WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency's impending electricity shortfall is "sort of a national catastrophe," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday.
Rockefeller, who took over as head of the panel when Democrats regained control of the Senate this month, called the power shortage a symptom of a larger problem: the NSA's failure to manage long-range issues.
"They haven't focused on the large picture," the West Virginia Democrat said in an interview.
The Sun reported last year that the NSA expects its power demands to exceed its supply within the next two years - an issue it has been aware of since the late 1990s. NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander has acknowledged the problem and assured lawmakers that he has assigned some of his top lieutenants to tackle it, according to a committee aide.
The NSA has set up an "issue management team" to work through the problem, The Sun reported last week. Such groups are usually assembled to focus on key spy targets, not infrastructure problems.
"It's true that the power, space and cooling needs of the agency weren't adequately addressed, and we're fixing it," said NSA spokesman Ken White. He said the agency had been working on the problem with lawmakers for nine months, updating them as recently as this week.
The NSA is "effectively addressing this complex situation, and is confident that we have a strategy that will receive the necessary funding to ensure sufficient power capacity and reliability for the future," he said in a statement.
As part of a broader look at the nation's intelligence agencies, Rockefeller said he plans to take up, at a hearing in March, the NSA's coming electricity crisis and its inability to adapt to 21st-century communications technology.
"We have been very weak on oversight since the beginning of the Bush administration, and this has not been a good time to be weak on oversight," he said.
That is about to change, the senator promised.
"There's going to be a showdown," he said, noting that the administration has already rebuffed other senators' requests for documents. If his committee does not get the information it needs, "I'm not going to rule out the process of the subpoena."
The electricity shortfall appeared to be a chief concern as he discussed his panel's priorities.
NSA officials "were so busy doing what various people wanted that they forgot to understand that they were running out of power, and that's sort of a national catastrophe," he said. "We cannot have that place go dark."
With its focus on intercepting communications, the NSA is the country's largest intelligence agency and also one of its most technology - and electric power - dependent.
Three main factors have contributed to the problem: insufficient electricity available from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., lack of capacity at substations serving the NSA, and infrastructure in agency buildings that cannot handle rising electrical demands.
To curb its appetite for electricity in the short term, the NSA has shut off some equipment and delayed plugging in some new supercomputers.
According to a committee aide, Rockefeller's panel has posed basic questions to the NSA about the agency's present electrical capacity and its expected capacity when new items in the pipeline are added. It has also inquired about capacity when longer-term modernization projects take hold and where the agency expects to get the electricity to support it all.
So far, the NSA has given the committee data on how much electricity the agency uses, though, the aide said, there is a significant margin of error in that estimate. There are also concerns that the NSA might not fully understand its future needs.
The NSA uses about 65 to 75 megawatt-hours of electricity, The Sun reported last week. Its needs are projected to grow by 10 to 15 megawatt-hours by next fall.
Another shortcoming - the NSA's continuing difficulty in devising a computerized system to collect electronic communications in the wake of the global information explosion - will also be explored by his committee, Rockefeller said.
"They have had their problems there," he said, noting that the NSA's last modernization effort, dubbed Trailblazer, "didn't work."
Rockefeller said he had not yet reached a conclusion on the NSA's latest modernization projects. His staff expects to report its findings to the committee in advance of the March oversight hearing.
Rockefeller's committee is also evaluating the legality and effectiveness of President Bush's Terrorist Surveillance Program at the NSA.
The senator said his early priorities include getting more information about the authorization that a secret national-security court provided recently for the program, which had previously conducted warrantless eavesdropping on conversations between the United States and overseas if one party was believed to be linked to al-Qaida.