Thomas Drake Complained about Michael Hayden Spending $1B to Do What $3M Could Do

Thomas Drake, the NSA whistleblower, was on 60 Minutes this evening. I’ll have more to say about his appearance and case going forward, but I just wanted to highlight a critical detail revealed by 60 Minutes: the relative cost of Trailblazer–the SAIC implemented program Michael Hayden championed–and ThinThread–the program Drake and others claim was more effective and had privacy protections.

One of them was Lieutenant General Michael Hayden, the head of the agency: he wanted to transform the agency and launched a massive modernization program, code named: “Trailblazer.” It was supposed to do what Thin Thread did, and more.

Trailblazer would be the NSA’s biggest project. Hayden’s philosophy was to let private industry do the job. Enormous deals were signed with defense contractors. [Bill] Binney’s Thin Thread program cost $3 million; Trailblazer would run more than $1 billion and take years to develop.

“Do you have any idea why General Hayden decided to go with Trailblazer as opposed to Thin Thread, which already existed?” Pelley asked.

“I believe he was convinced by others that going with a large-scale, industrial strength solution was the approach that NSA needed to take. You can’t really understand why they would make that kind of a decision without understanding the culture of NSA,” Drake said.

Asked to elaborate, Drake said, “Careers are built on projects and programs. The bigger, the better their career.” [my emphasis]

So Drake was complaining about a program that cost 300 times as much as the one he championed (ultimately, Trailblazer cost $1.2 billion, so actually 400 times as much). It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Trailblazer, according to a government filing, worked across more platforms. ThinThread, according to a Siobhan Gorman story, had additional functionality, including privacy protections.

But still, Drake complained about a program that did what ThinThread did–at 300 to 400 times the cost.

As one of the other NSA employees who whistleblew about Trailblazer, J. Kirk Wiebe, explains,

“How does a man see 9/11 happened, know that some part of it is due to corruption and mismanagement and sleep at night. How does a man do that? He obviously couldn’t,” Wiebe told Pelley.

Yet the government wants to put Drake in jail for 35 years because he tried to make sure incompetence that led to 9/11 doesn’t continue.

  1. pdaly says:

    Trailblazer, according to a government filing, worked across more platforms

    If the cyber (in)security to Trailblazer was/is like that we have seen in the Manning case with the military’s use of SIPRNET, then Trailblazer’s lack of minimization would be a feature especially if accessible across so many platforms, and ThinThread’s privacy protections and limited (supervised?) platform capability would definitely be a “bug.”

    BTW: the video clip for CBSNews above plays only an ad and then goes black. No sound or picture.

  2. orionATL says:

    “…know that [some part of 9/11happening] was due to corruption and mismanagement…”


    that wasn’t that hard to say, was it?

    and then we add in the fbi’s professional incompetence and mismanagement,

    and then we add in the cia’s turf-protecting and mismanagement

    and then we add-in prez bush’s and nat’l security advisor rice’s adamantine indifference to terrorism and mismanagement,

    and what did we get?

    a big pile of pulverized concrete in the middle of nycity.

  3. gmoke says:

    Watched with a friend and I remarked as this clip was being shown “And who does Hayden work for now?” 60 Minutes tiptoes right up to the core concept and then retreats. Whatever the War on Terror has been it has certainly been a profit center for a lot of corporate hacks. Big money is being made and a lot of the Bush appointees have been feeding at the trough since the very beginning.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Whatever the War on Terror has been it has certainly been a profit center for a lot of corporate hacks. Big money is being made and a lot of the Bush appointees have been feeding at the trough since the very beginning.

      Yup. So Trailblazer didn’t work? A lot of people made shitloads of money; they couldn’t have billed those hours on a simple system.

      As for Thomas Drake… .
      Scooter Libby got a Presidential pardon for outing a CIA agent and then lying to the FBI about it.

      Meanwhile, the mathematician with the elegant solution to data analysis? The FBI broke into his house and pulled a gun on him while he was in the shower.

      And Drake is set to go to prison for years.

      In can only conclude that if the mathematician or Drake had outed a CIA agent charged with tracking nuclear materials (related to Iran), they’d be enjoying their pensions in relative luxury, without a fear of jail or prison time.

      Meanwhile, Hayden is probably enjoying golf links somewhere.

      What happens to power when it becomes this corrupted and perverted…?


      Sort of OT-tangential: the has a very interesting item on the Mumbai massacre legal case that appears to be about to begin in Chicago. IIRC, EW had written at the time of the horrendous Mumbai terrorist event that someone high up in Indian Security Services (or whatever the correct agency title is) had been murdered in the attack, which surely suggests a fairly high level of planning. There are a few tidbits at that guardian link that, post OBL demise, in addition to your observation of what sure looks like the assassination of a security strategist, are mighty eyebrow raising. That Mumbai event continues to make my skin crawl, for the sheer viciousness of it.

  4. harpie says:

    This whole story is just infuriating, and you’ve really made a great point about the money, here, EW…400 times as much and less privacy protections.

    In the Mayer article, Binny, the mathemetician who found himself looking at the wrong end of an FBI agent’s gun while he was taking a shower one morning, felt he had to apologize to US because his program was being misused. And Drake couldn’t “sleep at night” because he is not just any “man”, but a principled man, unlike the rest of them.

    Sad and infuriating.

  5. Bluetoe2 says:

    I’m sure Holder’s flunkies at the Justice Department have their meat hooks full trying to punish the truth tellers.

  6. PeasantParty says:

    But, but America is safer now!/snark

    I said before and I’ll say it again, it won’t be long before somebody with a conscious and patriotic duty will let some phone conversations or emails fly. I can’t understand how people can sit and listen to citizens everyday and not see how intrusive it is or how it is directly like the way in which Hitler started his reign of terror.

  7. EternalVigilance says:

    “Careers are built on projects and programs. The bigger, the better their career.”

    The best way to envision and understand this is to remember Dick Jones’ violent executive rest room confrontation with Bob Mortimer in Robocop:

    “I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209. Renovation program. Spare parts for 25 years. Who cares if it worked or not?

    • mzchief says:

      A gravy train mentality like that gets a lot of personnel killed. Guess it’s just not enough that the contractors on GSA have prison labor from which to make their profits (EmptyWheel, Mar. 8, 2011)

    • Kassandra says:

      Yeah,just look at the way the banks made all of us pay for THEIR crimes. Same thing here.
      and if it ever makes it to the corrupt of the corrupt Supreme Court, it will become established law.

  8. catch22oy says:

    Twenty years ago I was a subcontract administrator with Lockheed-Martin and had the pleasure of dealing with SAIC. They are ruthless, thoroughly corrupt and extraodinarily well-connected. They are at the center of many government scams, including contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are to revolving doors what Otis is to elevators.

  9. LittlePig says:

    Another example of non-technical people making technical decisions. What you’re buying with SAIC (or Accenture, or any other of the big houses) is rock-solid mediocrity. It won’t be great, but it will meet its contracted up-times.

    For an average company, that’s all well and good. But for the NSA, which for many years has had some of the most powerful custom-built computers on the planet, that’s idiotic. “Business does it better” doesn’t apply in high tech fields (witness Microsoft, who had a very sloppy operating system but none the less won the day because non-technicians didn’t know computers weren’t supposed to crash at all, must less every day). In a high-tech, particularly a custom high-tech, shop like the NSA, I’ll take custom homegrown code over SAIC boilerplate one-size-fits-all any day.

    I’ve seen this story play out time and time again (and I’ve done a lot of jobs patching unforeseen holes in SAIC and Accenture solutions) in my 30-years-come-September career in IT. The critical decision is left in the hands of someone who’ll buy any BS story about software with no idea if what he’s being told is true or not. When you need brain surgery, you don’t ask the hospital administrator about the case, yet these same administrators made technological decisions of the same magnitude every day. It’s a damn shame.

    And, by the way, the only reason you’d want a solution like this to run on many platforms is if you plan to sell it to other countries.

    • emptywheel says:

      When they say platforms are they talking computer platforms, or are they talking about source material? ThinThread worked for phone calls and emails. But is it possible Trailblazer incorporated more data sources, things like bank accounts and whatnot?

      • LittlePig says:

        Good point, Marcy – I’ll have to dig in more to see. I was assuming that they meant Windows / AIX / Linux / Debian, etc. etc. It was my understanding (as of a couple of years ago) they were using a high-parallel processing custom-tweaked Linux clone, so I didn’t see how they needed multi-platform in a single shop. It could well be that they mean telephony / e-mail / radio intercepts as “platforms”. Getting the particular techo-dialect of a high-end shop like the NSA can be maddening.

  10. ed2291 says:

    As Drake joins Manning and DeChristopher as whistle blowers the Obama administration wants to jail, the real question is why the impassioned defense of Obama? Are some liberals no better than conservatives who like Palin because they are physically attracted to her? Perhaps Bill Maher had it right when he said, “Obama is not your boyfriend.”

  11. bgrothus says:

    Thin Thread was supposed to protect protected privacy. That is part of this story, the whistleblowers were also upset about spying on Americans.

    Thanks for highlighting this, ew.

  12. nonpartisanliberal says:

    The purpose of government is to fill the pockets of cronies with lots of taxpayers’ money.

  13. nonpartisanliberal says:

    The purpose of government secrecy is to cover up ineptitude and wrongdoing by those in the government.

  14. ArthurKC says:

    This story was not on 60 Minutes in Kansas City last night. We had an extra long interview with Tyler Hamilton about Lance Armstrong doping in the Tour de France and a piece about some FBI guy who let a Mafia mobster murder people while being an FBI informant. No mention of this story at all. What’s up with that?

    • emptywheel says:

      60 Minutes did a 2-hour show yesterday; Drake was the first story in the second hour. So it may be you didn’t get the 2nd hour at all.

  15. rosalind says:

    i attended a screening of harry shearer’s documentary “The Big Uneasy” over the weekend (worth seeing if only for the opening graphics that show the location of the levee breaches and how they quickly filled the city section by section), and one of the Engineers described the deterioration in the quality of work by the Corps as they took the engineering out of the Corps of Engineers and replaced it with project managers. Now we get pork barrel projects across the country that keep politicians happy and project managers busy, but our infrastructure further weakened by poor design and execution.

    Harry and Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower Maria Garzino spoke afterwards, and it was weird listening to someone who actually had a positive experience with the OSC re. her whistleblowing – they gave her a freakin’ award! All I could think was how fortunate she was that she blew the whistle during the Bush administration…a couple years later and she’d have to worry about an indictment not an award.

  16. onitgoes says:

    Thanks for this. I saw bits of this in the background with busy household stuff going on in the foreground as distraction last night. I *thought* that this was yet another “good guy” blowing the whistle and then ending up in trouble.

    Yeah, just like Newt telling the truth last Sun (I’m sure that Newt *learned his lesson* and LIED like a rug yesterday on MTP), Thomas Drake is only just waking up to the fact that lowly US serfs dare never question the greedy incompetency of the BigBoyz, Inc., esp under Oilbama. No, no, no whistleblowers need apply.

    SAIC has a huge “operation” going in San Diego, which is rife with gov’t contracts a-plenty. I confess to never having had any jobs in any of those companies, but I’ve heard “stories” about ’em all, esp SAIC. Most of the rumor is about inefficiencies, inadaquate programs/projects, projects overdue & over budget, etc.

    Yeah: YOU & I are paying big buck$ – via our taxes – for a lot of big sh*t, some of which doesn’t work, and a lot of which could’ve been done a lot cheaper. It’s somewhat akin to those $500 toilet seats that the DoD gets busted for periodically… albeit no one ever really gets “busted” or held accountable or loses their job… unless they’re way far down the totem pole. You can count on that. The BigBoyz, Inc keep raking in the giant salaries, thanks to YOU & ME, the US middle/working class taxpayer.

    Why conservatives continue to countenance this bullsh*t remains one of life’s little mysteries, other than the fact that some of ’em are, no doubt, *beneficiaries* of such greedy business practices. I know, for sure, that gov’t contracting makes up a huge part of the job market in San Diego, which trends republican. They love to wag their fingers & tsk tsk at “greedy” schoolteachers “running the nation into the red,” but don’t question their fat big salary from SAIC, which is a vaunted *private* sector company, after all…. just a “private” company that runs via fed tax dollars, but hey: who’s counting???

  17. goldpearl says:


    i haven’t been to the lake much recently (acute case of political apathy), but never lost my interest in stories pertainng to the deterioration of our constitutional rights begun by the bush admin & (sometimes), upheld by obama’s/holder’s DOJ.

    you & fdl were always my primary source for these stories, so after seeing the 60 minutes interview last night, i knew it was time for a dip at the lake to learn more. so i headed straight here today & pulled up all your posts over the last few months about thomas drake.

    i learned much.

    so grateful for fdl.

    thank you again for (all) your fine work (over the years)