The Success of Failure

In 1999, program managers at the National Security Agency knew they were in trouble. A new and important electronic filtering system, code-named Trailblazer, wasn’t working as designed.Planners imagined it would automatically find phone calls, e-mails and electronic communications of terrorists and other threats sitting in NSA’s massive intelligence haul. But Trailblazer was coming unglued before it was out of the gate.

Rather than pull the plug, for six years the agency tried to save Trailblazer, transferring management responsibility to different teams that tweaked the design and made it more complicated. Like some toxic jug of moonshine, Trailblazer was passed around among agency and contract personnel until, $1.2 billion later, it still didn’t work.


This story of massive failure came to light through the dogged reporting of The Baltimore Sun’s Siobhan Gorman, who is deeply sourced on NSA issues. In February, she revealed that yet another data-sniffing project was under way. Aptly named Turbulence, it, too, is on the rocks, with annual costs approaching $500 million.

If you’re shaking your head, it’s probably because you know the Trailblazer story isn’t unique. The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Marine Corps, to name a few, have watched massive system modernizations crash and burn. The reasons for these disasters are well-documented and maddeningly similar: insufficient agency management, contractors that overpromised and anemic-to-nonexistent congressional oversight.

So why do people keep making the same mistakes? Because it pays. When human beings face impossible odds, we like to imagine Ed Harris’ character from Apollo 13 exhorting them to succeed: “Failure is not an option!” But many times, it’s a fabulous option. Success might be preferable, but using Trailblazer as an example, consider who benefits from failure.

First, agency managers. Many employees associated with Trailblazer knew it wasn’t working and probably wouldn’t work. But killing Trailblazer meant killing other pet projects associated with it, or slashing funding for whatever office was nominally in charge at the time.

Luckily for managers, then-NSA Director Michael Hayden thought, correctly, that Trailblazer was essential. NSA was throwing good money after bad, but the money was still coming in. Lots of people weren’t losing their jobs. In fact, NSA tried multiple combinations of managers.

Surely these people wanted Trailblazer to work, but since that wasn’t happening, it was in their interest to let the program continue failing.

What about the contractors? Well, at least for big companies, negative past performance isn’t an impediment to winning future business. Science Applications International Corp., the company NSA hired to fix Trailblazer in 2002, was the lead contractor on the FBI’s doomed Virtual Case File, another information-sorting system. And according to its 2006 proxy statement, SAIC is running another NSA program called ExecuteLocus, which it describes as a successor to Trailblazer. Out-of-control projects breed more projects ostensibly to right what went wrong.

Congress likes failure, too. Members of both parties have made their names on “oversight,” but far fewer have tackled “before-it’s-over-sight.” Committee members knew Trailblazer was faltering when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. No member of Congress would have cut off funding for a program NSA said — once again, correctly — was key to preventing another attack.

But by pouring money into failure, members could say they’d helped the war on terror by giving NSA the tools it needed.

This all sounds cynical, because it is. Whether or not it’s deliberate is another matter. But you don’t have to believe that people consciously fail to recognize the windfall it brings. Even if they don’t know why, there’s a reason people keep making the same mistakes: Failure is one of the most successful things going.

Published in Government Executive.