In 1999, the National Security Agency began a feasibility study to determine whether the agency could outsource the job of upgrading its massive IT systems to companies in the private sector. By 2000, the agency had decided to move forward with the project and began soliciting bids and contracts from major telecommunications firms and defense contractors. In 2001, the NSA chose Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to lead a large group of companies to implement the project, which the agency dubbed Project Groundbreaker. CSC led a group called Eagle Alliance, a joint venture including Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, ACS Defense, BTG, CACI, Compaq, TRW, Windemere, Fiber Plus, Superior Communications and Verizon.
The NSA announced in a press release at the time that Groundbreaker would update “non-mission” infrastructure in four areas, “telephony, distributed computing, enterprise management, and networks.” The contract required contractors to hire up to 750 NSA employees to help with the process. Agency estimates said the project could take up to 10 years to complete and that the cost of the project would be around $2 billion, though the CSC CEO at the time assured stockholders the price would be more in the $5 billion range.
The contract will let NSA “refocus assets on the agency’s core missions of providing foreign signals intelligence and protecting U.S. national security-related information systems by turning over several information technology infrastructure services for industry’s purview,” said Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the then-NSA director, in a press release.
(Hayden became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006, and in September 2009, he joined CSC as a member of a “Cyber Advisory Committee.”)
It was one of the largest-ever outsources of government contracts at the time, and as soon as 2003, the agency’s inspector general was criticizing the implementation of the project. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2006 that according to an executive summary of the report, “‘key elements’ for managing the Groundbreaker contract ‘were missing,’ including a ‘contract management program’ and a quality control mechanism. … Expenditures amounting to millions of dollars were unaccounted for, according to the inspector general.”
Congress took away the NSA’s ability to sign large contracts in 2003, putting that authority in the hands of the Pentagon, the Sun reported. Sources said the price of the project in 2006 had reached around $4 billion.
Nevertheless, despite the numerous problems in implementing Groundbreaker, the NSA extended its contract with CSC and the Eagle Alliance in 2007 at the price of more than $500 million and again in 2009. The group is now contracted through 2014.
Most of the details of the project are secret. However, according to court documents filed by Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio during his insider trading trial, at the same time the NSA was talking to Qwest about Project Groundbreaker in February 2001, the NSA also discussed a separate project, the details of which were redacted. In 2007, the New York Times reported that those with knowledge of the incident said that the NSA was asking Qwest to install equipment that would allow the NSA to monitor domestic and some limited international phone calls.
Qwest refused, and the NSA eventually opted not to include the company as part of the Groundbreaker project. But the NSA wasn’t just asking Qwest to cooperate with monitoring efforts. For decades, as the New York Times reported, most communication was transmitted via satellites, and all the NSA had to do in order to gather information was build its own satellite dishes. But by the late ’90s, most communication had transferred to underground fiber optic cable, forcing the communication companies to solicit cooperation from the telecom companies that owned the cables. At the same time Qwest refused to cooperate with the NSA, USA Today reported in 2006, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth were handing over data to the government.
Though the link between NSA’s access to the fiber optic cables of major telecom companies and Project Groundbreaker isn’t clear, the nature and timing of both projects seems to imply a relationship — the NSA needed infrastructure upgrades to handle the vast amounts of data coming in via fiber optic cable, data it wasn’t equipped to handle in the late ’90s.
And perhaps that explains the name, “Project Groundbreaker”: In order to gather that data, the NSA had to dig to where the cables are located — underground.
Correction: A reference to the Pentagon's control over the NSA budget has been corrected.