Defence secretary blasts 'blow-out' reports

Department of Defence secretary Allan Hawke has hit back at reports detailing multimillion dollar cost blow-outs in a number of the department's IT projects accusing the media of suffering from the "if it bleeds, it leads" syndrome.

He also called in to question the role of private sector and contractors who should shoulder some of the responsibility.

"Defence is often criticised about its relationship with industry, that we buy poor equipment, gold plate our capability needs, change our requirements after we've signed the contract, fail to manage the contract appropriately, pay too much for it and take too long to decide what we want and to get it into service; I could cite examples where some or all these claims are true," Hawke said.

"What continues to surprise me is the one-sided nature of most reports about these matters. Almost by definition, it's all Defence's fault. Industry seems to escape any scrutiny or critical comment; it's rare for industry to step up to the crease and face the bowling with us."

Referring to parliamentary estimates hearings earlier this year which reported that Defence had a $45 million budget blow-out for an overdue human resources IT project, Hawke speculated why industry is not called before committees to account for their performance.

"That's a hint for parliamentary committees, but surely it's part and parcel of the partnership arrangement the players are seeking," he said.

In relation to reports of a $5 billion blow-out in defence purchases, Hawke said the claim shows an eye for a good headline but scant regard for facts.

He said changes in project cost due to price escalation accounted for $3.4 billion or two-thirds of the total, attributing it to inflation.

The department is now using 'company scorecards' to penalise poor performers and give proven players an advantage when dealing with Defence.

Each month, the Defence committee of 14 people reviews the top 20 projects by value, thereby increasing transparency.

Speaking at the ACT White Pages Business Series last month, Hawke said Australians have a tendency to become overly absorbed in shortcomings and this is reinforced by media wisdom that their readers, listeners and viewers prefer bad news to good.

"We are an organisation of people working hard at work worth doing," he said.

US intelligence upgrades Trailblazer programThe largest, most secretive arm of the US intelligence community last 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 $US282 million contract with Science Applications International that's designed to help the agency sift through and make sense of the torrent of data it collects from mobile phone conversations, faxes, e-mails and a wide variety of other electronic communications around the world.

The contract is part of what is known as the "Trailblazer" program, which has been in the works for two years. However, the award to SAI "marks a significant shift in the Trailblazer program from a planning to a development activity", said Lisa Anne Davis, an NSA spokeswoman. Davis declined to comment on the specific types of commercial IT products that would be purchased and integrated.

However, a former senior NSA executive responsible for the agency's first moves into the commercial IT world, said SAI will "be the glue that allows NSA to use all 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 September 10, 2001, were two Arabic-language messages warning of a major event the next day. The NSA analysts didn't translate the messages until September 12.

- Dan Verton.

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