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Costly NSA initiative has a shaky takeoff

Vexing snags for cyberspace tool `Turbulence'

Sun Exclusive

February 11, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun Reporter

An intelligence report declassified last fall issued a similar warning. It said Islamic "radicalization is occurring more quickly, more widely and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups." Today, networks moving data, phone calls, e-mails and wireless communications are increasingly interconnected, creating a new opportunity and challenge for the NSA, the nation's largest intelligence agency.

"It's huge, it's unconstrained. It's to a degree anonymous, and it provides access for everyone," said Michael Jacobs, a former senior NSA official. "It has invited vast volumes of information to be moved at the speed of light."

The way information moves on the Internet complicates that task. A communication is dissolved into a series of zeros and ones, and separated into "packets" for more rapid and efficient Internet delivery, making it much harder to capture a complete communication in transit.

Turbulence aims to answer that challenge. Those familiar with the program compare it to a traffic camera that tries to select dangerous motorists out of a pack of speeding vehicles by using information analogous to a car's make, color and license number. It's like trying to figure out which 10 cars are carrying dangerous cargo out of millions traveling the highways at the same time.

Critical weapon

Shortly after Alexander took over as NSA director in August 2005, he became convinced Turbulence would be critical to the agency's ability to detect threats in cyberspace. Alexander spent decades in the Army, specializing in intelligence and favoring quick-turnaround projects that got information into soldiers' hands.

Alexander told the Turbulence team last year that "the fight on the network" will arrive soon, adding that they were at the forefront of fighting enemies in cyberspace, according to the 2006 internal memo on Turbulence.

Launched in late 2005, Turbulence differs from another troubled NSA technology upgrade, "Trailblazer," which attempted to vacuum up all digital communications and then sort through them later. Turbulence seeks to collect, and potentially disrupt, information by targeting routes along the Internet and other networks thought to be traveled by terrorists or other adversaries.

The NSA is "applying the lessons learned" from Trailblazer with its current efforts, said White, the agency spokesman. There is "nothing more important in this agency" than Turbulence, Alexander told the Turbulence team, according to the internal memo.

Turbulence includes nine core programs, with intriguing names such as Turmoil, Tutelage and Traffic Thief. Among their goals: mapping social networks based on intercepted communications, embedding technology on networks to collect data, and searching for patterns across hundreds of NSA databases.

Some programs related to Turbulence have achieved results, according to current and former intelligence officials. One is a five-year-old program called Wealthy Cluster, a smaller-scale effort to hunt down tips on terrorists and others in cyberspace.

Wealthy Cluster has helped find members of al-Qaida, said one former NSA official familiar with the program, though he said classification restrictions prevented him from saying more.

But as the progress of Turbulence has not lived up to its billing, some NSA officials have been known to discuss both programs as a single effort.

"There's ambiguity about the program," said the former NSA official, noting the achievements of Wealthy Cluster and Turbulence are often conflated. "If you're not achieving as much success as you'd like on one thing, you try to connect it to something else."

Current and former intelligence officials said that some tests of Turbulence's new technology have not produced the anticipated results, and deadlines are slipping. The pressure to deliver quickly has led to technology being tried out on government networks before it is ready, sometimes damaging computer systems, they said.

Turbulence is also beginning to face planning and management problems similar to those that troubled Trailblazer, critics said.

In recent months, Alexander has become impatient with the slow progress of Turbulence, current and former intelligence officials said. "He is frustrated that he can't make people act quickly enough," said the former senior NSA official.

The greatest concern is that, with the various components being engineered separately, Turbulence's various parts will not fit together, rendering the system largely useless.

"There are a handful of things that will come out of this that will be really neat to point to and will clearly have some value added," said one former intelligence official knowledgeable about the program. "At the end of the day, though, I'm not convinced when you sit back and look at it [that] it will get you really where you need to go."

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