WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency is running out of juice.
The demand for electricity to operate its expanding intelligence systems has left the high-tech eavesdropping agency on the verge of exceeding its power supply, the lifeblood of its sprawling 350-acre Fort Meade headquarters, according to current and former intelligence officials.
Agency officials anticipated the problem nearly a decade ago as they looked ahead at the technology needs of the agency, sources said, but it was never made a priority, and now the agency's ability to keep its operations going is threatened. The NSA is already unable to install some costly and sophisticated new equipment, including two new supercomputers, for fear of blowing out the electrical infrastructure, they said.
At minimum, the problem could produce disruptions leading to outages and power surges at the Fort Meade headquarters, hampering the work of intelligence analysts and damaging equipment, they said. At worst, it could force a virtual shutdown of the agency, paralyzing the intelligence operation, erasing crucial intelligence data and causing irreparable damage to computer systems -- all detrimental to the fight against terrorism.
Estimates on how long the agency has to stave off such an overload vary from just two months to less than two years. NSA officials "claim they will not be able to operate more than a month or two longer unless something is done," said a former senior NSA official familiar with the problem, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Agency leaders, meanwhile, are scrambling for stopgap measures to buy time while they develop a sustainable plan. Limitations of the electrical infrastructure in the main NSA complex and the substation serving the agency, along with growing demand in the region, prevent an immediate fix, according to current and former government officials.
"If there's a major power failure out there, any backup systems would be inadequate to power the whole facility," said Michael Jacobs, who headed the NSA's information assurance division until 2002.
"It's obviously worrisome, particularly on days like today," he said in an interview during last week's barrage of triple-digit temperatures.
William Nolte, a former NSA executive who spent decades with the agency, said power disruptions would severely hamper the agency.
"You've got an awfully big computer plant and a lot of precision equipment, and I don't think they would handle power surges and the like really well," he said. "Even re-calibrating equipment would be really time consuming -- with lost opportunities and lost up-time."
Power surges can also wipe out analysts' hard drives, said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst who is writing a multivolume history of the agency. The information on those hard drives is so valuable that many NSA employees remove them from their computers and lock them in a safe when they leave each day, he said.
A half-dozen current and former government officials knowledgeable about the energy problem discussed it with The Sun on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
NSA spokesman Don Weber declined to comment on specifics about the NSA's power needs or what is being done to address them, saying that even private companies consider such information proprietary.
In a statement to The Sun, he said that "as new technologies become available, the demand for power increases and NSA must determine the best and most economical way to use our existing power and bring on additional capacity."
Biggest BGE customer
The NSA is Baltimore Gas & Electric's largest customer, using as much electricity as the city of Annapolis, according to James Bamford, an intelligence expert and author of two comprehensive books on the agency.
BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy acknowledged a power company project to deal with the rising energy demand at the NSA, but she referred questions about it to the NSA.
The agency got a taste of the potential for trouble Jan. 24, 2000, when an information overload, rather than a power shortage, caused the NSA's first-ever network crash. It took the agency 3 1/2 days to resume operations, but with a power outage it could take considerably longer to get the NSA humming again.
The 2000 shutdown rendered the agency's headquarters "brain-dead," as then-NSA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden told CBS's 60 Minutes in 2002.
"I don't want to trivialize this. This was really bad," Hayden said. "We were dark. Our ability to process information was gone."
As an immediate fallback measure, the NSA sent its incoming data to its counterpart in Great Britain, which stepped up efforts to process the NSA's information along with its own, said Bamford.
The agency came under intense criticism from members of Congress after the crash, and the incident rapidly accelerated efforts to modernize the agency.
One former NSA official familiar with the electricity problem noted a sense of deja vu six years later.