Thursday, May 18, 2006


Confirmation Hearings: Time for New Leaks

The Baltimore Sun jumps back on the Bureaucratic Leak Express with a splashy NSA story based on anonymous sources. Can you say, “BLE(H)?!”

This one covers NSA Information Technology (IT) management and decision-making, and dredges up for daylight inspection a seeming muck of IT project gossip. The apparent sources for the story are disgruntled NSA bureau-boobs, who have timed their leak to coincide with the target of their animus, that nasty General Hayden who used to be their boss.

The Sun and its NSA minders set the premise for the story:

Despite its success in tests, ThinThread's information-sorting system was viewed by some in the agency as a competitor to Trailblazer, a $1.2 billion program that was being developed with similar goals. The NSA was committed to Trailblazer, which later ran into trouble and has been essentially abandoned.

One system or program versus another. So what? Ah, step two in the drama:

Both programs aimed to better sort through the sea of data to find key tips to the next terrorist attack, but Trailblazer had more political support internally because it was initiated by Hayden when he first arrived at the NSA, sources said.

NSA managers did not want to adopt the data-sifting component of ThinThread out of fear that the Trailblazer program would be outperformed and "humiliated," an intelligence official said.

And the end result? We are less safe now, and rights are being violated! This according to these anonymous sources for the Post:

Sources say the NSA's existing system for data-sorting has produced a database clogged with corrupted and useless information.
The mass collection of relatively unsorted data, combined with system flaws that sources say erroneously flag people as suspect, has produced numerous false leads, draining analyst resources, according to two intelligence officials.

I work in IT, and have frequently seen this kind of foolishness from technical staff. Childish and immature often, and always reflective of a myopia in which only one’s own bureaucratic concerns and priorities bear any weight. Always judged in hindsight, such as these anonymous sources hype those things that make them look wise and full of foresight; and omit such history as makes them look foolish and shortsighted.

If I was the Executive in charge of whiners like these, who jump at the chance to rehash old policy and strategy decisions as a way of scoring points at best, for partisan advantage at worst, I’d fire entire levels of staff. This is incompetence, malfeasance and dereliction of duty of the worst sort. All involving classified programs and information.

Kevin Drum makes the following observations in the Washington Monthly, ending with a question:

Is this true? Beats me. I do know that you haven't seen a bureaucratic war until you've seen rival teams of programmers badmouthing each other's projects, and that may be what's going on here. Or, we may have a program that's both illegal and crappy because nobody wanted to make the boss's pet project look bad.

Anyway, read the whole thing. One thing, though: there sure are a helluva lot of intelligence agents squawking to the press these days, aren't there? Does that strike anybody else as a little odd?

Daniel Drezner responds in a similar fashion:

I'm not sure if this is an example of dumb policymaking or an example of the losers of a policy decision leaking to the press at an opportune time.

These are highly intelligent, extremely dedicated, and highly experienced Intelligence professionals. Anybody can use 20-20 hindsight and a career’s worth of decisions, and make a great leader look the fool.

Let me take a wild a** guess. Leaks to the press at an opportune time. (They won’t get another like it, will they?)

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