Obama's Crackdown on Whistleblowers
Trailblazer marked a dramatic shift for the agency, away from small, government-led research projects that hired contractors only for specific functions to huge projects run by contractors who answer only to the senior leadership of the NSA. Since its origins during the Cold War, the NSA had led the world in encryption, computer and voice-processing technologies. But all of its development work was done by an elite corps of government scientists and mathematicians. Until the 1980s, “virtually everything was done in-house,” says Loomis, who spent much of his career in the agency’s telecommunications and computer services directorate. “As for contracting for development,” he added, “that did not happen.”
That began to change around the turn of the century, when the NSA was forced to wrestle with enormous technological changes. For most of its existence, the agency had been focused on radio and microwave signals traveling through the atmosphere. The telecom revolution and the Internet altered the game forever. Suddenly the NSA was deluged with digitized cellphone traffic and e-mail flowing across fiber-optic cables that were almost impossible to intercept. It was an “explosion,” Hayden told me at George Washington University. “And if you’re a signals intelligence organization—we eavesdrop, right?—if your technology isn’t the technology of the target, then guess what you are? Deaf!” Hayden was appointed director in 1999, when the agency was struggling to figure a way out of this conundrum.
His solution was to turn away from the NSA’s historic legacy and privatize. “Hayden made a fateful choice,” says Drake. “If we’re not going to make it, we’re going to buy it. That was the mantra.” Hayden couched his plan as “transformation.” Trailblazer, its centerpiece, involved turning the NSA’s most precious asset, SIGINT analysis, over to the private sector, from the development to the operations stage. The idea was to use cutting-edge technologies to analyze intercepted cellphone and e-mail traffic for clues to plots against the country. But Drake, who had extensive experience as a contractor and in the private sector, says it was flawed from the start.
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In the early 1990s, after a stint in Air Force intelligence and the CIA, Drake was assigned to a top-secret NSA project called MINSTREL that was digitizing intercepted voice communications. But he came in as a contractor and his actual employer was the now-defunct GTE Government Systems. There, he encountered his first corruption, including massive cost overruns and fraud; in 1992, he reported GTE to the Pentagon hotline. “That’s how I became a whistleblower,” he told me (MINSTREL, like Trailblazer, was canceled without becoming operational). Drake later worked inside the NSA for Booz Allen Hamilton and other contractors before finding work in the late 1990s as a private consultant in Silicon Valley. He returned to the NSA in 2001 as a member of the agency’s senior executive service. As a result of these experiences, Drake knew that hiring big corporations to develop new technologies ran against the grain of the information revolution. Trailblazer “was an industrial-age model so inappropriate for the digital age,” he said. The model of innovation in the computer industry was “very small teams, skunk teams, developing the next critical applications. And here we were going in the completely opposite direction.”
That’s because corporations—and their moles inside the NSA—ran Trailblazer from the start. The fix began in 2000, when Hayden hired Bill Black, a wily NSAer who had worked at the highest levels of SIGINT in Europe as Hayden’s deputy. For the previous three years, from 1997 to 2000, he’d been working for SAIC, then a rising San Diego defense contractor with extensive contacts in the intelligence community. Black’s new job at the NSA was to carry out Hayden’s “transformation” plan by siphoning business to companies like his. To get the Trailblazer contract up and running, Black hired one of his closest associates from SAIC: Sam Visner, who had left the NSA in the mid-1990s to work as a contractor.
Visner was a true believer. His father had been a scientist on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and according to his former associates, he saw Trailblazer as the twenty-first-century equivalent of the atomic bomb needed to win the “war on terror.” Hayden’s hiring of him and Black, the whistleblowers say, set the stage for SAIC winning the Trailblazer contract.
In April 2001, the NSA awarded the first part of the contract to SAIC, Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin and TRW, which was absorbed into Northrop Grumman in 2002. Their job was to “define the architecture, cost, and acquisition approach” for the project, according to a 2001 NSA press release. The results of their deliberations were announced in September 2002, when the NSA, as recommended by the companies, awarded the prime contract, called the Technology Demonstration Platform, to SAIC. It was initially worth $280 million. SAIC’s team included Northrop Grumman, Boeing and CSC—the company where Visner now works.
By this time, Drake was a senior “change leader” reporting to Maureen Baginski, who was the agency’s director of signals intelligence and number three in the hierarchy, behind Hayden and Black. Drake sat in on many of the Trailblazer meetings and claims the concept setup was a scam. He told me that the four companies agreed secretly that the prime contract would go to SAIC, while they would divvy up big chunks of the subcontracting among themselves. Later, as a material witness for the Pentagon’s OIG, he provided investigators with hundreds of documents relating to the bidding and award process for Trailblazer; they remain classified, and Drake can talk about them only indirectly. Most crucial, he says, were statements he collected from NSA officials showing that agency leaders had told their procurement office to hand the award to SAIC. “The orders came from the very top,” Drake says. “They just ensured it was weighted in a way to award it to SAIC and its subcontractors. That was the deal.”
I went over these details with a government procurement analyst who once worked for the Pentagon’s OIG and has had access to classified contracts. He could not comment on the record because of his current position in government, but was shocked at the evidence of collusion. “That’s the fraud, waste and abuse right there,” he said. “You’re steering the contract to a favored client. That’s blatant and outright favoritism. The impropriety is apparent.”
The primary showcase for Trailblazer was a large building leased by Northrop Grumman in the “National Business Park” next to the NSA. There the agency and its contractors showed their system off to congressional overseers and intelligence leaders. The sessions took on increasing urgency after 9/11. “Basically, they took one whole portion of their facility to turn into a demonstration room, a showcase,” Drake recalls. “But that’s all it was: show and tell, a dog and pony show. Very large screens, fancy computers stacked up, a director’s place in the middle. But I have to tell you, there was nothing behind it.” Congress and the NSA finally agreed. After millions of dollars in cost overruns, Trailblazer was quietly terminated in 2006 by the current NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander.
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