NSA still subject to electronic failure

Computers vulnerable 3 years after major crash

January 02, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

A major contractor to the National Security Agency says the agency suffered two power-supply breakdowns at U.S. intelligence posts since January 2000, an apparent sign that the global eavesdropping agency remains vulnerable to electronics failures even after a highly publicized computer crash three years ago fueled calls for reform.

The outages struck two posts outside the agency's Fort Meade headquarters and appear to have been nowhere near as serious as the crash in January 2000 that disabled the NSA's computer network for three days.

But Gerald E. Loe, vice president of worldwide sales and services for Cray Inc., the Seattle-based supercomputer maker and one of the NSA's longest-serving suppliers, described them in a recent interview as "major outages."

He said that Cray's on-site maintenance staff could not handle the repairs on its own and had to summon a small team of technicians from the company's service headquarters over holiday weekends. In addition, he said, the company had to truck in a large piece of replacement equipment.

Loe said the outages took place over the Labor Day weekend this past year and over the Fourth of July weekend in 2000 - dates the NSA disputes - and were repaired within 24 hours.

Loe's account, in a telephone interview last week, comes at a difficult time for the country's intelligence agencies, which faced blistering criticism from Congress last year during hearings into their failure to stitch together warnings of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A breakdown of the electronic eyes and ears that sweep the skies for ominous phone calls and e-mail - or of the computers that sort the data - could hinder the agency's ability to detect signs of a future attack.

An NSA spokeswoman acknowledged this week that the agency had experienced occasional electrical and computer glitches since January 2000, but denied that any took place on the dates mentioned by Loe. She declined to say exactly when or where they occurred.

"We have had other outages, both electrical and computer, but they were not close to the scale" of the one three years ago, she said.

The NSA spokeswoman stressed that no data were lost and that agency computers continued to function well within normal standards.

"There are systems in place to assure that all the necessary procedures work so that an outage is seamless and it's not something that affects our business," she said.

According to outside experts, the NSA's three regional posts in the United States - in Texas, Georgia and Hawaii - collect and sift data from satellites that intercept communications from Europe, Asia and South America. The NSA has smaller posts in Washington state and Colorado.

The NSA has used Cray supercomputers since the 1970s to process the avalanche of e-mail, phone calls and radio messages it collects from the ether each day. Neither Loe nor the NSA would identify the specific intelligence posts affected by the outages or reveal the kind or number of computers involved.

The computer blackout in January 2000 at Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel County, cost $1.5 million and thousands of staff hours to repair, and the NSA had to seek help from its British counterpart in sifting through a three-day backlog of raw intelligence. The failure underscored the susceptibility of even the country's most advanced spy computers to crippling breakdowns and embarrassed an agency that prides itself on its technological sure-footedness.

"We are extraordinarily fortunate that this incident did not take place in the midst of an escalating international crisis - lives may well have been lost because of it," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, in a January 2000 statement bemoaning the NSA's "chronic underfunding" and slow pace of modernization.

In its final report last month on the intelligence failures preceding the Sept. 11 attacks, the House and Senate joint intelligence committee urged the NSA to draw up a plan for staying in step with technological change.

In a Dec. 17 article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Cray's marketing in Australia, Loe was quoted as having made a reference to "two critical outages" at the NSA.

Asked by The Sun to elaborate last week, Loe said the failures concerned the most basic ingredient of a working computer: power. He said the malfunction occurred in an office desk-size device, called the uninterruptible power supply, which guards computers against potentially catastrophic losses of data that can result from power surges and blackouts.

If a power surge strikes when the device is on the blink, Loe said, "you could lose not just a little bit of work, but hours and hours of work." He emphasized that he had no evidence that the NSA had lost any data.

After Cray repaired the breakdown over the July Fourth weekend in 2000, Loe said, he received a letter from the post's commander thanking him for "substantially helping national security."

Days after a Sun reporter called the NSA for comment on Loe's account, Loe called the reporter to say that the NSA had urged him not to talk to the news media about the agency.

"They told me they didn't appreciate having a lot of publicity," he said. He declined to repeat his statements that the intelligence posts belonged to the NSA, confirming only that the outages occurred at "classified sites in the U.S."

Sources on the Senate intelligence committee said this week that the panel had not been informed of the outages.

James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said the need for an out-of-town repair team suggested that the breakdowns were somewhat serious.

However, the NSA spokeswoman sought to play down the significance of the agency's periodic outages, saying that they are "part of doing business in a place filled with computers and electronics."

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