WASHINGTON -- Congress publicly registered its impatience with the management of the National Security Agency yesterday as lawmakers criticized the agency's new multibillion-dollar effort to identify, track and analyze emerging threats in cyberspace.
Dubbed "Turbulence," the signature initiative of the NSA director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is experiencing "management deficiencies" just 18 months after it was launched, the Senate Armed Services Committee said in the course of its confirmation process for James R. Clapper Jr., who is President Bush's nominee to be Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.
Turbulence is a loose collection of at least nine programs designed to give the NSA the ability to continuously patrol global communications networks. The Sun revealed the existence of Turbulence and outlined its management problems earlier this year.
Yesterday, the committee distributed a critique of Turbulence in the form of a series of written questions for Clapper.
"Turbulence is experiencing the same management deficiencies that have plagued NSA since at least the end of the Cold War," the committee noted, adding that prior problems at the agency led Congress to punish the agency for its failure to effectively "meet new threats."
The panel asked Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, for his view on the "seriousness" of the NSA's problem. He responded, in writing, that he did not know enough about "current challenges" to answer "authoritatively."
Clapper, who is expected to win confirmation easily, said he would work with the director of national intelligence to monitor the NSA's troubled efforts to modernize its intelligence collection efforts for the Digital Age.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also reviewing the Turbulence initiative.
NSA spokesman Ken White said afterward it would be "inappropriate to comment" on Congress' criticism of Turbulence. He contended the questions for Clapper had been prepared by the committee staff, and thus it would be "disingenuous" to attribute them to senators on the panel.
Congress has long been concerned about the NSA's poor record in executing large spy programs, and in 2004 it barred the NSA from initiating such programs on its own. It required the NSA to obtain permission from the Pentagon in an effort to force the agency to better manage its programs.
The committee, in its questions for Clapper, noted management failures have persisted. Those besetting Turbulence, it said, follow the "severe management problems" and subsequent demise of its predecessor, Trailblazer, which Alexander killed shortly after he arrived at the NSA in August 2005.
The panel also asked about the wisdom of the NSA's decision to develop Turbulence as a series of small programs. That approach enabled the NSA to avoid more rigorous oversight by Congress and the Pentagon, which would be required if the program were a larger, more expensive one, intelligence officials have said.
Clapper said that he was "not informed" about Turbulence, but that he intended to become familiar with it if he is confirmed. He said he would confer with Alexander and Director of National Intelligence John M. "Mike" McConnell and then "decide what action should be taken."
More broadly, Clapper wrote that he plans to work with McConnell and others to establish "a coherent, systematic, and joint ... oversight program" for the NSA's modernization of its spying operations.
At the hearing, and in written responses to the committee's questions, Clapper outlined an approach to directing the Pentagon's intelligence office that appeared to contrast sharply with the controversial expansion of intelligence operations undertaken by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his intelligence chief, Stephen A. Cambone.
Rumsfeld created the Pentagon's intelligence office as part of a post-9/11 expansion of Defense's spying capabilities, which lawmakers have said diminished the authority of the director of national intelligence, the spymaster position created in 2004 to oversee all U.S. intelligence operations.
Clapper said that working with the director of national intelligence would be a key to his management of defense intelligence operations. He also indicated that he would make significant changes to bring the military's spy operations in line with McConnell's blueprint for U.S. intelligence.
Clapper, 66, has long been an advocate for merging the efforts of the nation's intelligence agencies, and his support for the creation of a new spymaster position several years ago apparently cost him his last government job.
Clapper, who at the time was director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Bethesda, told Congress in 2004 that control over some of the Pentagon's intelligence agencies, including the NSA and NGA, should be given instead to a new national intelligence director. Rumsfeld, who opposed the changes, later fired Clapper, according to former government officials familiar with the matter, who attributed that move to Clapper's clashes with the Defense chief.
In his written comments, Clapper emphasized his commitment to allowing intelligence officers to express their opinions, even when their views differed from those of their bosses.
He alluded to his "hard-won personal experience" on the issue and added: "I have a very strong conviction that intelligence officers should be free to speak their mind before the Congress."