WASHINGTON -- The number of reported attempts to penetrate Pentagon computer networks rose sharply in the past decade, from fewer than 800 in 1996 to more than 160,000 last year - thousands of them successful. At the same time, the nation's ability to safeguard sensitive data in those and other government computer systems is becoming obsolete as efforts to make improvements have faltered and stalled.
A National Security Agency program to protect secrets at the Defense Department and intelligence and other agencies is seven years behind schedule, triggering concerns that the data will be increasingly vulnerable to theft, according to intelligence officials and unclassified internal NSA documents obtained by The Sun.
When fully implemented, the program would build a new encryption system to strengthen protections on computer networks and would more effectively control the access of millions of people to government computer systems and buildings.
Launched in 1999, the program was to have been completed last year, but it fell behind in part because of differences between the NSA and the Pentagon. The NSA is trying to revamp the program, although the deadline has slid to 2012, with the most substantive security improvements planned for 2018.
An internal NSA report in April 2005 described the problem as "critical," noting that 30 percent of the agency's security equipment does not provide "adequate" protection; another 46 percent is approaching that status.
"Much of the existing cryptographic equipment is based on ... technologies that are 20-30+ years old," said the report from the agency's information security directorate. At the same time, it noted, technology for breaking into computer systems has improved, which "gives our adversaries enhanced capabilities."
Pentagon computers, in particular, are under constant attack. Recently, Chinese hackers were able to penetrate and steal data from a classified computer system serving the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to two sources familiar with the incident. A security team spent weeks eliminating the breach and installing additional safeguards.
The Pentagon declined interview requests for two information security officials, but a spokesman said in a written statement that the NSA is continually assisting the Pentagon to "maintain best security practices" and raise the level of information security.
NSA spokesman Don Weber said in a statement that because information security is a core mission of the agency, "any speculation that we, along with our partners would leave national security systems vulnerable, is unfounded."
Among 18 current and former officials and security experts interviewed for this article, several would speak only on condition of anonymity because many details of the program are sensitive and reveal vulnerabilities in the nation's defenses.
Encryption, which is an electronic lock, is among the most important of security tools, scrambling sensitive information so that it can ride securely in communications over the Internet or phone lines, and requiring a key to decipher.
Powerful encryption is necessary for protecting information that is beamed from soldiers on the battlefield or that guards data in computers at the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters. Without updated encryption, sensitive information could be stolen by China or other countries that have regularly tried to break into U.S. government systems to steal military and intelligence secrets. There are emerging concerns about Iran's desire to do so, as well.
"This stuff is enormously important," said John P. Stenbit, the Pentagon's chief information officer until 2004. "If the keys get into the wrong hands, all kinds of bad things happen. You don't want to just let a hacker grab the key as it's going through the Internet."
The NSA report warned that "serious risks" in the Pentagon's security system jeopardize its ability to execute its missions effectively. A December 2005 NSA planning document described the program as crucial for ensuring adequate protection for all national security programs.
"It's a pretty critical thing to do right ... because the government relies on confidential communications so heavily," said Martin Roesch, founder of Sourcefire, a computer security company in Columbia, Md. "It's kind of a fundamental capability."
A growing threat
As the program, known as Key Management Infrastructure, has faltered, the potential for penetrating government computers has grown. Intelligence officials have said that as many as 100 countries pose legitimate threats to U.S. government computers and those of companies doing government work.
In the past decade, reported attempts to hack into Pentagon computers have grown 200-fold, according to the Pentagon.
"Numerous states, terrorist and hackers groups, criminal syndicates, and individuals continue to pose a threat to our computer systems," Maj. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress this year. "Over the last few years, hackers have exploited thousands of [Department of Defense] systems."
In addition to the NSA's aging security technology, some of the tools required for encrypting data lack security protections and are vulnerable, so an infiltrator could uncover and possibly replicate the tools to access government data, according to the NSA's December 2005 planning document.
Intelligence specialists say potential attacks could include foreign governments snooping for U.S. intelligence and military secrets and using identity information to create false IDs, which could enable them to gain access to military or intelligence facilities, computers and even weapons systems, they said.
"What's at stake here is the security of the nation, because we are under monster attack from China, Russia, Israel, France and so on," a former government official said.
News reports last year revealed a major Chinese campaign called Titan Rain that targeted unclassified Pentagon computer networks and others at the Energy and Homeland Security departments. In a Miami case, the Justice Department charged two men this year with channeling military technology secrets to China that were obtained through hacking. It brought similar charges against three others last fall in a case in Los Angeles.
"The threat is much larger than we ever thought it was," said David Szady, a former top counterintelligence official at the FBI and the CIA. The Chinese "have been able to develop their military and their systems on the backbone of United States technology."
Another country emerging as a concern is Iran. "They certainly are able to, and would have an interest in doing it," said one former senior intelligence official.
Cracking the government's aging encryption system would require a high level of training of the type most likely occurring in countries such as China or Russia.
But as commercial code-breaking technology improves, intelligence experts said, it is possible that a technically astute terrorist or even an unusually focused teenage hacker could infiltrate government computers.
If hackers can break through weak encryption systems on government and contractors' computers, they can hunt through different networks for bits and pieces of information to thread together and assemble a fairly good idea of U. S. defense capabilities - with the intent of either copying them or devising a system to defeat them, said one former NSA employee.
The new system would address a number of the security challenges that exist with the explosion of wireless, networked communication devices, according to internal NSA documents. The most sensitive data is generally held in internal systems that are not exposed to the Internet. But the Pentagon and other government agencies are increasingly using Internet-based communications.
And as the demand grows for "smart" identification cards with computer chips that verify the card holder's identity, so does the need for sophisticated ways to manage who is being assigned cards, so that the cards do not end up in the wrong hands, said Stephen Kent, a chief scientist at BBN Technologies who has chaired government panels on information security.
Sprawled across several government agencies, but centered at the NSA, the Key Management Infrastructure program is actually a compilation of about 25 programs; its costs, which are classified, are difficult to gauge. One estimate pegs spending so far at $2 billion or more, said a former government official familiar with the program. Other estimates are in the hundreds of millions.
A critical problem with the project, according to several current and former intelligence officials, is one that has afflicted other large programs at the agency: poor management.
Like other major NSA efforts - such as the failed Trailblazer program to rapidly sift out threat information, and the troubled Groundbreaker program aimed at upgrading the agency's computer networks - an ever-changing game plan has caused many of the project's problems, current and former senior intelligence officials said.
One former senior intelligence official said that the NSA had unrealistic expectations from the start and repeatedly opted for delays to try to perfect the program. That left the government with aging security protections in the quest for security nirvana, the official said.
"NSA often will say, 'Well, this is not totally secure, so you can't use it,' when the only alternative is nothing," the former official said. "My worry is this push for perfect security is the enemy of good security.
NSA officials have also had a difficult time forging consensus among the agencies involved with the project, especially the Pentagon, according to former officials familiar with the conflict.
"Anybody who doesn't like the way you're doing it can essentially withdraw," the former senior intelligence official said. "It's a program that is actually planned for failure."
After several false starts, the first phase of the program was canceled in 2003, and its replacement has been in the planning stages since then.
The NSA is re-evaluating the program, intelligence officials said. That reassessment - owed at least in part to pressure from Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, the chief technology officer under spy chief John D. Negroponte and the Pentagon - is expected to produce a new blueprint, Meyerrose said in an interview. It also coincided with incoming NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander's agency-wide review.
Under the current plan, the initial phase will be completed in 2012. Even then, it would at best provide only a level of security equivalent to the existing system, current and former government officials said. The agency would, however, be able to upgrade the revised system, which is not possible now, they said.
Meyerrose acknowledged that the project has taken "a little longer than we thought." He chalked it up to a lack of leadership in the intelligence community to get behind the program, which he said would change under the new spymaster. The program's planners, he said, underestimated how difficult it would be to "synchronize" all the moving parts of the program.
After the first false start, the NSA asked the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which was involved in aspects of the project, to take on a broader role to get the program's many segments working together. But the NSA is unhappy with the firm's performance, which it deemed slow and rigid, one former government official said. A spokesman for Booz Allen declined to comment, citing confidentiality agreements.
Booz Allen's contract is slated to end in October, and the NSA plans to do the work on its own, probably with assistance from a new contractor, the former official said.
Although Richard C. Schaeffer, in charge of the NSA's information security division, characterized the current timetable for the program as "aggressive" in a statement to The Sun, some officials are concerned that the schedule is sliding again, according to a former government official familiar with the program. The NSA was supposed to award a contract for the revamped program last December, but that shifted to June and then to October.
"It's pretty scandalous. It certainly has been a start, restart, start, restart," said one former intelligence official. "It seems stunning to me."
Meanwhile, given the pace of technology, every year that the project slips, it becomes less relevant, said a former government official familiar with the project.
"You're going to introduce something that is completely obsolete," he said.
While 2012 is the target date for wrapping up the current phase of the program, Meyerrose said, some portions will be implemented in the interim.
But some intelligence officials said they are concerned that components of the program could be delayed until 2018, when the next phase of more substantive security changes is to be completed, and the April 2005 NSA report highlights this possibility.
The program's delay also is likely to hold up some major Pentagon efforts that rely on secure information, such as the Global Information Grid, a network under development that aims to manage all national security information around the world, former intelligence officials said. Both the NSA report and planning documents emphasize the dependency of this network and other defense programs on the key management program.
"If you can't communicate securely, the enemy has the potential to know what you're doing," one former official said. "Information security is Job One."