In addition, the program was not integrated into the rest of the agency's efforts. Not long after the effort was launched, a 2001 Senate report warned that the NSA "appears to have no plans or processes in place" to link the Mission Management program to the rest of the agency's information technology and intelligence collection.
Late last year, Alexander, who took over as NSA director in August, tried to kill the program, according to four former government officials knowledgeable about the program. He faced resistance from members of Congress who wanted to continue funding the project because the NSA would have no other way to assess its programs, which are estimated to number in the thousands, two of the former officials said.
Alexander is expected to go to Capitol Hill in the next few weeks armed with a compromise that would replace the Mission Management program with another effort to track the agency's programs, said one of the former officials.
Supply and demand
Intercepting communications has long been a crucial element of national defense. But in an era of instant messaging and cell phones, demand for the NSA's expertise has far outstripped supply.
To try to keep pace, the NSA launched Groundbreaker in 1999 - a program to upgrade the agency's technology infrastructure and potentially save billions of dollars by outsourcing 600 jobs and responsibility for equipment and maintenance.
As with virtually all of the NSA's activities, many details of the initiative remain secret. Hayden announced it in 2000, calling it the key to a "robust and reliable infrastructure" at the NSA that would address the modern information explosion. The total cost, he said when the contract was awarded in 2001, could exceed $2 billion.
Since then, former intelligence officials said, the initial $2 billion price tag is estimated to have doubled.
A September 2003 report by the NSA's inspector general found that "key elements" for managing the Groundbreaker contract "were missing," including a "contract management program" and a quality control mechanism, according to a copy of the executive summary obtained by The Sun. Expenditures amounting to millions of dollars were unaccounted for, according to the inspector general.
A group of private contractors known as the Eagle Alliance, led by Computer Sciences Corp., is running the project. A spokeswoman for CSC directed a reporter to the NSA for comment.
Computers are integral to everything NSA does, yet it is not uncommon for the agency's unstable computer system to freeze for hours, unlike the previous system, which had a backup mechanism that enabled analysts to continue their work, said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst and congressional intelligence staff member.
When the agency's communications lines become overloaded, the Groundbreaker system has been known to deliver garbled intelligence reports, Aid said. Some analysts and managers have said their productivity is half of what it used to be because the new system requires them to perform many more steps to accomplish what a few keystrokes used to, he said. They also report being locked out of their computers without warning.
Similarly, agency linguists say the number of conversation segments they can translate in a day has dropped significantly under Groundbreaker, according to another former NSA employee.
Under Groundbreaker, employees get new computers every three years on a rotating schedule, so some analysts always have computers as much as three years older than their colleagues', often with incompatible software, the former employee said.
As a result of compatibility problems, e-mail attachments can get lost in the system. An internal incident report, obtained by The Sun, states that when an employee inquired about what had happened to missing attachments, the Eagle Alliance administrator said only that "they must have fallen out."
When computers need to be fixed or upgraded, the Eagle Alliance provides three levels of service. The fastest service is reserved for the NSA's top management. One mid-level employee gave up waiting for an administrator to put free software on his computer and downloaded it onto his home computer, so he could finish an online training course. The program was installed at work eight months later, he said.
In 2003, Congress finally punished the NSA for chronic mismanagement by taking away its authority to sign big contracts, such as the one for Groundbreaker, and gave that responsibility to the Pentagon. But that decision made it harder for the NSA to complete projects on time because the agency must ask the Pentagon for permission to initiate and review projects, former NSA Director Bobby R. Inman said in an interview.
Alexander, the current director, declined an interview request for this article. But in August he told The Sun that the NSA needed to leap from the "industrial age" to the "information age" to survive.