Computer ills hinder NSA

2 technology programs, weapons for the war on terrorism, have proved duds

February 26, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency's drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency's ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say.

One is Cryptologic Mission Management, a computer software program with an estimated cost of $300 million that was designed to help the NSA track the implementation of new projects but is so flawed that the agency is trying to pull the plug. The other, code-named Groundbreaker, is a multibillion-dollar computer systems upgrade that frequently gets its wires crossed.

The downfall of the Cryptologic Mission Management program has not previously been disclosed. While Congress raised concerns about the agency's management of Groundbreaker in a 2003 report, the extent and impact of its inadequacies have not been discussed publicly.

Intelligence experts told The Sun that as a result of these failures, agency computers have trouble talking to each other and frequently crash, key bits of data are sometimes lost, and vital intelligence can be overlooked - all as the agency aggressively argues for broader surveillance power under the president's warrantless wiretapping program.

Moreover, there are no agency-wide controls to make sure effective fixes are put in place, and, with the demise of the mission management program, none will be in place anytime soon.

"The stuff that NSA does is probably more valuable today than it's ever been," said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, who has monitored the intelligence agencies for 25 years. "If their infrastructure doesn't work, they can't work. If the people can't work, the agency can't work."

A former NSA employee put it more bluntly, as he explained why he was speaking to a reporter for the first time, though on the condition of anonymity: "What I am fearful of is: Because of all this, we will have a 9/11 Part II."

These two programs, in combination with the NSA's $1.2 billion threat-sniffing initiative called Trailblazer, were to be the engine that would propel the formerly cutting-edge intelligence agency into the digital age. The Sun disclosed last month that six years after it was launched, the Trailblazer program consists of little more than blueprints on a wall.

NSA spokesman Don Weber did not return repeated phone calls and did not respond to a series of e-mailed questions submitted at his request more than a week ago.

Reporting for this article was based on interviews with 10 former NSA officials and intelligence experts. Most were granted anonymity because elements of these programs are classified, and those who work for the agency or its contractors risk losing their security credentials.

In recent months, as his agency has come under intense scrutiny, NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander has sent memos to his employees reminding them of their orders not to speak with reporters.

Crisis atmosphere

At the NSA, and throughout the government, the Sept. 11 attacks created a crisis atmosphere. Congress responded by pouring money into anti-terrorism efforts, while intelligence agencies scrambled to put new programs in place - often without the planning and oversight needed to succeed, intelligence professionals said.

At an agency-wide meeting at the NSA not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, Michael V. Hayden, then the NSA director, announced a $1 billion budget increase.

But the top-secret agency, based at Fort Meade between Baltimore and Washington, has no mechanism to systematically assess whether it is spending its money effectively and getting what it has paid for, NSA veterans said. One former employee likened it to a neighborhood with no police to enforce the traffic laws.

Oversight by Congress and by the inspectors general of the NSA and Pentagon has been sporadic. The head of the Government Accountability Office, the congressional audit agency, recently complained that his agency has not been asked to look at any of the NSA's programs.

The NSA's Cryptologic Mission Management program was supposed to fill those gaps by imposing financial planning and management discipline.

The five-year-old program aimed to tackle a challenge many modern companies face: How can you monitor the progress and spending of projects across the organization? Companies generally answer that question with commercially available software, such as Microsoft Project, which helps businesses track projects against an established timeline and measure their results.

The NSA, instead, said it needed specially tailored software but continually changed its mind about the scope and design of the program, making it impossible to develop and execute a plan, said former government officials knowledgeable about the program.

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