Power supply still a vexation for the NSA

Sun follow-up

June 24, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- A year after the National Security Agency nearly maxed out its electrical capacity, some offices are experiencing significant power disruptions as the agency confronts the increasingly urgent problem of an infrastructure stretched to its limits, intelligence officials said.

The spy agency has delayed the deployment of some new data-processing equipment because it is short on power and space. Outages have shut down some offices in NSA headquarters for up to half a day. And some officials fear that major problems could occur this summer as temperatures climb.

The NSA has been working to develop and implement short- and long-term plans to ensure a steady supply of electricity to the nation's largest intelligence agency; they range from creating rapid-response teams to revamping power substations, internal documents show.

The current shortage has been projected for nearly a decade. Some of the rooms that house the NSA's enormous computer systems were not designed to handle newer computers that generate considerably more heat and draw far more electricity than their predecessors.

It is the result of "mismanagement at very high levels," said Ira Winkler, a former NSA analyst. "They let it get out of hand."

NSA spokeswoman Andrea Martino declined to comment on the reason for the electrical problems. "We cannot discuss the specifics that may or may not affect the agency's operations for national security purposes," she said, adding that Congress has been kept informed.

The agency has already been forced to delay installing some high-tech equipment to avoid overloading the system, according to a senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

New equipment for data processing, as well as some purchased for one of the agency's signature initiatives, the mammoth modernization effort dubbed Turbulence, are among those that have been held up, the senior official said. The lengths of the delays are classified.

The issue has become a top priority for the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander. In recent classified testimony to Congress, he warned that the agency would have to shut down significant amounts of equipment and resort to rolling blackouts if drastic action were not taken, the official said. Alexander also told Congress that the NSA was delaying the deployment and installation of equipment, the official said.

His testimony was part of an effort to persuade lawmakers to add more than $800 million - the exact sum is classified - to the NSA's 2007 budget, the senior official added.

Congress recently approved the NSA request in a classified spending bill, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence subcommittee that oversees the agency.

However, lawmakers also reprimanded the NSA, intelligence officials said, for using money for spy operations to pay for electrical expenses without congressional approval.

"It got to a point where it became a serious problem," Ruppersberger said, referring to the NSA's power shortage. "We're attempting to deal with it now."

For brief periods last summer, the NSA hit the ceiling of the power capacity at its Fort Meade campus, forcing the agency to turn off or idle technical equipment, the senior intelligence official said. The agency also had to shift the timing of power use for some computers responsible for processing data, to even out electrical loads, and continues to do so.

Some intelligence officials said they are worried that as this summer heats up, anticipated spikes in power demand could have dire consequences.

"I don't think it's going well," said one government source with direct knowledge of the power problem, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. "I am concerned with the possibility of a large-scale blackout and the damage it would cause across the board. ... We're experiencing problems in all of our buildings."

As the NSA has attempted to reduce electricity consumption, it has turned down air-conditioning and heating systems in parts of some buildings.

"In the morning, it's like a sweatshop," the government source said.

Last winter, according to one intelligence analyst, some employees wore gloves in the office to try to keep warm, adding that it made for challenging typing.

As part of its short-term effort to redirect power use and upgrade systems, the NSA has had to resort to partial, rolling brownouts at its computer "farms" and scheduled power outages, the senior intelligence official said, adding that these have become more frequent in recent months.

Among the most significant electrical issues was a series of outages in several buildings at NSA headquarters April 30 and May 1, which caused computers to unexpectedly restart and triggered blackouts that lasted between 45 minutes and four hours in some offices, according to the government source.

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