Big Brother is coming: NSA's $1.9 billion cyber spy center a power grab
By Chuck Gates
Published: Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 9:59 p.m. MST
"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
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,
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"(We) will accomplish this in full compliance with the
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
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
Aid doubts the NSA will use
"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.
McIntire did say there has been tremendous interest surrounding
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
What we know
Reporting on the present and future of the
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
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."
Reasons and rationale for the NSA's arrival in
Attacks orchestrated on
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."
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
Aid scoffs at such a notion. He said
If anything, he thinks the state enjoys security advantages lacked by other locales. One such advantage is
$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
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
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."
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