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

Attacks orchestrated on U.S. soil by al-Qaida against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon stunned the nation, sending it collectively running into the embrace of the intelligence community, which offered up wondrous and mysterious technologies as protections.

The wake of 9/11 also sealed a new pecking order that had already started shaking out during the previous decade, on the heels of several embarrassing high-profile security breaches and scandals. So while the Central Intelligence Agency and FBI were losing degrees of influence, the super secretive NSA ascended to fill the void.

The agency's timing was impeccable. Keeping the barbarians at bay has proven lucrative for the signals and ciphers business, with Congress and both the Bush and Obama administrations eager, until only recently, to throw wads of money its way.

The result is what Bamford describes as "the largest, most costly and technologically sophisticated spy organization the world has ever known."

The Utah data center, which will cover 120 acres at Camp Williams, is only part of this ongoing NSA spending spree that has resulted in the doubling of its Fort Meade headquarters. The spending has also led to major upgrades or replacement of existing facilities at Fort Gordon in Georgia; Denver, Colo.; and Wahiawa, Hawaii.

While helping make the rest of the country safer from the threats of terrorists and rogue states, will the NSA's arrival here in effect paint a giant target on the Utah landscape for terrorism or attack down the road?

Aid scoffs at such a notion. He said Utah already has plenty of military targets inside its borders — Dugway Proving Ground, Tooele Army Depot and Hill Air Force Base, to name a few — that make the data center's arrival inconsequential.

If anything, he thinks the state enjoys security advantages lacked by other locales. One such advantage is Utah's proximity deep within the interior of the United States. Another is having homogeneous demographics. Both work together to increase the degree of difficulty for potential terrorists to conduct operations.

$10 billion question

It's an annual $10 billion debate: Besides providing the NSA's 60,000 employees with someplace to track people's Internet-surfing habits, does the agency give America its money's worth?

Bamford has his doubts, writing, "Based on the NSA's history of often being on the wrong end of a surprise and a tendency to mistakenly get the country into, rather than out of, wars, it seems to have a rather disastrous cost-benefit ratio. Were it a corporation, it would likely have gone belly-up years ago."

Aid offers a somewhat different take. "The effectiveness of the NSA is unquantifiable, and I base that on having interviewed over 200 senior intelligence people over the last decade," Aid said. "The NSA is overwhelmingly the most prolific and important producer of intelligence in the U.S. There are hundreds of successes for every known failure."

It's entirely possible the answer lies in between. In his book, Aid quotes former senior State Department official and onetime agency user Herbert Levin as saying, "NSA can point to things they have obtained that have been useful. But whether they're worth the billions that are spent is a genuine question in my mind."

e-mail: chuck@desnews.com

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