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Will the Real U.S. Government Please Stand Up?

Are they the all-knowing Big Brother government? Or are they really the bumbling Maxwell Smart, last-to-know-anything government?
 
 
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I've never doubted for a second that the government would spy on its own citizens -- any government -- not just ours. Information is, as the saying goes, power -- always has been, always will be. So, as much as my civil libertarian side hates it, the realist in me shrugs each time a new piece of evidence surfaces that they are up to doing just that.

Or more precisely trying to do just that.

As I downed the final dregs of a cold Corona the other day, I recalled all the stories I had written over the years about monumentally expensive failed government computer system upgrades. In fact, hard as I thought, I couldn't recall a single story lauding a government agency for a successful computer project. Not one. Ever.

Just last year we learned that the FBI had wasted $700 million trying to develop a modern networked computer system able to track criminals and terrorists, and allow its offices around the nation to talk to one another -- for the first time.

That one didn't work either. Still doesn't. In fact the FBI is now busy chucking that system and starting over.

That story produced a shrug from me, too. I recalled a 1994 meeting I had with an FBI agent just appointed to head the FBI's San Francisco office's new computer crimes division. I was working for a nascent internet company at the time, and he asked if he could drop by and check out this new thing called the internet. He explained that, though the FBI did have a computer crimes division, none of the FBI's computers were online. "Yeah," he said. "They don't allow it. It's a security issue."

Remember … this was in San Francisco … the hottest hot bed of internet R&D at the time.

Last week everyone was atwitter over news that the NSA has been scooping up all our phone records. Some say that since 9/11 they have squirreled away as many as one trillion phone transactions. Again, I shrugged.

Which brings me to the theme of this rant.

Will the real U.S. government please stand up?

  • Are you the black-helicopter flying, eyes in the sky, ears to the ground, all-knowing Big Brother government?
  • Or are you really the Maxwell Smart, bumbling, money-wasting, last-to-know-anything government?

Help me out here.

For starters, I find it difficult to imagine that it can be both at once. Are we to believe that within the same government whose top national police agency, the FBI, can't install a computer system that works, another agency, the NSA, can? It's possible, but nothing in my direct experience with government agencies would cause me to believe it.

And sure enough, it's not so. There is plenty of evidence that the NSA's computer systems are just as big a mess as the FBI's -- certainly a more expensive mess and likely an even bigger one.

Recently, reporters for the Baltimore Sun got a peek under the NSA's Cone of Silence. They reported that the man now up for the top CIA post, former NSA head, Gen. Michael Hayden, managed to blow $2 billion during his tenure at the NSA on a failed agencywide computer upgrade:

Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency's drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency's ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say … One is Cryptologic Mission Management, a computer software program with an estimated cost of $300 million that was designed to help the NSA track the implementation of new projects but is so flawed that the agency is trying to pull the plug. The other, code-named Groundbreaker, is a multibillion-dollar computer systems upgrade that frequently gets its wires crossed.

Is it just me, or doesn't the NSA phone spying story collide a wall of contradictions? I mean collecting a trillion pieces of data is the easy part. (Because the NSA didn't collect them in the first place. The phone companies did. They could because, unlike the NSA and FBI, they have computer systems that work.) But once in possession of such a huge and ever-growing mountain of data, then what? You need to slice it, dice it, find matches, produce tracking reports, integrate data into spreadsheets … and so on. And you need computers and software that works for any and all that.

So what happens when NSA analysts feed data into Gen. Hadley's $2 billion cuisinart -- which includes the NSA's $1.2 billion threat-sniffing initiative called " Trailblazer?"

Well, for starters, it might be the last time any sees that data. Here's what 10 analysts who recently left the NSA told the Baltimore Sun about the NSA's expensive failure:

  • When the agency's communications lines become overloaded, the system often delivers garbled intelligence reports,
  • NSA analysts and managers say the new cumbersome and unreliable system has cut their productivity in half since it was installed,
  • The new system requires analysts to perform many more steps to accomplish what the old system used to get done with a keystroke or two.
  • They report getting locked out of their computers without warning,
  • Agency linguists say the number of conversations they can translate in a day has dropped significantly with the new system.
  • NSA 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.
  • Email attachments get lost in the system … simply disappear. Where do they go? The contractor's explanation: "They just drop out."

Gen. Hayden has now been tapped by President Bush to fix the CIA. It looks to me that he is getting away from the NSA in the nick of time since his $2 billion computer system has left the NSA stuffed like a Jonestown goose with data it can't digest. (Heck of a job, Stevie!)

By now you must be wondering who got paid $2 billion for failing? One of the usual suspects, of course. No, not Halliburton, but close. Going under the name, "The Eagle Alliance," the contract was managed by Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) and San Diego-based Science Applications International (SAIC):

CSC spent $520,000 in 2001 to lobby Congress and various government agencies on its own behalf. That same year, the company also paid lobby firms a total of $580,000. In total, Computer Sciences Corp. spent $1,100,000 in 2001 on lobbying fees associated with a variety of issues, including appropriation and procurement bills related to the Defense Department, Treasury Department, the executive office of the president and other federal agencies. The company also lobbied on "legislative proposals for privatization and commercialization of federal services," according to lobby documents filed with Congress. In 2002, Computer Sciences Corp. spent a total of $1,110,000 to lobby on similar issues. … On April 18, 2003, Computer Sciences' DynCorp International won a contract from the U.S. Department of State to provide up to 1,000 civilian advisers to help organize civilian law enforcement, judicial and correctional agencies. The estimated value could be as high as $50 million for the first year, depending on assessments of Iraqi capabilities and needs.

And the other familiar face:

Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) today announced a contract award from the National Security Agency (NSA) to be the provider of the technology demonstration platform (TDP) phase of the TRAILBLAZER program. The NSA selected the SAIC-led Digital Network Intelligence (DNI) Enterprise team that includes Northrop Grumman Corp., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., The Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA), Computer Sciences Corp. (NYSE:CSC) and SAIC wholly owned subsidiary Telcordia Technologies to contribute to the modernization of the NSA's signals intelligence capabilities.

(For more on these two companies, see my article Divvying up The Iraqi Pie)

The Bush administration's short list of favored defense contractors can be written on a fortune cookie slip: Halliburton, Science Applications International Corp. Fluor, Computer Sciences:

"It's more of the same people," a former NSA official told the Sun. "The contracting system makes it very hard to engage industry, and it's very hard for people to break into government contracting. This is one of the areas I think needs tremendous review."

For an administration that talks about "accountability," they sure don't walk that talk. Instead they reward failure, at least when it's among friends. Medals are handed out to those forced to get out of Dodge before their misdeeds catch up with them. And favored companies that waste billions of taxpayer dollars on failed technology projects are rehired to fix the mess they so profitably created in the first place.

(Oh, by the way, the FBI and NSA are not the only departments spending billions trying to reinvent the software-hardware wheel. Homeland Security is working on a little-known computer system they call ADVISE (analysis, dissemination, visualization, insight, and semantic enhancement.) So far little is known about this project, except that nearly $50 million has been spent just testing it. But with a name only a bureacrat could love, how can it fail -- right?

All of which explains why I shrugged when I read the NSA phone spying story last week. Don't get me wrong. I hate it when government kicks me in the privates. I hate it when Nanny-government Democrats try to protect me from everything, including myself. And I hate it when paternalistic Republicans want to protect me from _____ _____ (fill in the bogeyman de jour.) by keeping an eye on us. I just doubt they can do it. Oh yeah … also I am sure they'd like those they see as our enemies to believe they can do it. But, personally, I doubt it. And I doubt that our enemies are losing much sleep over of it either.

Not that we should stop demanding that our elected officials follow the law. Or that we shouldn't impeach and/or indict those found to have broken the law. We should -- even if, as I suspect, they are failing at their illegal task. After all, you don't have to be a competent crook to be convicted. If you try to rob a bank, but fail to get a dime, you still get to go to jail for bank robbery.

Oh, one more thing. If you want to report a suspected terrorist to the FBI or NSA, include your tip in the body of your email. Because if you send it as an attachment, it's likely to vanish in transit. Where do the attachments go? They don't know that -- either.

Stephen Pizzo is the author of numerous books, including "Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans," which was nominated for a Pulitzer.