Into uncharted waters

Blogosphere brings contractors fresh problems on high-profile Deepwater project

For the second time in less than a year, the
Coast Guard's $24 billion Deepwater program
has hit rough waters with allegations
of problems and
delays related to electronics
systems on the new National Security Cutter.

The Coast Guard is defending Deepwater,
and it is doing so while navigating an unfamiliar
environment: the blogosphere.

It is a challenge that increasingly affects
government procurements. Many contractors
and government officials may be confronting
similarly choppy seas.

Bloggers have become more active in criticizing
government contractors, said Don
Goldberg, a crisis communications specialist
at Qorvis Communications in Washington. "It
is really becoming a problem."

Many of the recent claims against
Deepwater are circulating on
individuals' Web diaries, called
blogs. For Coast Guard Rear
Adm. Gary Blore, assistant commandant for
acquisition, that is a source of frustration.
"I think we are encountering an interesting
phenomenon in the blogosphere," Blore told
reporters March 11. "A blog can be anything
you want it to be."

HARSH ALLEGATIONS

Deepwater, initiated in 2002, has faced trouble
before. A year ago, the Coast Guard rejected
eight 123-foot patrol boats valued at nearly
$100 million because of structural problems
and reclaimed the lead systems integrator role
from a joint venture formed by Lockheed
Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.

The recent claims against Deepwater are
serious. They pertain to the effectiveness and
security of the advanced electronics systems
on the National Security Cutter Bertholf,
which is in the final stage of construction.

The criticisms focus on alleged problems
and delays related to the Bertholf 's command,
control, communications, computers, intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance
(C4ISR) suite. The electronics suite has hardware
and software for wireless transmission of
classified and unclassified data.

Deepwater critics include former Lockheed
Martin lead systems engineer Michael DeKort
and James Atkinson, president of Granite
Island Group, an information technology consulting
firm. DeKort and Atkinson testified to
Congress in April 2007 on C4ISR shortcomings
in handling classified information on
Deepwater's 123-foot patrol boats. Similar
problems resulting in potential leakage of
classified information are inherent in the
design of the Bertholf, DeKort and Atkinson
told Washington Technology.

"People need to go to jail for this," Atkinson
said.

Coast Guard engineer Anthony D'Armiento
shared similar concerns. His statements have
raised questions about whether the Coast
Guard would prematurely accept the Bertholf
before resolving major problems with its
C4ISR system, said Beth Daley, senior investigator
at the Project on Government Oversight
watchdog group. The Coast Guard would lose
leverage to fix those systems in that case, she
said.

In recent weeks, several blogs and a newspaper
have published articles and opinions on
the C4ISR criticisms. Some bloggers speculate
that the Bertholf has systemic, unresolved
electronics problems that might delay delivery
and final certification of the ship.

The Coast Guard has strongly defended the
Bertholf and its C4ISR systems, saying March
11 the cutter is on course to be accepted in late
April or early May, and it will undergo final
tests of the electronics systems soon afterward.

Blore, and Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago, program
executive officer, disputed claims that
there are delays related to the C4ISR systems.
They said the Coast Guard routinely accepts
delivery of a ship and then tests for and corrects
C4ISR-related problems before receiving
a certification for full mission capability.

To date, based on preliminary tests, the contractors
have fixed 80 percent of the problems
discovered in the C4ISR systems, Rabago
said.

A post on Coast Guard Journal, the service's
blog, states that there is some risk of delays in
the final certification of the C4ISR suite
because of challenges related to information
assurance. However, Blore said March 11 that
delays are not anticipated relative to C4ISR.
Blore and Rabago also said the C4ISR electronics
systems on the Bertholf are different
from those on the 123-foot patrol boats. They
are "of a different design" and "more complex,"
Blore said.

FANNING THE FLAMES

Meanwhile, officials at the Coast Guard and
Lockheed Martin, which built the C4ISR systems,
said they are facing new challenges in
responding to blogger reporting.

"Many of the things [stated] on the Internet
are not factually based," Blore said. For example,
he refuted a claim on the Web that the
Coast Guard had refused to sign off on a specific
document for the Bertholf, saying the document
has not yet been created.

"The Internet has changed how we do our
job," said Troy Scully, a Lockheed Martin
spokesman. "Social media does not have a gatekeeper?.
There is a real challenge in distinguishing
what is real and what is perceived."

Goldberg said he has seen an increase in
blogger allegations against contractors in
recent months to the point that it has become a
major challenge. The Internet provides an easily
accessible, unfiltered and immediate forum
for government employees, consumers and
competitors to offer information and opinions.

"Competitors and people inside the agencies
can really fan the flames," he said. However,
there is no direct evidence of those influences
in the Deepwater allegations.

Contractors' hands often are tied because
government clients prefer to be in charge of
communicating with the public on their own.
Although the goal should be transparency,
sometimes that is difficult to achieve, Goldberg
said.

"It is hard to rebut anything without raising
the temperature of the discussion," he said.
Repeated media attacks, in blogs or elsewhere,
can negatively affect contractors
because they affect public perception and
make it more difficult for the contractors to
work out issues with government contracting
officials, said Karen Manos, co-partner at
Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher's Washington
office, whose clients include government contractors.

"If people are constantly criticizing," Manos
said, "it is harder for the contracting officer to
give the contractor the benefit of the doubt."

Conversely, the impact of bloggers should
not be exaggerated. Negative allegations are
not unique to Deepwater or to the Internet.
Newspapers and congressional committees
have been investigating similar claims for many
years.

"Deepwater has been under scrutiny for a
long time," said David Bodenheimer, a partner
at the Crowell and Moring law firm, where he
heads the homeland security practice. "I am not
too surprised to see the contentiousness flare
up again, though it may die down again."

Alice Lipowicz (alipowicz@1105govinfo.com) is a
staff writer at Washington Technology.

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