NSA system crash raises Hill worries

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NSA System Crash Raises Hill Worries Agency Computers Termed Out of Date

By Walter Pincus Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, February 2, 2000; Page A19

The failure of the National Security Agency's information processing system, which crashed for four days last week, is merely the latest sign that the super-secret agency has allowed some of its computer technology to fall woefully out of date, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees said yesterday.

Both committees, which have increased the NSA's budget and pressed it to modernize for three years in a row, have launched inquiries into the failure of the NSA's backbone data communications system at Fort Meade.

NSA satellites and listening posts continuously eavesdrop on radio, telephone, cable, fax and e-mail communications outside the United States. The information is relayed to Fort Meade, where huge computers sort the electronic signals and analysts review them for significant intelligence.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the failure was not in any "super-secret" equipment, but rather in the ordinary "wires and switches that transmit data from computer to computer and office to office." He described it as "the sort of modern, off-the-shelf technologies any . . . company would be buying to link its computers."

The NSA says no important intelligence information was lost. According to a senior intelligence official, all of the intercepted material was saved and will be processed normally.

But Goss is not mollified. "We are extraordinarily fortunate that this incident did not take place in the midst of an escalating international crisis--lives may well have been lost because of it," he said.

He added that the incident demonstrates "a lack of management attention until recently and a chronic underfunding of infrastructure at NSA."

Richard C. Shelby (R-Alabama), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said it was "no surprise" that "NSA has encountered significant problems recently that relate directly to their ability to process the incredible amounts of data that they collect every day."

Shelby said an advisory group of technical experts appointed by his committee two years ago found "an organization in desperate need of organizational restructuring and modernization of its information technology infrastructure."

The NSA's exact budget is secret. But Congress has repeatedly raised it in recent years, and it is now said to top $6 billion.

The computer outage lasted from Monday until Friday. The agency said Saturday night that it had spent about $1.5 million on emergency repairs and outside consultants to put the system back into operation.

According to one expert familiar with the situation, however, the system "is being held together by bailing wire and will not be fixed for long." He estimated that a permanent remedy could cost tens of millions of dollars.

When Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden was named director of the NSA last year, he promised to tackle technical problems previously cited by Congress, and he established a task force to look at the most pressing needs.

Last summer, the House intelligence panel bluntly declared in a committee report that "NSA is in serious trouble." It had earlier criticized the agency for failing to modernize its computer-processing capability while committing huge amounts of money to upgrade its worldwide system for intercepting communications.

"We have been beating the drum on this," said one Capitol Hill aide.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), February 02, 2000

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