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

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 10:12 p.m. MDT

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) 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.

The NSA uses satellite dishes at its post at Menwith Hill in Britain to eavesdrop on international communications as part of its high-tech surveillance in the age of terrorism.  (Neil Barrett) The NSA uses satellite dishes at its post at Menwith Hill in Britain to eavesdrop on international communications as part of its high-tech surveillance in the age of terrorism. (Neil Barrett)

"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."

In his book "The Shadow Factory," Bamford cites an already outdated study by the University of California at Berkeley that measured global data trends. In 2002, there were 1.1 billion telephone lines in the world carrying nearly 3.8 billion minutes — approximately 15 exabytes of data. An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes. Cell phones added 2.3 exabytes of data, while the Internet that year added another 32 petabytes to the bubbling information pot.

Suffice it to say that seven years hence, it's grown to a tsunami-size information wave that's being added to daily, which is where the NSA's robust sifting technologies of today and the future come into play.

"Once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite 'libraries,' the data are then analyzed by powerful info weapons, supercomputers running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us may be — or may one day become — a terrorist," Bamford writes. "In the NSA's world of automated surveillance on steroids, every bit has a history, and every keystroke tells a story."

Bigger Brother, if you will, once only found in literature and the lexicon, has now taken up full-time residency in our daily lives.

Power shortage

The Baltimore Sun first reported in 2006 that the NSA was unable to install new supercomputers and other sophisticated equipment at Fort Meade for fear of "blowing out the electrical infrastructure." The NSA and Fort Meade are Baltimore Gas & Electric's largest customers, consuming roughly the amount of power that the city of Annapolis does, the Sun reported.

In 2005, the NSA took its first step to decentralize information gathering and storage by making known it would convert a former 470,000-square-foot Sony computer-chip building in San Antonio, Texas, into a satellite data facility. The Texas Cryptologic Center, as it's being called, reportedly rivals the nearby Alamodome in size.

Camp Williams was announced to be the next such NSA facility, although back-channel chatter is now questioning if San Antonio is being shoved aside in favor of increasing the Utah center's role.

"I've heard the San Antonio deal is dead," said someone who closely follows the NSA but asked not to be identified. "I was told that given current budgetary constraints that the NSA was basically told they could have one, but not both centers, and it looks like they've chosen Utah."

Should that be the case, no one apparently has told the NSA, which would be ironic for an agency that prides itself on knowing everything.

"Plans for the NSA Texas Cryptologic Center are continuing," wrote NSA public affairs specialist Marci Green in a recent e-mail. "(The) NSA has maintained a presence in San Antonio over the past two decades and plans to continue to have strong presence in the area."

Hiding in plain sight

A long-running joke has been that NSA actually stands for "No Such Agency."

But lurking in the shadows becomes trickier when you've grown into the 5,000-pound gorilla. Thus, as the scope of the NSA increases, the agency is continually perfecting its ability to hide in plain sight by labeling much of what does "classified" and creating a nearly impenetrable veil of secrecy.

But maintaining that concealment breeds fear and paranoia, especially among conspiracy theorists and the similar-minded.

Much of the Web buzz surrounding the Utah data center has revolved around how banks of supercomputers inside the facility might be used for intrusive data mining and monitoring of telephone conversations, e-mails and Web site hits, in the name of national security.

"While the NSA doesn't engage in traditional wiretapping, which is the bailiwick of the FBI and other enforcement agencies, it does collect signals intelligence (sigint) by intercepting streams of foreign electronic communications containing millions and millions of telephone calls and e-mails," writes Bamford. The NSA feeds intercepts through its computers that screen for selected names, telephone numbers, Internet addresses and trigger words or phrases. Flagged information gets highlighted for further analysis.

"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.

A hodgepodge of military intelligence and security units from the Utah Guard use Camp Williams for training purposes, including the 1,200-member 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, which specializes in linguistics intelligence. McIntire said about 50 percent of the brigade's ranks are made up of returned LDS missionaries who speak a second language.

Aid considers returned Mormon missionaries perfect for the task. Being near-native speakers and squeaky-clean, he said, they're some of the easiest people in the world to get high-level security clearances on.

Aid also finds it interesting that Arabic linguists from Fort Gordon, Ga., the NSA post responsible for keeping its ear tuned to the Middle East and North Africa, are shuttled to Camp Williams regularly for additional training. "The best of the best," he said.

What we know

Reporting on the present and future of the Camp Williams Data Center continues to be a lot like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, minus the picture on the box lid.

Questions and queries for clarification for this story e-mailed to the NSA at their request generated a return e-mail containing multiple URLs linking to previously published news releases, transcriptions of news conferences and information relating to construction bidding. No new information was provided.

But by assembling information available in the public domain, including a handful of budget documents sent by the NSA to Congress, the puzzle's outer edge is starting to emerge.

The budget documents reveal, for example, that $207 million has already been spent for initial planning of the center and that the first phase of construction, fast-tracked for two-year completion, will carry a $169.5 million price tag.

Phase I construction will include basic infrastructure and installation of security items, such as perimeter fencing and alarms, an interim visitor control center and a vehicle-inspection center for use during construction.

Part of that money will also be spent bringing utilities to the site, relocating some existing National Guard facilities away from the area, as well as surveying the site for unexploded ordnance from previous Utah Guard training.

The NSA has also requested another $800 million for the center in 2010 appropriations bills that are now before Congress. That money would fund a first-phase, 30-megawatt data center to include "state-of-the-art high-performance computing devices and associated hardware architecture."

The facility itself will cover approximately 1 million square feet, of which 100,000 square feet will be "mission critical data-center space with raised flooring." The remaining 900,000 square feet will be used for technical support and administrative purposes.

Following Phase I, budget documents show, the NSA intends to request an additional $800 million sometime in the future to eventually expand the data center into a 65-megawatt operation.

Earlier media reports comparing the data center's 65-megawatt capacity with the entire power consumption of Salt Lake City were erroneous, according to Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen.

Eskelsen says the actual power consumption of Salt Lake City is closer to 420 megawatts, meaning a fully functional data center will draw roughly one-sixth as much power as the capital city.

"It's a lot of power but not what has been being reported," Eskelsen said, noting the NSA won't be as a large a consumer of power as Kennecott presently is. The agency "will be in line with our midrange large customers."

Eskelsen also addressed how system upgrades in the works, including building a new substation to boost capacity, should mitigate potential service disruptions. "The system is perfectly capable of handling (the demand), as long as the infrastructure is in place to supply it," Eskelsen said, "and we're making substantial additions to the infrastructure to handle it."

September 11

Reasons and rationale for the NSA's arrival in Utah invariably can be traced to the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.

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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