Computer failure at NSA irks intelligence panels

Shutdown highlights need for modernization and money, chairmen say

February 02, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Members of two congressional intelligence committees said yesterday that last week's three-day computer shutdown at the National Security Agency was a "catastrophic failure" of the agency's computer backbone and called for more funding to bring its ailing systems up to date.

The failure that left the agency's internal communications systems frozen was a particular embarrassment for NSA, agency observers say, because it considers itself the epicenter of information gathering and deciphering that helped launch the computer revolution in this country.

Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that oversees much of NSA's operations, said yesterday that the agency is in dire need of money and "management attention" to improve on the "baling wire and wishful thinking" holding the agency's computer systems together.

"This was not some esoteric, top-secret, piece of equipment only the super-techies know how to use," Goss said. "This was off-the-shelf, modern stuff any top company would have, and to fail to keep it up and running is really intolerable. It's not like nobody saw this coming either."

An NSA spokesman said the computers were running "100 percent" properly yesterday.

The shutdown, which began at 7 p.m. Jan. 24, did not affect information gathering but created a backlog of intelligence processing as the computers were unable to communicate with each other at the base on Fort Meade. NSA said in a statement last week that "no significant intelligence was lost."

NSA officials said yesterday that the shutdown was not caused by sabotage or terrorism but rather an overload of daily information that swamped the system. It cost $1.5 million and took "thousands of man hours" to fix.

Senate and House intelligence committees have been sharply critical of the agency during the past three years for failing to modernize for the vastly increased volume of digital information from the Internet and e-mail. In two reports in the past two years, the panels found NSA in need of restructuring and funding, especially at a time when sophisticated information technology is available to anyone with a laptop.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the shutdown came as no surprise. He said that while his committee has authorized additional funds for the past two years to address the problems, the agency and his committee have "a long way to go."

Shelby and Goss said they were in close contact with Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the NSA director, and would continue to monitor the situation. The House panel is expected to hold hearings on the issue this month and next month.

Scientists at the Federation of American Scientists, a privately funded policy organization that studies defense, space and security intelligence in Washington, said the episode was "embarrassing" and struggled to understand what happened.

John Pike, an analyst with the group, said for the system to break down at the data-processing level and not at the off-site data-collection level, "it would have to be something that could shut down the whole local shop -- like its collection management system or its data server."

For the agency, handling news of the breakdown was a sensitive matter. Not used to responding to public inquiries, the agency played down the incident, saying its effects were minimal, while not implying that the vast amount of information the agency churns out every day was barely missed.

Goss said the effect could have been anything but minimal. "There is a lot at stake," Goss said. "We are fortunate this incident did not take place in the midst of an escalating international crisis. You suddenly go blind, deaf and dumb in the middle of the day -- think of the terror."

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