NSA awards pact to redesign operations

Focus on ways of moving agency into digital age

October 02, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The National Security Agency has awarded a $282 million contract to a California company to redesign the way the agency sifts through the flood of foreign e-mails, telephone calls and faxes it intercepts each day -- a step forward in its efforts to haul a Cold War-era approach to eavesdropping into the digital age.

The award, the agency's largest in recent years, comes amid continuing criticism in Congress of missteps by the country's intelligence agencies. The NSA has drawn notice for its failure to translate an ominous message Sept. 10 last year until Sept. 12, the day after the terrorist attacks, and for its difficulty keeping up with the rapid growth in global electronic communications.

The NSA and the contractor, San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., would say little about what new technologies were in the works.

But intelligence analysts said in interviews yesterday that one likely focus would be the capacity to swiftly spot threatening messages amid the growing tide of cell phone and Internet traffic.

"How do you find the terrorist ordering a pizza, which is actually a signal for another 9/11?" says a former senior intelligence official. "It's a daunting task."

Another focus of the new technology, experts said, could be replacing the work of linguists listening in on phone calls with software able to recognize ill-boding words and phrases in a range of foreign languages.

"Rather than have NSA linguists listening to 130 languages, the idea is, `What if we can introduce new computer-based technologies that can machine-read the material?'" said Matthew M. Aid, a former defense intelligence analyst and the author of a forthcoming book on NSA.

The award marks an advance in the agency's 2-year-old Trailblazer program, a largely classified effort to enlist the private sector in modernizing what the NSA terms "signals intelligence" or "sigint" processing.

In the late 1990s, the Fort Meade spy agency faced criticism that its mindset and technology were stuck in an era when a single enemy, the Soviet Union, communicated in relatively crude and predictable ways over easy-to-intercept radio waves.

The growth in buried fiber-optic cables and in encryption software available to anyone with an Internet hookup has forced the agency to find new methods of surveillance and code-breaking.

"Trailblazer is building the sigint system we would want to build, if we were starting from scratch today," the NSA said in a document it released to The Sun.

The 26-month contract with Science Applications International more than doubles the $200 million spent on Trailblazer, and moves the program from the brainstorming phase to an early-design phase.

"It represents a significant step forward in NSA's transformation," an agency spokeswoman said in a written response to questions.

Though the intelligence hearings on Capitol Hill have focused less on NSA than on the CIA and the FBI, the agency has come under scrutiny.

On Sept. 10 last year, NSA overheard cryptic telephone conversations in Afghanistan hinting at a major attack the next day, but did not translate them until Sept. 12.

In addition, a report this summer by a House intelligence subcommittee highlighted the NSA's shortage of linguists and its trouble identifying new targets for surveillance.

"NSA needs to change from a passive gatherer to a proactive hunter," the report said.

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