Inside the NSA’s Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah
By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, March 21, 2012
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A new exposé in Wired Magazine has revealed new details about how the National Security Agency is quietly building the largest spy center in the country in Bluffdale, Utah, as part of a secret NSA surveillance program codenamed “Stellar Wind.” According to investigative reporter James Bamford, the NSA has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. The Utah spy center will contain near-bottomless databases to store all forms of communication collected by the agency. This includes the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases and other digital “pocket litter.”
AMY GOODMAN: In addition, the NSA has also created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. James Bamford writes the secret surveillance program “is, in some measure, the realization of the ‘total information awareness’ program created during the first term of the Bush administration,” but later killed by Congress in 2003 due to privacy concerns and public outcry.
James Bamford joins us now from London, England. His article in Wired is called “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say).” Jim Bamford is an investigative journalist who’s been covering the National Security Agency for the last three decades. He came close to standing trial after revealing the NSA’s operations in an explosive 1982 book called The Puzzle Palace. His latest book is the last in his trilogy on the NSA; it’s called The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.
James Bamford, welcome to Democracy Now! Your piece is so dramatic. I was wondering if you might read the first few paragraphs as we begin.
JAMES BAMFORD: I’ll give it a try.
“The spring air in the small, sand-dusted town has a soft haze to it, and clumps of green-gray sagebrush rustle in the breeze. Bluffdale sits in a bowl-shaped valley in the shadow of Utah’s Wasatch Range to the east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. It’s the heart of Mormon country, where religious pioneers first arrived more than 160 years ago. They came to escape the rest of the world, to understand the mysterious words sent down from their god as revealed on buried golden plates, and to practice what has become known as ‘the principle,’ marriage to multiple wives.
“Today Bluffdale is home to one of the nation’s largest sects of polygamists, the Apostolic United Brethren, with upwards of 9,000 members. The brethren’s complex includes a chapel, a school, a sports field, and an archive. Membership has doubled since 1978—and the number of plural marriages has tripled—so the sect has recently been looking for ways to purchase more land and expand throughout the town.
“But new pioneers have quietly begun moving into the area, secretive outsiders who say little and keep to themselves. Like the pious polygamists, they are focused on deciphering cryptic messages that only they have the power to understand. Just off Beef Hollow Road, less than a mile from brethren headquarters, thousands of hard-hatted construction workers in sweat-soaked T-shirts are laying the groundwork for the newcomers’ own temple and archive, a massive complex so large that it necessitated expanding the town’s boundaries. Once built, it will be more than five times the size of the US Capitol.
“Rather than Bibles, prophets, and worshippers, this temple will be filled with servers, computer intelligence experts, and armed guards. And instead of listening for words flowing down from heaven, these newcomers will be secretly capturing, storing, and analyzing vast quantities of words and images hurtling through the world’s telecommunications networks. In the little town of Bluffdale, Big Love and Big Brother have become uneasy neighbors.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, James Bamford, it’s good to have you on, albeit from Britain right now. But talk further about what you have found and what the capacity of this data center, as they call it, seemingly so innocuous, is.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s going to be a million square feet. That’s gigantic. There’s only one data center in the country that’s larger, and it’s only slightly larger than that. And it’s going to cost $2 billion. It’s being built in this area on a military base outside of Salt Lake City in Bluffdale. As I said, they had to actually extend the boundary of the town so it would fit into it.
And the whole purpose of this is the centerpiece of this massive eavesdropping complex, this network that was created after 9/11. During the ’90s, the NSA had a disastrous decade, following the Cold War. They missed the first World Trade Center bombing. They missed the attack on the USS Cole. They missed the attack on the U.S. embassies in East Africa. And finally, they missed the 9/11 attacks. So NSA wanted to pretty much recreate itself as this massive eavesdropping organization that was, during the Cold War, focused on the Soviet Union, primarily, and to some degree, the Eastern Europe and China and Cuba, communist countries, and today it’s focused on anybody that could use a piece of communication, because the terrorists that they’re eventually after use the same kind of communications that everybody else does. So it has to focus on the worldwide network of communications, the same network that all of us use.
So you have this massive agency that’s collecting a tremendous amount of information every day by satellites, by tapping into undersea cables, by picking up microwave links and tapping of cell phones and data links on your computer, email links, and so forth. And then it has to store it someplace, and that’s why they built Bluffdale. And then that acts as, in essence, like a cloud, a digital cloud, so that agency employees, analysts from around the country at NSA headquarters and their listening posts in different parts of the U.S.—in Georgia, Texas, Hawaii and Colorado—can all access that information held in Bluffdale in that data center. And that’s pretty much a summary of what that data center is all about.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I think most people are more familiar with the work of the CIA or the FBI or other intelligence agencies. The National—the NSA is the most secretive. So can you say a little about what the work they do, how that’s different from what the other agencies do?
JAMES BAMFORD: Sure. The NSA is much different from the CIA. First of all, it’s about three times the size. It costs far more. It’s tremendously more secret than the CIA. And what it does is very different. It’s focused on eavesdropping, on tapping into major communications links, on listening to what people around the world and, to some degree, in the United States say on telephones, email, communications. That’s really the high point of intelligence these days. Human intelligence is what the CIA does. It goes out and recruits spies, or it blows people up with drones. So, the actual collection—and human intelligence hasn’t really been very good historically. Most the intelligence that the U.S. gathers comes from NSA, is from tapping into communications. So that’s a very big difference between the two. And NSA is really the most powerful intelligence agency, not only in the U.S., but in the world today.
NSA has several missions. One of them is intercepting communications. The other is breaking codes, because a lot of that information is encrypted. And the third function of NSA is making codes for the U.S., encrypting U.S. communications. So Bluffdale will play a major role in the breaking of codes because, for breaking codes, you really need two key ingredients. One is a very large—a place where you can store a very large amount of material, because the more material you have, when you’re going through it, using computers to go through it, what you’re looking for is patterns. And the more material that you have—the more data, the more telephone calls, the more email, the more encrypted data that you have—the more patterns that you’re likely to discover.
And the second thing you need is a very, very powerful computer, a very fast computer that can go through enormous amounts of information very fast looking for those patterns. And so, the NSA is now also building a very secret facility down in Tennessee at Oak Ridge, where during World War II the U.S., in great secrecy, developed the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. So now, instead of an atomic bomb, you have a massive computer that the NSA is working on to be the fastest computer in the world, with speeds that are just beyond most people’s comprehensions. And the reason for that is because they have to use these computers to do what they call “brute force”—in other words, take this data and just go through it as fast as possible just to look for these key patterns.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yesterday, Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia questioned NSA director and CYBERCOM commander, General Keith Alexander, about reports that the NSA is intercepting U.S. citizens’ phone calls and emails. Johnson specifically refers to your article, Jim Bamford. Let’s go to that clip.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: General, an article in Wired Magazine reported this month that a whistleblower, formerly employed by the NSA, has stated NSA signals intercepts include, quote, “eavesdropping on domestic phone calls” and “inspection of domestic emails,” end-quote. Is that true?
GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: No, not in that context. The question that—or, I think what he’s trying to raise is, are we gathering all the information on the United States? No, that is not correct.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: The author of the Wired Magazine article’s name is James Bashford [sic]. He writes that NSA has software that, quote, “searches US sources for target addresses, locations, countries, and phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases in email. Any communication that arouses suspicion, especially those to or from the million or so people on agency watch lists, are automatically copied or recorded and then transmitted to the NSA.” Is this true?
GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: No, it’s not.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was NSA director, General Keith Alexander, being questioned by Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson. James Bamford, your response?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, you know, the NSA has constantly denied that they’re doing things, and then it turns out they are doing these things. They denied they were doing domestic eavesdropping back in the ’70s, and it turned out they had Operation SHAMROCK and Operation MINARET, and they’ve been reading every single telegram coming in or going out of the country for 30 years at that point, and also eavesdropping on antiwar veterans. That came out during the Church Committee report. More recently, a few years ago, President Bush said before camera that the United States is not eavesdropping on anybody without a warrant, and then it turns out that we had this exposure to all the warrantless eavesdropping in the New York Times article. And so, you have this constant denial and parsing of words in terms of what he’s saying.
So, what I would like to do—I quote from a number of people in the article that are whistleblowers. They worked at NSA. They worked there many years. One of my key whistleblowers was the senior technical person on the largest eavesdropping operation in NSA. He was a very senior NSA official. He was in charge of basically automating the entire world eavesdropping network for NSA. So—and one of the other people is a intercept operator that was actually listening to these calls, listening to journalists calling from overseas and talking to their wives and having intimate conversations. And she tells about how these people were having these conversations, and she felt very guilty listening to them. These people came forward and said, you know, this shouldn’t be happening. Bill Binney, the senior official I interviewed, had been with NSA for 40 years almost, and he left, saying that what they’re doing is unconstitutional.
What I’d like to see is, why don’t we have a panel, for the first time in history, of some of these people and have them before Congress, sitting there telling their story to Congress, instead of to me, and then have NSA respond to them? I mean, this is the American public who we’re talking about whose phone calls we’re talking about, so—and email and data searches and all that. So I think it’s about time that the Congress get involved, instead of asking questions from a newspaper or from a magazine article, and start actually questioning these people on the record in terms of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and to whom they’re doing it—you know, to whom they’re doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: In response to your article, Jim Bamford, Forbes Magazine published a piece yesterday by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute called “NSA’s Secret Data Center Is a Threat, But Only to America’s Enemies.” The author writes, quote, “The real reason the intelligence community needs big cryptological and analytic complexes is that modern information technology has empowered hostile states and extremists of every stripe, giving them unprecedented access to the sources of American strength while enabling them to thoroughly obscure the authors and content of their communications.” James Bamford, your comment?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, listen, I mean, we’ve—I wrote another book called A Pretext for War about how we got into the Iraq War. And I’ve been hearing this fear mongering, fear mongering, fear mongering forever. We’re spending enormous amounts of money on NSA to pick up communications. And even though they lost all these—they had all these failures during the 1990s, you know, failure after failure—the World Trade Center One and World Trade Center Two, the attack on the Cole, the East African embassies bombings—and even after they started all this rebuilding and more and more money, they still missed the person flying over on the Christmas Day flight to Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. They missed the person in Times Square. So, you know, all this eavesdropping we’re doing and all this money we’re spending, I don’t see an awful lot of value coming out of that. But I do hear tremendous amounts of fear mongering, that sort of nonstop fear mongering from the people that are pushing this agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, you have been writing about the NSA for decades. I can’t help but think about how you came close to standing trial in 1982 for your book on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace, revealing what was going on with the NSA. Are you at all concerned about what it means to reveal this information?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, as you mentioned, I’ve been doing it for 30 years, so I’ve had concerns about that from time to time. In 1982, as you mentioned, I didn’t come close to trial, because they never—I was never arrested or prosecuted or anything, but I was threatened twice by the Justice Department to return documents that they said were classified. But these were documents that had been released to me by the attorney general under the Carter administration, Attorney General Civiletti. And so, I never returned the documents, because they were unclassified when they were given to me. And what the Reagan administration did was reclassify them as top secret and then order that I give them back. But we found a passage in the executive order on secrecy that said once a document has been declassified, it can’t be reclassified. So then Reagan changed the executive order to say that it could be reclassified, but that couldn’t apply to my case because of the principle of ex post facto. So that was fairly dramatic, where they were threatening me during the writing of The Puzzle Palace.
But, you know, ironically, the second book I had on NSA after that, Body of Secrets, they had a book signing for me at NSA. And I interviewed the director in his office and had tours of the agency and all that other—everything else. But then, when I discovered that NSA was doing all this illegal warrantless eavesdropping, I wrote the third book, which was The Shadow Factory, showing how NSA got involved in all this illegal activity after they had basically given it up for many years, ever since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created in—around 1978. So, you know, I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with NSA over the years. Sometimes I’ll compliment them if they do something good, and other times I’ll criticize them, as I do in this article, for things that I don’t think they’re doing very good.