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Profile: Joel Brenner
Joel Brenner was a participant or observer in the following events:
The National Security Agency’s ‘Trailblazer’ program (see Late 1999), envisioned in 1999 as an overarching state-of-the-art data-mining system capable of sorting through millions of telephone and Internet communications and pluck out items relevant to national security and counterterrorism, is an abject failure, according to multiple sources and reports. The program has soaked up six years of effort and $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars, with nothing to show except some schematic drawings and a few isolated technological and analytical gadgets, and little hope of much future progress. Matthew Aid, who has advised three federal commissions and panels investigating the 9/11 attacks, says that Trailblazer is “the biggest boondoggle going on now in the intelligence community.” Part of the problem is that over its six years of development, Trailblazer has passed through three separate NSA divisions, each with its own priorities and design goals. Its overseers have failed to exert the proper authority to clearly define the program’s goals and keep the project on track. In 2003, the NSA’s inspector general found that the program suffered from “inadequate management and oversight” of private contractors and overpayment for the work that was done. The lead private contractor for the project, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), has not provided the technical and managerial expertise necessary to create the system. While the Bush administration has touted the NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) as vital to protecting the nation from terrorism, it allows the agency to mismanage Trailblazer, in essence allowing the agency to go increasingly “deaf” as millions of items of unimportant information overwhelm the agency’s ability to sort out key bits of information, according to a government official. A Congressional investigation of intelligence failures surrounding the 9/11 attacks found that the NSA did not sift out “potentially vital” information that could have predicted or even prevented the attacks—a lapse that Trailblazer was intended to correct. Aid says that the problem is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack that doubles in size every few months. Intelligence experts say that the problem with Trailblazer is like deciding whether to keep a piece of mail or throw it out based only on what is on the outside of the envelope. Approximately 95% of the information gathered by the NSA is discarded without ever being translated from its original binary form; the remaining 5% is turned into plain text for human analysts to survey. Trailblazer was designed to sort through this information to identify patterns, keywords, and links to other data. The program would, in theory, translate all of the information into plain text or voice data, analyze the results to identify items of interest, store the results in an easily searchable database, and forward selected items to the appropriate analysts for follow-up. But after six years of work, there will still be no consensus among agency managers and experts as how to create a system to do this. Interestingly, another, less grandiose program, code-named Thinthread, appeared promising—a 2004 Pentagon report found that Thinthread could work better and be put to use more quickly than Trailblazer—but NSA managers disagreed with the Pentagon report and canceled Thinthread. Instead, Hayden pushed the agency to get Trailblazer up and running after the 9/11 attacks, cutting into time needed for review and corrections. Internal and external warnings that the program was going off-course were ignored; because of its secrecy and technological sophistication, neither Congress nor the NSA was able to effectively monitor the progress of the program’s development. And the agency lost track of much of the $1.2 billion that was allocated by Congress for the program. NSA Inspector General Joel Brenner blames the waste and inefficiency on “inadequate management and oversight.” As of 2006, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has not investigated Trailblazer simply because no one in Congress had asked it to. Because of the impact of the 9/11 attacks, and the war in Iraq, Congress has never seriously considered cutting back or reviewing any programs such as Trailblazer that might provide information on further terrorist attacks. [Baltimore Sun, 1/29/2006]
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