Trailblazer loses its way
NSA modernization effort suffers cost overruns, delays
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Sep 10, 2005
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."
Launched 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 DOWNHILL
Industry 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.