Codename ThinThread

CODENAME THINTHREAD….I don’t really know what to think of this. Siobhan Gorman has a lengthy story in the Baltimore Sun today about an NSA program called ThinThread that got killed sometime around 2001. It was similar to the call monitoring program that USA Today disclosed last week, but the idea was to make it scrupulously legal by encrypting all the phone number data before it got to analysts. They’d run their software on the encrypted data, and only if they found something worth following up would they get a warrant to decrypt the data. This supposedly ensured the privacy of the data they collected.

So what happened? According to “four intelligence officials knowledgeable about the program,” it was abandoned in favor of Trailblazer, a program that was a favorite of NSA chief Michael Hayden:

NSA managers did not want to adopt the data-sifting component of ThinThread out of fear that the Trailblazer program would be outperformed and “humiliated,” an intelligence official said.

Without ThinThread’s data-sifting assets, the warrantless surveillance program was left with a sub-par tool for sniffing out information, and that has diminished the quality of its analysis, according to intelligence officials.

Sources say the NSA’s existing system for data-sorting has produced a database clogged with corrupted and useless information.

The story here is that (a) ThinThread was awesome but was killed in favor of Trailblazer, (b) Trailblazer was eventually killed too, (c) a similar program was put in place after 9/11, but without the privacy safeguards, and (d) the new program doesn’t work worth a damn.

Is this true? Beats me. I do know that you haven’t seen a bureaucratic war until you’ve seen rival teams of programmers badmouthing each other’s projects, and that may be what’s going on here. Or, we may have a program that’s both illegal and crappy because nobody wanted to make the boss’s pet project look bad.

Anyway, read the whole thing. One thing, though: there sure are a helluva lot of intelligence agents squawking to the press these days, aren’t there? Does that strike anybody else as a little odd?

Via Josh Marshall.

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