govern it.--John Jay, 1745-1829

          That is false. To start with that quote refers to land ownership, and it was a statement of personal philosophy, not an element of the Constitution which is a governing document. The thinking behind it was that land owners would have vested interests and would exercise due care in voting and governing.

          If that quote "proves" that big business has always ruled America, then Benjamin Franklin's quote about beer proves that God exists. Would you care to share your favorite hymn with us?

        • So many things wrong with what little you've said:
          A) While you, myself, and the esteemed Mr. Jay may each have a difference in opinion, the one thing we all have in common is that none of our opinions are law. Setting aside for the moment that his words don't mean what you think, his words hold no more bearing in matters of law than yours, mine, or anyone else's.

          B) Two minutes of searching made it clear to me that you've taken Jay's words well outside the context in which they were offered. The full passage [wikiquote.org]

      • by dotancohen ( 1015143 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @01:36PM (#50980709) Homepage

        Greed is supposed to rule in Corporate America. But Corporate America is not supposed to rule America.

        Of course Corporate America is supposed to rule America. What do you think the word "capital" in "Capitalism" means? Rule of those with capital., i.e. rule of the rich.

        The only surprise is how "capitalism" has been marketed to Americans such that generations of them defend the rule of the rich as some utopia or ideal.

        • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @02:02PM (#50980793) Homepage Journal

          Of course Corporate America is supposed to rule America. What do you think the word "capital" in "Capitalism" means? Rule of those with capital., i.e. rule of the rich.

          Funny, I thought capitalism was an economic system in which capital goods are owned by private individuals or corporations and in which decisions about pricing, production and distribution of the output of those capital goods is determined by the owners in a free market. Note that this does not preclude myriad forms of government regulation.

          The only surprise is how "capitalism" has been marketed to Americans such that generations of them defend the rule of the rich as some utopia or ideal.

          Well it's hardly surprising that private interests have rebranded regulation in the public interest by the boogey-man term "socialism", but I expect we are seeing early signs that this is starting to backfire. Americans in my generation associate "socialism" with the Soviet Union -- as a kind of "Communism lite". Millennials are increasingly apt to associate the word with the kind of "Nordic model" social democracy practiced in hellholes like Denmark and Sweden [note irony].

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Actually, Smith envisioned SMALL business at most and explicitly warned against the granting of charters except when absolutely necessary and then under strong regulation.

          When he wrote of competition in the market, he didn't mean a choice between the big three, he meant a choice between thousands, most of which are not much larger than individuals.

        • by khallow ( 566160 )

          What do you think the word "capital" in "Capitalism" means? Rule of those with capital., i.e. rule of the rich.

          No, that is what "plutocracy" means.

      • > Greed is supposed to rule in Corporate America.

        False.

        Greed is good for short-term gain, not long-term growth. It is very shortsighted thinking that is self-defeating over the long term when your customer base can no longer afford your products, or you've alienated them to the point where they choose your competitors' offerings out of spite.

      • In which case things have proably got about as ass-backward as they can possibly get.

        I always think about Capitalism like that old proverb about fire: 'it makes a good servant but a bad master', and the latter seems to be where the US (and UK) are forever heading.

      • Guess I need to RTFA, because the NSA is not a corporation, it's part of the federal government. Maybe reading the article will remove the surreal quality of the previous post.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      How else were they supposed to re-create the Star Trek bridge
      http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-army-star-trek-command-center-2013-9

    • Only goes to show. Of course, we have no proof that thin thread would of actually worked, but instead of caring about America's safety, the NSA only cared about getting more money.

      Exactly. What boosts the perceived need for agencies like the NSA and their funding better and faster: (a) reasoning and prudence, (b) people getting killed and things blown up ? Preventing attacks would hurt their bottom line and struggle for power over the masses. (God damn, that was cynical - even for me.)

    • thread would of actually worked

      Would've. It's a contraction of "would have".

      When did this new form of illiteracy take hold? And how did it ever get past Eighth Grade?

      • When did this new form of illiteracy take hold?

        With the arrival of the Internet. Time was, almost everything you read had passed under the eyes of an English major somewhere in its trip to you. Repeated exposure to edited text reinforced what you'd learned in grammar school. There was only one place where semiliterate morons could transmit text to you...and the Internet is today's restroom wall.

        • With the arrival of the Internet. Time was, almost everything you read had passed under the eyes of an English major somewhere in its trip to you. Repeated exposure to edited text reinforced what you'd learned in grammar school. There was only one place where semiliterate morons could transmit text to you...and the Internet is today's restroom wall.

          What a bunch of loosers.

      • thread would of actually worked

        Would've. It's a contraction of "would have".

        When did this new form of illiteracy take hold? And how did it ever get past Eighth Grade?

        For all intensive porpoises, I hain't got a clue!

    • Umm wtf? There are a half dozen documentaries that include interviews with the designer of thin thread and former managers who put it into operation. The problem was not that they shut down ThinThread. The problem was that they removed the safeguards that were designed into it to prevent dragnet collection of domestic data and then put it in the field. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] That is what Tom Drake raised alarms about. He said check out this ThinThread thing we should use it. He was told no
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 22, 2015 @11:47AM (#50980259)

    Where the powers that be were convinced that warrantless wiretapping of everyone was an improvement over concentrating on terror targets.

    I imagine it got really cold in that room with all the hand waving going on.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by amiga3D ( 567632 )

      I think that the government is more worried about the 300 plus million citizens of the country versus a few hundred idiot terrorists. One day down the road, probably a decade or less away there will come a time when the US government will be bankrupt. This is not a European society but a very large country with a very diverse population and a history of handling problems with violence. The more extreme the problem the more extreme the violence. Imagine a day when the government can no longer write the

      • "the first duty of the State is the continuity of the State."

        These are the people running the campaign againt crypto (the reasons you cite are self-evident here). There's a bloody department with that task, yet ignorant apologists for power still live in denial. Oh, well - they won't be prepared for the troubles either; a sadly but soberingly self-limiting problem.

    • I would have loved to hear the conversation .... Where the powers that be were convinced that warrantless wiretapping of everyone was an improvement over concentrating on terror targets.

      I think your statement nicely encapsulates a fair amount of the rampant confusion and nonsense ideas held about matters in this general area. "Warrantless" refers to the authorization method for conducting the surveillance, it has nothing to do with the targets of the surveillance ("terror targets"). There is nothing mutually exclusive about warrantless surveillance targeted at terrorists. You probably also fail to understand that "warrantless" doesn't necessarily mean illegal. There are many searches t

    • by grumling ( 94709 )

      My guess is it went a little like this...

      Spook #1: Well, to spy on terrorists it will take a lot of time effort and money. Congress will have to increase our budget.

      Head Spook: I see. Well, that's going to make my job difficult.

      Spook #2: Or how about we just spy on everyone so we can blackmail the President, Senate Intelligence Committee, whistle-blowers, the media and anyone who tries to get in our way?

      Head Spook: Spook #2, congratulations! You're the new Spook #1.

      • My guess is it went a little like this...

        Spook #2: Or how about we just spy on everyone so we can blackmail the President, Senate Intelligence Committee, whistle-blowers, the media and anyone who tries to get in our way?

        Proof, or it didn't happen.

  • ... there you have it - the real incentive, the unique driving factor for USSA MIC
  • by Antique Geekmeister ( 740220 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @11:59AM (#50980313)

    It's very easy after a disaster to claim that an unfunded or ignored project would have prevented the disaster. Since the whistleblowers in the article are talking about the 9/11 terrorist attack, it seems a bit late. to be blowing whistles on it now.

    It does seem clear that the NSA suffered, and is suffering, from Jerry Pournell's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy"

    >> First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization.

    >> Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself

    The amount of money, time, and manpower burned on oversampling incredible amounts of personal traffic would seem much better focused on parts of the world, and populations, where the monitoring is likely to bear more fruit. But that doesn't expand the NSA itself and its overall capacity.

    • It isn't bit late to blow the whistle now. You see, an election for president is close at hand and the narrative that a Clinton could have saved the world or something but another president fucked it up is important when the Clinton running is largely riding the coat tails of her husband's presidency and her own experience is being touted as a failure that brought us Libya, Russia invading Europe, ISIS or whatever they are calling it now, and many other failed policies while her most touted achievement se

  • by JoeyRox ( 2711699 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @11:59AM (#50980319)
    The best clue for detecting bullshit in the efficacy claims for any intelligence apparatus is when its proponents state it would have prevented a complex security lapse like 9/11. Reading the article further it seems like a bunch of people just mad their ideas weren't adopted.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:09PM (#50980367)

      Well given the CIA report entited "Bin Laden determined to attack US" mentioning flying planes into buildings... and with the spooks trying to get emergency meetings with El Presidente Bush, I don't think Thin Thread would have helped.

      The problem with 9/11 was a President who was too lazy to act, and was family friends with the Bin Ladens, so had a reason to ignore anything that might cause his friends/business partners bad press. It happened to suit his friends political agendas too. Giving them the excuse to pass Patriot act, and, as we learned from some of the leaks, the mass surveillance started 1998, and 9/11 Patriot act simply gave it a legal cover.

      • Yep, agree completely. We knew who was coming, how they were coming, and from where they were coming yet we somehow lacked the know how to stop them? We didn't lack the know how - we lacked the leadership and will to stop them.
      • Well given the CIA report entited "Bin Laden determined to attack US" mentioning flying planes into buildings... and with the spooks trying to get emergency meetings with El Presidente Bush, I don't think Thin Thread would have helped.

        Your "given" is a lie. The Presidential Daily Brief containing the " Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US [gwu.edu]" assessment doesn't make any mention of flying planes into buildings.

        What is the basis for your suggestion that the CIA couldn't get a meeting with President Bush? Another lie?

        The problem with 9/11 was a President who was too lazy to act, and was family friends with the Bin Ladens, so had a reason to ignore anything that might cause his friends/business partners bad press. It happened to suit his friends political agendas too. Giving them the excuse to pass Patriot act, and, as we learned from some of the leaks, the mass surveillance started 1998, and 9/11 Patriot act simply gave it a legal cover.

        The problem with much 9/11 commentary is that it is uninformed, distorted, manipulative, dishonest, and partisan. It is unimaginably stupid to suggest the President Bush willfully overlooked an attack on the United States on the

        • It is unimaginably stupid to suggest the President Bush willfully overlooked an attack on the United States on the basis of "family friends" as you have, as is any suggestion that the attack was allowed for political advantage. You've suggested both

          Because they are both true.

          In case anybody was unaware, cold_fjord is a notorious NSA apologist.

  • by Sean ( 422 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:06PM (#50980355)

    If NSA hadn't been caught searching and storing content there wouldn't now be such effort into encrypting everything.

    And after conversations are encrypted effort will be made to render traffic analysis useless as well.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If my grandmother had wheels, she would've been a bike. Are we really supposed to attribute the failures of the three letter agencies to "unfortunate mistakes" and otherwise believe in their efficacy? Well, I consider myself a millionaire: Unfortunately I chose the wrong numbers on the lottery ticket, but other than that, I'm rich!

  • Let's say the NSA somehow knows there is a message between two people they want to decrypt. With the computing power they have how long would it take? What I'm getting at is if the NSA had to concentrate only on targets would they be able to break the encryption?

    • by cfalcon ( 779563 )

      This really depends on the type of encryption used, and if the key can be discovered. When you discuss cryptanalysis from a math position, you have ideas like "this is a known plaintext attack- we know the first X bytes of the message, can we recover the rest of the message, or the key?" and so on down the list. If something is encrypted with a symmetric key- for instance, AES 128, or Serpent, or Twofish- then the odds of recovering the data given just the key, or a plaintext sample, seem hopeless.

      But if

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      Yeah, yer right. It is easy to figure out which messages to decrypt, all you have to do is ask the sender and receiver if it is important and dangerous to U.S. security.

  • by Trachman ( 3499895 ) on Sunday November 22, 2015 @12:45PM (#50980529) Journal

    Legends and myths grow around the historic events.

    It is true that a couple of years before 9/11 events CNN/ABC sent a crew to meet Bin Laden's to get the interviews multiple times. Even two months before the events bin Laden was giving interviews to the local journalists.

    If journalists could meet, why the fuck do we need electronic surveillance at all and later we hear complains saying that we needed more surveillance, since if we had more surveillance events would have been prevented. If journalists can get interviews freely, then I would be really stupid to believe that US, which has very powerful and most expensive intelligence agencies in the world, really wanted to catch him, because they did not.

  • "Weeks prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, a test-bed program dubbed ThinThread was shut down in favor of a more expensive, privacy-invasive program

    Thanks a lot, Obama.

  • A friend pointed me at this today: basically how a small number control governments [youtube.com] to make more money. I have only seen a bit and would welcome an objective review by real historians.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    That's why I got out of the business. You folks need to realize TT was a program of many. You know in the black projects world, there are multiple stovepipes, more are doing the same thing, due to creating of competing teams. Where's the academic paper that shows how better this system was... against others? All we know is the politics since TBlazer was the big, most bloated, known contract of the time.

    Though TT has some merit in its creation and performance, there's a dozen others you don't know about that

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