There is little disagreement that programs such as Groundbreaker and Cryptologic Mission Management are complex, but that does not diminish the national security demands that require the NSA to tackle modern communications.
Several agency veterans said, however, it isn't clear that the expertise to run these programs exists at the agency.
The NSA has become increasingly dependent on private contractors, who, rather than offering a fresh view, tend to hire former NSA employees and install them on the same projects they had handled when they were at the agency, said a former senior intelligence official who works for a contractor.
"It's more of the same people," the former official said. "The contracting system makes it very hard to engage industry, and it's very hard for people to break into government contracting. This is one of the areas I think needs tremendous review."
In fact, a security clearance is required just to see the list of NSA contracts, but a company representative cannot obtain a clearance without an NSA contract.
Throughout the national defense agencies, Pike said, there has been a sharp uptick in the past five years in programs that ultimately cost multiples of what the contractor initially promised.
Meanwhile, new bureaucratic hurdles have tripled the time it takes to develop and produce new intelligence products, said former NSA director Inman. In the 1950s, projects could go from concept to the field in four or five years; now, it is a 12- to-15-year time frame, he said.
Because it is so difficult to plan on a 15-year schedule, "as this pressure to attack new problems increases, more large programs will be canceled in midstream with loss of money," Inman said. "It's not a good way to spend the public's money."