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Long-awaited intelligence IT upgrade taking shape at NSA

By Dan Verton
October 4, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The largest, most secretive arm of the U.S. intelligence community this week took a major step toward upgrading its IT infrastructure in a way that may bolster its ability to thwart future terrorist attacks.
The National Security Agency (NSA), the signals intelligence and eavesdropping arm of the Pentagon, signed a $282 million contract with San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. (SIAC) that's designed to help the agency sift through and make sense of the torrent of data it collects from cell phone conversations, faxes, e-mails and a wide variety of other electronic communications around the world.
The contract is part of what's known as the "Trailblazer" program, which has been in the works for two years. However, the award to SAIC "marks a significant shift in the Trailblazer program from a planning to a development activity," said Lisaanne Davis, an NSA spokeswoman. Davis declined to comment on the specific types of commercial IT products that would be purchased and integrated.
SAIC deferred all comments on the contract to the NSA.
However, a former senior NSA executive responsible for the agency's first moves into the commercial IT world said SAIC will "be the glue that allows NSA to use all of the different commercial tools."
Many of those tools, such as advanced data mining applications, will enable analysts to "reach down into the pile and pull the most important things to the top," said the former official, who spoke to Computerworld on condition of anonymity.
And missed signals seem to be the driving force behind the program. For example, hidden among the millions of communications intercepts the NSA collected on Sept. 10, 2001, were two Arabic-language messages warning of a major event the next day. The NSA analysts didn't translate the messages until Sept. 12.
"NSA has been behind the curve in a number of IT areas, so the agency might benefit from many kinds of readily available applications involving database management, data mining techniques and virtual networking," said Steven Aftergood, a defense and intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "There is a broad consensus that the agency's future depends on a vigorous modernization initiative."
Richard Hunter, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. and a former NSA analyst, said knowledge management systems, such as data mining and collaboration tools, would likely be of the most benefit to NSA at present.
"Robust examples of such systems can be found in any large consulting company, where they're used to managing the huge volumes of intellectual capital developed on engagements," said Hunter. "In short, they're about managing intellectualcapital, experts and expertise, all of which are critical to NSA's mission."
But IT alone may not be enough, according to the former NSA official. "The real answer is technology and people," the official said. "Work has to be organized, principles have to be established and people have to be held to those principles. No amount of technology can make up for that."

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