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Costly NSA initiative has a shaky takeoff

The Baltimore Sun

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."

Cyberspace challenge

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.

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."

The former NSA official familiar with the program, however, said that using several smaller programs provides a way to hedge bets on uncertain technology, allowing the initiative to develop in parts without holding the entire effort back when one piece of it does not work.

Intelligence officials claim that there are few, if any, controls on the program's costs; nor are there consequences for failure to deliver results.

Spending on Turbulence and related efforts is classified, but intelligence officials familiar with the program said its cost this year will be between $250 million and $500 million, and its total tally will exceed $2 billion.

Estimates vary because Turbulence has so many component programs. By putting the initiative together that way and funneling money from other programs into Turbulence, the NSA could avoid rules that expose its major spending efforts to closer oversight from Congress and the Pentagon, critics said.

Congress irked

In 2004, Congress revoked the NSA's authority to spend money on major new programs, requiring instead that the Pentagon approve them, because the NSA mismanaged Trailblazer and other programs. It has not restored that power.

Lawmakers, unhappy about the NSA's circumvention of Congress and skeptical of the agency's modernization efforts after Trailblazer's flameout, included "very savage" language last year in a classified annex of an intelligence bill, said the former government official, who is familiar with the classified report.

The conclusion in Congress, two former government officials said, was that Turbulence was over budget, not delivering and poorly led, and that there was little or no strategy to pull it all together.

But members of Congress balked at cutting off funds, said one congressional aide, because it could take years for the NSA to develop a new program, and lawmakers do not feel they have that luxury.

"We're on the right track, but there are some things that I have concerns with," said Rep. C.A Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, declining to elaborate. The Maryland Democrat, whose district includes the NSA's Fort Meade campus, said careful monitoring from Congress is critical to making the programs work.

Said Ruppersberger, "We're just going to have to make sure that they follow through."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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