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

"Foreign" is the keyword here. Domestic signals intelligence is not part of the NSA's charge, although there is plenty of overlap, requiring the agency to navigate shades of gray.

Whenever the NSA has blurred the demarcation between monitoring foreign and domestic signals, however — most famously several years ago, when the agency was reportedly electronically peeking over the shoulder of American servicemen, journalists and aid workers overseas — rebuke by civil libertarians has followed like the period at the end of a sentence.

By the book

Try as it might, the NSA can't shake those Orwellian overtones, prompting Gaffney and others to reiterate that everything in Utah will be done by the book.

"(We) will accomplish this in full compliance with the U.S. Constitution and federal law and while observing strict guidelines that protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people," Gaffney pledged in October.

Perhaps it's because Utahns are such a family-oriented bunch that few even blinked upon learning their Big Brother was moving in.

Not that the NSA's actual physical location matters any more, says Aid, who researched and penned "The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency." To be frank, he said, the NSA has moved beyond Big Brother.

"I've been following the NSA for 25 years, and while I admire (the agency's) successes and the commitment of the people working there, there's a lot that also gives me pause for concern. We should be wary of too much secrecy," cautions the archivist, who himself was a controversial footnote in NSA history nearly a quarter of a century ago. While serving as an Air Force sergeant and Russian linguist for the NSA in England, Aid was court-martialed, imprisoned for just over a year and received a bad-conduct discharge for unauthorized possession of classified information and impersonating an officer, according to Air Force documents reported by the Washington Post in August 2006.

When it comes to having a healthy skepticism of how the NSA sometimes conducts its business, Aid is not alone.

Acknowledgement by government officials that the agency went beyond the broad limits set by Congress last year for intercepting telephone and e-mail messages of Americans has raised the hackles of many NSA watchdogs.

"The NSA's expertise, which is impressive and very, very deep, is focused primarily on the needs of the military and the intelligence community," said Matt Blaze, a computer security expert at the University of Pennsylvania. But Blaze told the New York Times that the NSA's "track record in dealing with civilian communications security is mixed, at best."

Sitting rack

Aid doubts the NSA will use Camp Williams for domestic prying. Rather, he's of the opinion the data center will significantly expand on the linguistics and electronic surveillance work already being carried out there. "It's an operational mission that's been going on (there) for some time," Aid said, describing the setting inside a windowless operations building filled with linguists wearing headphones and dressed in desert fatigues.

"The NSA is a windowless world," Aid laughs, claiming he can spot an agency installation anywhere because there are never any windows. They're either built windowless, or if it's a retrofit, they cover them over.

Aid said soldiers "sit rack," as it's termed, behind a computer with radio intercept receivers and recorders monitoring live missions beamed remotely by satellite from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We (the Utah National Guard) don't do that at Camp Williams," clarified spokesman Lt. Col. Hank McIntire, who said he cannot comment on speculation of that nature.

McIntire did say there has been tremendous interest surrounding Camp Williams and its role following the NSA's announcement. He then repeated his earlier statement that the Utah Guard's role is to provide the real estate for the NSA to build its facility to carry out "specific missions," whatever those might be.

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