System Error

The NSA has spent six years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to kick-start a program, intended to help protect the United States against terrorism, that many experts say was doomed from the start.

A Sun Special Report

January 29, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON — A program that was supposed to help the National Security Agency pluck out electronic data crucial to the nation's safety is not up and running more than six years and $1.2 billion after it was launched, according to current and former government officials.

The classified project, code-named Trailblazer, was promoted as the NSA's state-of-the art tool for sifting through an ocean of modern-day digital communications and uncovering key nuggets to protect the nation against an ever-changing collection of enemies.

Its main goal when it was launched in 1999 was to enable NSA analysts to connect the 2 million bits of data the agency ingests every hour - a task that has grown increasingly complex with the advent of the Internet, cell phones, and instant messaging - and enable analysts to quickly pick out the most important information.

The stakes could scarcely be higher.

A major failure leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, involved communications intelligence, investigators found. More than 30 hints of the impending attack had been collected in the previous three years but had sat, unnoted, in the NSA's databases, according to a joint congressional inquiry into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence operations.

The NSA initiative, which was designed to spot and analyze such hints, has resulted in little more than detailed schematic drawings filling almost an entire wall, according to intelligence experts familiar with the program. After an estimated $1.2 billion in development costs, only a few isolated analytical and technical tools have been produced, said an intelligence expert with extensive knowledge of the program.

Trailblazer is "the biggest boondoggle going on now in the intelligence community," said Matthew Aid, who has advised three recent federal commissions and panels that investigated the Sept. 11 intelligence failures.

Complex from the start - the initial Trailblazer plan called for more than 1,000 priority items - the project ballooned as it was passed through three separate NSA divisions, each with its own priorities, former intelligence officials said. And, they said, Trailblazer's overseers lacked either the influence or the time to clearly define their goals and keep the project on track.

When the agency's inspector general looked at the NSA's handling of the project in its first three years, it found in a 2003 report "inadequate management and oversight" of private contractors and overpayment for the work that was done, according to a recently declassified version of the report obtained by The Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Meanwhile, Science Applications International Corp., the lead contractor on the project, did not provide enough people with the technical or management skills to produce such a sophisticated system, according to industry and NSA experts familiar with Trailblazer. And, they said, the company did not say no when the NSA made unrealistic demands.

The company was initially awarded $280 million in 2002 to begin construction.

SAIC spokesman Jared Adams declined to comment, saying, "We have been asked to defer all comment regarding the NSA Trailblazer contract to the NSA."

The reporting in this article includes interviews conducted over the past three months with 25 intelligence professionals, 13 of whom worked on or had oversight of Trailblazer. Because the program is classified, most would not allow their names to be used.

Although the Bush administration spent much of the past week defending the NSA's eavesdropping work as vital to keeping Americans safe from terrorism, virtually no attention has been paid to the agency's failure to deliver the system the NSA said was key to fulfilling that mission.

That means the government has been standing by while the agency has been gradually "going deaf" as unimportant communications drown out key pieces of information, a government official with extensive knowledge of Trailblazer told The Sun.

NSA spokesman Don Weber said the agency would have no response to requests for comment.

Listening in

Based at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and with field offices around the world, the NSA harvests virtually every form of electronic communication - including phone calls, e-mails, video links and bank transactions - through a vast array of satellites, clandestine posts at U.S. embassies, ground-based listening stations, and military airplanes, ships and submarines.

The information collected and culled by the agency's approximately 40,000 employees accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the president's daily intelligence briefing, said Aid, an intelligence consultant who is writing a multivolume history of the NSA.

But there are huge holes in the agency's information filter. As a result, a congressional report on 9/11 intelligence failures found, "potentially vital" information is lost, particularly with regard to terrorist groups.

That is what Trailblazer was designed to fix.

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