Bigger and Bigger Secrets

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about a $300M NSA project that will most likely never be used. The original article was written by Siobhan Gorman and published in the Baltimore Sun.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about a $300M NSA project that will most likely never be used. The original article was written by Siobhan Gorman and published in the Baltimore Sun.

In response to that post, Siobhan sent me another article (fee required), in which she reported an even larger failed project at the NSA. This time around the price tag is a whopping $1.2 billion, and after six years the software still doesn’t work. The project is called Trailblazer and was designed as a massive data-gathering and filtering tool to used in the war on terrorism.

According to the article, Trailblazer suffered from issues often discussed here in the Deck Chairs blog: lack of clear project agenda and focus, inadequate financial and technical controls, priorities shifting over time, denial and risk-avoidance, and so on.

To give you a sense of the key issues, especially pertaining to the project failure aspects, I have pulled selected quotes from the article. Of course, the real issue is how this waste of time and money affects our ability to combat terrorism, but that’s not the specific focus here.

The original article is based on excellent in-depth reporting, and I urge you to read it:

Trailblazer is "the biggest boondoggle going on now in the intelligence community," said Matthew Aid, who has advised three recent federal commissions and panels that investigated the Sept. 11 intelligence failures.

Trailblazer’s overseers lacked either the influence or the time to clearly define their goals and keep the project on track.

Science Applications International Corp., the lead contractor on the project, did not provide enough people with the technical or management skills to produce such a sophisticated system, according to industry and NSA experts familiar with Trailblazer. And, they said, the company did not say no when the NSA made unrealistic demands.

But years after the initiative was launched, there was still no unanimity within the agency on how to achieve those goals, or even on whether all of them were necessary or possible, interviews and records show.

Several former intelligence and government oversight officials contend that Trailblazer was doomed almost from its inception. The program "kicked off with not a real great definition of what it was trying to achieve," said a government oversight official, recalling an initial briefing in December 1999.

While internal and external warnings that Trailblazer was going off course were sounded, the extent of its problems gained little public attention because the program was so secret and technical.

Moreover, Inspector General Joel Brenner said his office could find no evidence of the program’s specific priorities, could not
track the ways all of the money was being spent and found that the NSA had overpaid some contract employees. The contracts showed no limits on labor costs.

"These conditions are directly related to inadequate management and oversight," Brenner’s team said.

An intelligence expert who was briefed on a December 2004 report conducted by the Pentagon’s inspector general said the report found that Trailblazer was not producing the system that had been promised and was unlikely to produce it.

"Every year or so, their story would be somewhat different about what it is, what it’s going to accomplish and how it is going to be implemented," said a congressional aide who works with intelligence programs.

"Trailblazer is completely beyond fixing," said a former government official who has tracked the program carefully. "Everybody who reviewed Trailblazer after the first few months [of the program’s launch] said it was doomed or it should be scrapped."

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