WASHINGTON -- An expensive National Security Agency initiative to search the world's communication networks for security threats is hitting early but significant snags, prompting intelligence officials and lawmakers to raise questions about its funding and its future.
Dubbed "Turbulence," the NSA's ambitious effort is part bloodhound and part attack dog. It attempts to continuously troll cyberspace to sniff out threats from terrorists and others, then rapidly tip off analysts who can mobilize defenses. With the potential to be a powerful anti-terror weapon, it has become NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander's top priority.
With annual costs approaching $500 million, Turbulence is so secret that its existence has never been revealed publicly. Inside the agency, Turbulence's most sensitive activities are sequestered behind passwords known to few.
Turbulence also appears to be aptly named. Delays, technical problems and what critics call a vague game plan have sparked rising skepticism inside the agency and in Congress. Even Alexander has been growing increasingly impatient, former NSA officials said.
Early tests of the Turbulence technology "are not going very well," said a former top NSA official who maintains contact with agency colleagues. "They have had trouble with the delivery."
Meanwhile, lawmakers have been angered by the NSA's method of funding Turbulence, which more than a year into its existence does not appear anywhere in the agency's budget, according to current and former officials. The NSA, they said, has funneled money from older, largely defunct programs into new ones that are part of Turbulence while breaking up the initiative into smaller programs - limiting Congress' oversight.
With Democrats in control of Congress, Turbulence is expected to come under greater scrutiny.
The NSA's modernization challenges are "very much on our minds," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, who noted that his panel is taking an in-depth look at all of the agency's programs.
Added Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee's top Republican: "If [the NSA is] lagging in technology, it's basically out of business."
Proponents say the initiative is the NSA's most promising effort to revolutionize the way it collects and acts on intelligence in cyberspace, which is fast becoming a haven for aspiring terrorists.
NSA spokesman Ken White said in a statement that modernization is "among our most important initiatives," but, "for obvious reasons of national security, the Agency is not in a position to detail either the specifics or the status of its effort to modernize the cryptologic system."
The Sun interviewed 14 current and former government officials about Turbulence. Most would speak only on condition of anonymity because the initiative is highly classified. Several said they were discussing it out of concern that those working on Turbulence have oversold its capabilities to Alexander and to Congress.
Though 9/11 ushered in a new urgency to track terrorist communication, and the NSA produces the bulk of the material in President Bush's daily intelligence summary, the agency is struggling to extract the right information from the vastness of cyberspace, which includes the Internet, cellular communications and financial networks.
More than 1 billion people use the Internet and send more than 90 billion e-mail messages daily, according to research firm IDC. Daily Internet traffic is incredibly difficult to measure, but some estimates put it at more than 500 petabytes, the equivalent of a trillion average-sized novels.
That has triggered some self-examination at the NSA, as an agency that once dominated global communications confronts whether it can be relevant in the 21st century. A recent agency document obtained by The Sun warned that tech-savvy enemies are outstripping the government's capacity to track them. "We're learning, but others are learning faster!" it said.
Henry A. Crumpton, until recently the State Department's chief of counterterrorism, told The Sun that terrorists are increasingly "trying to forge a cyber safe haven" as they indoctrinate, recruit and train sympathizers on the Internet, complete with video games to help them practice terror techniques.
"Look at how fragile our infrastructure is because of this dependency on cyberspace," Crumpton said, adding that some of the Pentagon's logistics, as well as the nation's public utilities, including nuclear reactors, are Internet-dependent and could be turned against the U.S.