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A Good American Review

By David Kempler

A Scary America

In a time where seemingly everyone is furious about something political, here comes a documentary ready to inflame us all even more. Because we have been so inundated with false news, it's almost as if everything we read or watch now must be looked at suspiciously. Austrian documentarian, Friedrich Moser's "A Good American" is here to throw more fuel into the raging blaze of political discourse.

The point of Moser's doc is that 9/11 could easily have been prevented with intelligence software that was already in place at that time and that the only reason it wasn't used was because of corruption (or, at best incompetence) within the National Security Agency (NSA). Furthermore this negligence can be traced all the way to the top of the agency's food chain. Thomas Hayden, the head of the NSA does not come out of this film smelling like a rose. That he did not agree to chat about his role in this in the film, does not inspire confidence in either him or those who were above him at the time.

The title character is Bill Binney, the person behind the program ThinThread. It is this program which the film-makers tell us could have prevented 9/11. According to Binney, ThinThread was dismissed by the NSA for the staggeringly obscene reason that it did not cost enough money. Instead, the agency went with another program that was both inefficient and costly. 

This decision enabled the NSA to go before Congress to demand more money in the interest of national security. Never mind that the money was not needed. It was also to be used for a faulty piece of software. The corruption and tragedy here is not just about opportunism and greed. If you believe the film, this decision also worked directly against the security of the United States and led to the deaths of thousands of people on that tragic day in 2001.

So what was this nifty little program ThinThread? Mr. Binney came up with the idea while working at the NSA, and it was apparently ahead of its time. ThinThread enabled him to find patterns in encrypted intercepted data. The key was not the content of the data. It was merely the pattern of the data, or what we now call metadata.

The idea behind ThinThread is that by looking at the people communicating with each other, one could decipher useful patterns that could yield meaningful data, without even knowing what was in the communications. Using this information, Binney claims that his program accurately predicted the Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the Six Days War, and many other incidents that affected security around the world. Perhaps most importantly, ThinThread does not violate the privacy of ordinary citizens, while most other programs do exactly that.

Two people come out of this smelling like rotting dung. Maureen Baginski is the one who goes before Congress to get money for the useless alternative program, solely because it will enrich the agency's coffers. Even more concerning is the role of Michael Hayden, the head of the NSA at the time. We can only conclude that either he approved of Baginski's actions or he was unaware of what was going on. Neither answer gives me much comfort.

Moser's documentary is another classic example of a documentary exposing jaw-dropping information that everyone should at least hear. Sadly, it is likely to reach very few. There is no way to be certain that all of the allegations made here are completely true., though the evidence presented seems quite compelling. And the accusations themselves are outright chilling.

Considering the other hideous things that we know do go on in the world, it's hard not to believe everything Moser tells us. One word of warning is necessary. If you're already on edge about the direction of this country, you might want to skip this and have yourself another drink instead. But if you think you can handle it - that it won't be the final straw that might cause your brain to explode - please go see "A Good American".

What did you think?

Movie title A Good American
Release year 2015
MPAA Rating NR
Our rating
Summary An Austrian documentarian exposes damning information that might cause many an American citizen to lose sleep, like we really need another reason.
View all articles by David Kempler
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