Trailblazer loses its way

One of the priorities for newly installed National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander likely will be to bring under control the huge cost overruns and long delays in the agency's Trailblazer IT modernization initiative.

One of the priorities for newly installed National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander likely will be to bring under control the huge cost overruns and long delays in the agency's Trailblazer IT modernization initiative.The five-year-old Trailblazer is the agency's premiere effort to update its communications surveillance and eavesdropping infrastructure to better handle global technologies, including the Internet, cell phones, pagers and fiber optics.Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Trailblazer has been viewed as critical and an urgent priority for intercepting terrorist messages around the world.With more than $477 million in contracts announced thus far -- and a classified overall price tag in the billions -- Trailblazer has racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in extra costs and is months behind schedule with no abatement in sight.Salvaging and refocusing Trailblazer to get it back on track is a must to make the program effective and to prevent an IT boondoggle, agency observers said."Gen. Alexander will have to clean up the mess," said Matthew Aid, a former NSA employee and a writer on national security issues. "We need to know if the money is being properly spent.""Overall, most people think [Trailblazer is] a disappointment," said James Bamford, a national security author. However, the agency has no alternative but to move forward with Trailblazer because it is so central to the agency's mission, he said."If you kill Trailblazer, you might as well kill NSA," Bamford said. "Gen. Alexander has no choice but to find a way to make it work."BETTER TECHNOLOGYLaunched in 2000 by former NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, who recently became deputy to National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, Trailblazer's aim is to replace the agency's Cold War technologies for collecting intelligence, geared mostly to intercepting Soviet radio messages, with modern global IT that can handle surveillance of cell phones, e-mail, fiber-optic telephones and other modern communication technologies. Trailblazer not only collects but also aids in analyzing the information."Every time a Soviet plane took off, NSA knew about it. It was pretty easy to track," Bamford said. "Now they have to track people who use cell phones, pay phones and calling cards ... You have to be a bit optimistic to think it will work."In 2001 and 2002, NSA awarded two contracts worth a combined $197 million to Conquest Inc. of Annapolis Junction, Md., for systems engineering for Trailblazer.In 2002, a team led by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego won a 26-month, $280 million contract for a "technology demonstration platform" for Trailblazer. The demonstration platform is "a risk-reduction activity," an NSA spokesperson said in 2002.The technology demonstration platform "will play a critical role for the agency in understanding and managing risk associated with large-scale integration and the acquisition of a complete, integrated" signals intelligence capability, the spokesperson said.Others on SAIC's team include Boeing Co., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.,Computer Sciences Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and former SAIC subsidiary Telcordia Technologies Inc. of Piscataway, N.J.But the IT program, most of which is classified, has become mired in difficulties. Last year, a joint congressional committee inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks said Trailblazer is viewed as the solution to many of NSA's challenges, "but the implementation of those solutions is three to five years away, and confusion still exists at NSA as to what will actually be provided by that program."In April, Hayden testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trailblazer was racking up extra costs and dropping behind schedule."The costs were greater than anticipated to the tune of, I would say, hundreds of millions," Hayden said. "The slippages were actually more dramatic than the costs. As we slipped, the costs were pushed to the right."Alexander, who was confirmed by the Senate July 29, has not yet commented publicly on Trailblazer. NSA sources said Trailblazer is being restructured, but details are not available.Alexander declined requests for an interview, and an SAIC spokesman referred all questions to NSA.A ROLL DOWNHILLIndustry experts don't believe the situation with Trailblazer has changed much since April."If anything, things have gotten worse," Aid said. He said he faults NSA, the contractors and Congress for the shortcomings in the program thus far."NSA is guilty of buying a bill of goods from contractors without checking to see if it is feasible. The contractors are guilty of promising the moon and not delivering," Aid said. "And Congress is guilty for failing to oversee it from beginning to end."The problems with Trailblazer have been compounded by difficulties with another NSA program, Groundbreaker, a $2 billion effort to modernize and outsource the agency's electronics infrastructure, including computers, software and networks. A CSC-led team in 2001 won the Groundbreaker contract. As part of the contract, about 1,000 NSA employees became employees of CSC or one of its teammates.Groundbreaker and Trailblazer were supposed to work together, but both are believed to be behind schedule and over budget, Aid said. "You cannot do one without the other," he said.Hayden, in his testimony in April, acknowledged that NSA initially had mishandled the Trailblazer contract."We learned within Trailblazer that when we asked industry for something they had or something close to what they already had, they were remarkable in providing us a response, an outcome," Hayden told the committee. "When we asked them for something that no one had yet invented, they weren't any better at inventing it than we were in doing it ourselves."Complicating the picture is an apparent lack of focus as to what Trailblazer's top priority should be, Bamford said.The threat from Third World terrorists, which has grabbed the headlines since Sept. 11, has fostered an emphasis on the ability to intercept cell phone, Internet and pay phone conversations in remote locations. But the greatest threat of weapons of mass destruction in the coming decades is probably from governments such as North Korea and Iran, which use more sophisticated means of communication, Bamford said."Terrorism is just one element, and it's not necessarily the most dangerous," he said.Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

Anatomy of a troubled project

National Security Agency Trailblazer

Contractors:


  • Conquest Inc., Annapolis Junction, Md.; two contracts worth $197 million for
    systems engineering

  • Science Applications International Corp.; $280 million contract for a "technology demonstration platform." Teammates include Northrop Grumman Corp., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., the Boeing Co., Computer Sciences Corp., and former SAIC subsidiary Telcordia Technologies Inc.


Public value: $477 million

Value of classified work: Estimates range into several billion dollars

Problems:

  • Several hundred million dollars over budget

  • Significantly behind schedule

  • IT challenges

  • Unclear focus































































X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.