Big Brother is coming: NSA's $1.9 billion cyber spy center a power grab

Published: Sunday, Dec. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

The National Security Agency has been forced to look beyond its headquarters here in Fort Meade, Md., for sites with more power.

NSA, Getty Images

"By the very nature of the intelligence business, it is difficult to discuss much of the NSA mission."National Security Agency Web site

In this post-Sept. 11 world, plans by the National Security Agency to construct a colossal $1.9 billion information storage center at Camp Williams could be considered a power trip.

But it's not the sort of power trip that keeps civil libertarians lying awake at night.

No, this power grab is for the stuff of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla — the juice needed to keep acres of NSA supercomputers humming and a cyber eye peeled for the world's bad guys.

Nearly a decade into the new millennium, America's spy agency is power gridlocked at its sprawling Fort Meade, Md., headquarters. The NSA, which devours electricity the same way teenage boys wolf down french fries at McDonald's, has been forced to look elsewhere to feed its ravenous AC/DC appetite.

"At the NSA, electrical power is political power. In its top-secret world, the coin of the realm is the kilowatt," writes national security authority and author James Bamford.

It's a simple equation: More data coming in means more reports going out. More reports going out means more political clout for the agency, Bamford writes.

Intelligence historian and author Matthew M. Aid considers the NSA's quest for power a driving factor in the NSA's selection of Camp Williams, which covers 28,000 acres bordering Utah and Salt Lake counties.

During an Oct. 23 news conference at the state Capitol officially announcing the new spy center, Glenn Gaffney, deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said as much when he confirmed that one of the strengths of the Utah location was that it "offered an abundant availability of low-cost power."

There's been some speculation that the Camp Williams facility dovetails with the NSA's controversial attempts to further establish itself as the lead dog for the government's expanding cybersecurity initiatives, although NSA officials aren't tipping their hand.

"I can't get into some of the specific details of the kind of work that will go on at the center because it is a critical aspect of the way we are looking at doing cybersecurity going forward," Gaffney said in his best NSA-ese. "I can say that the reason why we are doing the center is because of the deep level of technical expertise that's needed to understand the nature of the threats."

Given the NSA's penchant for speaking little and revealing less, it sounds like he's saying, "Trust us."

Zeros gone wild

The virtual mountains of data needing such huge levels of power to mine can be brain-numbing. Think zeros gone wild.

A 2008 report by the MITRE Corp., prepared for the Department of Defense, conservatively estimates that the high volumes of data storage required for NSA eavesdropping will reach the petabyte level by 2015. A petabyte is one quadrillion bytes (1,000,000,000,000,000).

There has been even wilder speculation that data storage may reach the yottabyte level within that same time frame. A yottabyte, the largest unit of measure for computer data, equals 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

Either way, the NSA is already drowning in information. The agency's former director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, admitted the NSA "is collecting far more data than it processes, and that the agency processes more data than it actually reports to its consumers."

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