Computer Problems at the NSA


Computers are integral to everything NSA does, yet it is not uncommon for the agency’s unstable computer system to freeze for hours, unlike the previous system, which had a backup mechanism that enabled analysts to continue their work, said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst and congressional intelligence staff member.

When the agency’s communications lines become overloaded, the Groundbreaker system has been known to deliver garbled intelligence reports, Aid said. Some analysts and managers have said their productivity is half of what it used to be because the new system requires them to perform many more steps to accomplish what a few keystrokes used to, he said. They also report being locked out of their computers without warning.

Similarly, agency linguists say the number of conversation segments they can translate in a day has dropped significantly under Groundbreaker, according to another former NSA employee.

Under Groundbreaker, employees get new computers every three years on a rotating schedule, so some analysts always have computers as much as three years older than their colleagues’, often with incompatible software, the former employee said.

As a result of compatibility problems, e-mail attachments can get lost in the system. An internal incident report, obtained by The Sun, states that when an employee inquired about what had happened to missing attachments, the Eagle Alliance administrator said only that “they must have fallen out.”

Posted on May 11, 2006 at 7:31 AM23 Comments


Chris Farris May 11, 2006 8:38 AM

Maybe they should use the computer system that the Los Angles Counter Terrorism Unit uses. That system never goes off line, even when nerve gas is released into the datacenter.

And the work from home capabilites are immense. Cloe can patch satellite images into Jack’s Treo in real time.

Chuck May 11, 2006 8:51 AM

This is not at all surprising. A few years ago they did two things that didn’t make any sense. They outsourced nearly all their IT, and they switched from Unix to Windows for most of their systems. Results were predictable.

Chris May 11, 2006 8:55 AM

Unfortunately, I cannot remember exact details right now but I recall reading a book the CIA 10 or so years ago that described a very similar problem. Massive computer failures and the bits flying off the network cables all over the data center floor for 3-4 days. Nothing could be processed.

The incident wasn’t revealed outside of those who “needed to know” for more than 10 years. Nothing like telling the bad guys that for the next, oh, three to four days “we’re not listening.”

I’m surprised these failures are being publicly disclosed this soon after they occurred.

Glenn May 11, 2006 8:58 AM

Projects go from concept to field in a “12- to-15-year time frame”? In the IT shops I’ve worked in, we consider that in project planning, 3 years translates to “never,” because of the inevitable changes in requirements on the demand side and technology on the supply side. That is, whatever you plan now will be obsolete in 3 years. Inman has got to sowing disinformation.

Eric K. May 11, 2006 9:05 AM

Color me unconcerned that an agency that’s famous for spying on its country’s own citizens and side-stepping the law with claims of ‘national security’ has computer problems that prevents them from being more efficient at such activities.

So long as the FBI and CIA are somewhat functional, who cares if the NSA crashes and burns daily? I feel safer that way.

JakeS May 11, 2006 9:09 AM

“Under Groundbreaker, employees get new computers every three years on a rotating schedule, so some analysts always have computers as much as three years older than their colleagues’, often with incompatible software, the former employee said.”

What did he expect – everyone get a new box every year?  A three-year cycle is normal in the real world – often longer.  He sounds just like some of my colleagues who used to whinge that the guy next door had a newer (read: cooler) laptop than they had.

AG May 11, 2006 9:27 AM

BooHoo… Sounds like a bunch of end user crying too me… New machines every 3 years? Too be so lucky.

Carlo Graziani May 11, 2006 9:49 AM

The article seems so garbled as to suggest that the reporter’s sources were
speaking in cipher.

Is Groundbreaker an infrastructure upgrade program or a cryptanalytic
effort? If the former, how could it “deliver garbled intelligence

Also, I am unaware of “compatibility problems” that can strip attachments
out of e-mail messages. Generally when that happens, it’s the result of
deliberate (if over-enthusiastic) filtering at the inbound SMTP server.
The government is particularly egregious about this sort of thing.

I have a collaborator at a NASA center to whom I cannot send Bourne shell
scripts, since the mail filters strip them all out. The work-around is
to put the script in a tar archive and attach that instead (eye-roll…).
Someday I would love to hear a NASA sysadmin explain to me the alleged
threat being thwarted here. I suspect it has more to do with ass-covering
by an admin who doesn’t bear the inconvenience cost himself, than with
actual security.

But I digress…

Arturo Quirantes May 11, 2006 10:33 AM

Well, what can we expect from a TLA originally created to spy on the enemy’s communications which has now turned into a globalized eavesdropped. As long as the NSA keeps wanting to tap every line and listen to every words, they should not be surprised they can’t cope.

Time for them to reset their priorities.

TOMBOT May 11, 2006 10:49 AM

chuck is on the money. Modernizing = let’s switch everything from solaris to windows NT 4. What year is it again? They got what they deserved (and paid for). Eagle Alliance & Groundbreaker: doing more than ACLU ever could.

D May 11, 2006 10:53 AM

Time to form a new lobbying group that insists such behavior within all intelligence agencies be required. The intent is to make them so inefficient that they can’t possibly spy on their own countrymen.

RvnPhnx May 11, 2006 12:33 PM

“The stuff that NSA does is probably more valuable today than it’s ever been,” said John Pike of, who has monitored the intelligence agencies for 25 years. “If their infrastructure doesn’t work, they can’t work. If the people can’t work, the agency can’t work.”
This is assuming that they are actually doing work that is in our best interests. Anybody whom knows 1/100th of the crap pulled by J. Edgar Hoover knows to question any government intelligence apparatus.
In any case, what is more disturbing is that we are paying lots of money for these people to get somewhere between little and nothing of value for our money. If we spent anywhere near what we spend on intelligence on humanitarian aid we likely wouldn’t need to spend as much money on intelligence. This is simple common sense, and in this case there is some really great truth to it as well. Look to northern Pakistan if you insist on having an example.

“A former NSA employee put it more bluntly, as he explained why he was speaking to a reporter for the first time, though on the condition of anonymity: “What I am fearful of is: Because of all this, we will have a 9/11 Part II.”
Oh please, quit the scare tactics! The world did not change much on Sept. 11th 2001–it is just that people (the press especially) in the USA suddenly couldn’t ignore things anymore. (The rest of the sheep then promptly followed suit…)

I could say more, but I think my take on this should be clear enough…

paul May 11, 2006 2:58 PM

The good news, of course, is that the guy who’s been running the agency during much of this debacle has been picked to head the CIA instead…

I wouldn’t be so surprised to see a 10-15 year project cycle at the NSA (with concomitant failure of anything whatsoever to work). Look at how long the typical tank, missile or military aircraft takes to develop, or how long it took the FAA to replace its computer systems.

Anonymous May 11, 2006 4:14 PM


They outsourced nearly all their IT, and they switched from Unix to Windows for most of their systems. Results were predictable.

The depth of stupidity revealed by such decisions is breathtaking. It is axiomatic that running on Windows is begging for trouble.

Outsourcing your IT functions at the NSA??? Why not outsource the pilots in the Air Force, the soldiers in the Army, and the Senators in our government?

Well, that last is already happening . . .

I’m really glad that most of the domestic monitoring is still done at MI-6, so it’s just our ability to fight terrorism overseas that’s being compromised, instead of our ability to spy on our own citizens.

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