[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[infowar.de] BS 02.01.03: NSA Still Subject To Electronic Failure
January 2, 2003
NSA Still Subject To Electronic Failure
Computers vulnerable 3 years after major crash
By Ariel Sabar, Sun Staff
A major contractor to the National Security Agency says the agency suffered
two power-supply breakdowns at U.S. intelligence posts since January 2000,
an apparent sign that the global eavesdropping agency remains vulnerable to
electronics failures even after a highly publicized computer crash three
years ago fueled calls for reform.
The outages struck two posts outside the agency's Fort Meade headquarters
and appear to have been nowhere near as serious as the crash in January
2000 that disabled the NSA's computer network for three days.
But Gerald E. Loe, vice president of worldwide sales and services for Cray
Inc., the Seattle-based supercomputer maker and one of the NSA's
longest-serving suppliers, described them in a recent interview as "major
He said that Cray's on-site maintenance staff could not handle the repairs
on its own and had to summon a small team of technicians from the company's
service headquarters over holiday weekends. In addition, he said, the
company had to truck in a large piece of replacement equipment.
Loe said the outages took place over the Labor Day weekend this past year
and over the Fourth of July weekend in 2000 - dates the NSA disputes - and
were repaired within 24 hours.
Loe's account, in a telephone interview last week, comes at a difficult
time for the country's intelligence agencies, which faced blistering
criticism from Congress last year during hearings into their failure to
stitch together warnings of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A breakdown of the electronic eyes and ears that sweep the skies for
ominous phone calls and e-mail - or of the computers that sort the data -
could hinder the agency's ability to detect signs of a future attack.
An NSA spokeswoman acknowledged this week that the agency had experienced
occasional electrical and computer glitches since January 2000, but denied
that any took place on the dates mentioned by Loe. She declined to say
exactly when or where they occurred.
"We have had other outages, both electrical and computer, but they were not
close to the scale" of the one three years ago, she said.
The NSA spokeswoman stressed that no data were lost and that agency
computers continued to function well within normal standards.
"There are systems in place to assure that all the necessary procedures
work so that an outage is seamless and it's not something that affects our
business," she said.
According to outside experts, the NSA's three regional posts in the United
States - in Texas, Georgia and Hawaii - collect and sift data from
satellites that intercept communications from Europe, Asia and South
America. The NSA has smaller posts in Washington state and Colorado.
The NSA has used Cray supercomputers since the 1970s to process the
avalanche of e-mail, phone calls and radio messages it collects from the
ether each day. Neither Loe nor the NSA would identify the specific
intelligence posts affected by the outages or reveal the kind or number of
The computer blackout in January 2000 at Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel
County, cost $1.5 million and thousands of staff hours to repair, and the
NSA had to seek help from its British counterpart in sifting through a
three-day backlog of raw intelligence. The failure underscored the
susceptibility of even the country's most advanced spy computers to
crippling breakdowns and embarrassed an agency that prides itself on its
"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," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who
heads the House Intelligence Committee, in a January 2000 statement
bemoaning the NSA's "chronic underfunding" and slow pace of modernization.
In its final report last month on the intelligence failures preceding the
Sept. 11 attacks, the House and Senate joint intelligence committee urged
the NSA to draw up a plan for staying in step with technological change.
In a Dec. 17 article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Cray's marketing in
Australia, Loe was quoted as having made a reference to "two critical
outages" at the NSA.
Asked by The Sun to elaborate last week, Loe said the failures concerned
the most basic ingredient of a working computer: power. He said the
malfunction occurred in an office desk-size device, called the
uninterruptible power supply, which guards computers against potentially
catastrophic losses of data that can result from power surges and blackouts.
If a power surge strikes when the device is on the blink, Loe said, "you
could lose not just a little bit of work, but hours and hours of work." He
emphasized that he had no evidence that the NSA had lost any data.
After Cray repaired the breakdown over the July Fourth weekend in 2000, Loe
said, he received a letter from the post's commander thanking him for
"substantially helping national security."
Days after a Sun reporter called the NSA for comment on Loe's account, Loe
called the reporter to say that the NSA had urged him not to talk to the
news media about the agency.
"They told me they didn't appreciate having a lot of publicity," he said.
He declined to repeat his statements that the intelligence posts belonged
to the NSA, confirming only that the outages occurred at "classified sites
in the U.S."
Sources on the Senate intelligence committee said this week that the panel
had not been informed of the outages.
James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said the need for an
out-of-town repair team suggested that the breakdowns were somewhat serious.
However, the NSA spokeswoman sought to play down the significance of the
agency's periodic outages, saying that they are "part of doing business in
a place filled with computers and electronics."
Mail an infowar -
- infopeace -
de mit "unsubscribe" im Text.