The Spy Factory

The NSA   was founded in 1952 but only publicly acknowledged years later, which explains its nickname ‘No Such Agency.’

In this program, an eye-opening documentary on the National Security Agency by best-selling author James Bamford and Emmy Award-winning producer Scott Willis, NOVA exposes the ultra-secret intelligence agency’s role in the failure to stop the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent eavesdropping program that listens in without warrant on millions of American citizens.

The Spy Factory

PBS Airdate: February 3, 2009

NARRATOR: Halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is a hidden city, the headquarters of the National Security Agency, NSA. Here, tens of thousands of mathematicians, computer scientists, analysts, linguists and voice interceptors work in absolute secrecy.

JAMES BAMFORD (Author, The Shadow Factory): For those in the know, the joke was that NSA stood for “no such agency.” For those on the inside, the joke was that NSA stood for “never say anything.”

NARRATOR: NSA’s job? To secretly listen in on telephone conversations, email communications, anything and everything that might warn of plots to do harm.

ERIC HASELTINE (National Security Agency, Director of Research, 2002–2005): The scope of what happens at NSA is mind-boggling. I don’t think the average person can even begin to conceive of the staggering depth and breadth of what they have to do.

NARRATOR: But was NSA doing its job before the 9/11 attacks? It’s a question that has never been thoroughly investigated.

MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former Central Intelligence Agency Analyst): None of this information that we’re speaking about this evening is in the9/11 Commission Report. They simply ignored all of it.

NARRATOR: But author James Bamford has investigated and come up with a chilling tale of terrorists, living in San Diego, communicating with bin Laden’s operations center in Yemen, moving freely about, and all the while, NSA is listening in.

JAMES BAMFORD: But the NSA never alerted any other agency that the terrorists were in the United States and moving across the country towards Washington.

NARRATOR: Since the 9/11 attacks, NSA’s role has grown even bigger, along with its license to listen in on Americans here and abroad.

ADRIENNE KINNE (Former National Security Agency Voice Interceptor):It was incredibly uncomfortable to be listening to private, personal conversations of Americans. It’s almost like going through and finding somebody’s diary.

NARRATOR: But is this flood of information making America any safer? Looking into The Spy Factory, right now on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: On the southbound lane of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, traffic is stalled as commuters crowd down a special restricted exit that disappears into the thick woods. Beyond, hidden from view and protected by electrified fences and heavily armed guards, is the largest, most secret and most technologically advanced intelligence agency in the world: the National Security Agency, NSA.

Its mission: making and breaking codes; tapping into foreign signals, sifting through the international phone calls, emails, text and instant messages that blanket the modern world.

Every day, more than 20,000 people flood into this secret city. Unlike undercover CIA operatives, spying in hostile territory, NSA’s spies use technology in what is believed to be the largest collection of mathematicians, linguists and computer scientists on the planet. Author James Bamford has written about NSA for the past 25 years.

JAMES BAMFORD: For the few in the know, the joke was always that NSA stood for “no such agency.” For those on the inside, the joke was that NSA stood for “never say anything.”

During the cold war, NSA circled nearly the entire Soviet Union with listening posts, to intercept military and diplomatic communications. NSA even listened in on Soviet leaders calling to the Kremlin from their limousines. At its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, NSA used acres of supercomputers to break any coded communications.

NARRATOR: But when the Soviet Union collapsed, a new enemy emerged, one NSA was never designed to engage. That enemy was Al Qaeda. Eric Haseltine was NSA’s Director of Research.

ERIC HASELTINE: The Russians were easy to find and hard to kill, and terrorists are hard to find and easy to kill.

NARRATOR: Unlike the Soviets, Al Qaeda was a small, scattered, moving target. Headquartered in remote, mountain training camps, its soldiers communicated by cell and satellite phones.

ERIC HASELTINE: And if you look at the job of NSA, to find the enemy, they had to go from looking at an enemy that they kind of knew who they were and where they were, to one that they didn’t know who they were or where they were or how they communicated.

NARRATOR: For NSA, the challenge was to change tactics to match an increasingly dangerous adversary. In cities across Asia and the Middle East, Al Qaeda operatives were using public payphones and internet cafes to plan a series of strikes that would culminate in the 9/11 attacks.

TIM SAMPLE (Former Staff Director, United States Congress House Intelligence Committee): At that point, it was a race. It was a race between how much could we rebuild and have the type of capabilities that you need against an individual or a small group of individuals who operate around the world and pay little attention to borders. Can you do that? And can you rebuild the intelligence community in time?

NARRATOR: Those questions still resonate today. Was the National Security Agency, the organization responsible for intercepting foreign calls and messages, listening in on Al Qaeda prior to 9/11? What role did the NSA play? And are we any safer today?

Surprisingly, the 9/11 Commission never investigated the NSA’s role as fully as it did those of the CIA or FBI, but by carefully piecing together a variety of unclassified public records, the story of NSA and its role in the “war on terror” emerges.

JAMES BAMFORD: In my research, I used thousands of documents available in the public record. They included intelligence agency memos, transcripts of terrorist trials, and a secret FBI chronology of the 9/11 terrorists’ movements obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. One fact is clear from these sources: they were monitoring the Al Qaeda leader long before 9/11.

NARRATOR: In November, 1996, a known Al Qaeda contact buys an Inmarsat satellite phone from a store in a New York suburb. That phone is for Osama bin Laden. Once he starts dialing from Afghanistan, NSA’s listening posts quickly tap into his conversations. Analysts at the CIA, like Michael Scheuer—head of Alec Station, the CIA’s newly formed bin Laden tracking unit—are also eager to get the information.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Osama bin Laden’s Inmarsat telephone was really a godsend. It gave us an idea, not only of where he was in Afghanistan, but where Al Qaeda, as an organization, was established, because there were calls to various places in the world.

NARRATOR: For NSA, tapping into satellite calls is a basic tactic in what’s known as “signals intelligence.” Inmarsat phones transmit signals straight to a satellite orbiting over the Indian Ocean. By tracking all calls in and out of Afghanistan, the NSA quickly determines bin Laden’s number: 873-682505331. Once they have this, they home in on both sides of his conversations, listening to bin Laden by means of a huge dish in space, and to the person he’s speaking to with a dish-shaped antenna on the ground.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: In the intelligence business, signals intelligence is among the most important kind of intelligence options that you have—the electronic communications that are in the air, whether from telephone to telephone, from satellite to satellite, from Inmarsat radio to Inmarsat radio—and NSA collects those with a very broad array of electronic collection capability, but once you collect them, all you have is the signals. And ultimately, it all comes down to the human being.

NARRATOR: Human analysts plot out which numbers are being called from bin Laden’s phone and how frequently. They quickly discover that most of the calls from bin Laden’s phone in Afghanistan are going to a house in Yemen, 2,000 miles to the south.

JAMES BAMFORD: Yemen is central to understanding how Al Qaeda operates. It’s where Osama bin Laden’s father was born and raised. It has a culture of clans and secrets. It didn’t surprise me that bin Laden chose its capital city, Sana’a, for his logistics and communications headquarters. What was surprising was that I found it tucked away in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The headquarters was hidden in a small undistinguished house the CIA said was the home of one of bin Laden’s closest associates.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden’s phone calls aren’t encrypted, so there is no code for NSA’s supercomputers to break. Instead, NSA voice interceptors and linguists painstakingly translate, transcribe and write summaries of the calls. The summaries are shared with the CIA, but its analysts at Alec Station want more. They believe that only by carefully studying each word will it be possible to understand bin Laden’s intentions.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Over time, if you read enough of these conversations, you first get clued in to the fact that maybe “bottle of milk” doesn’t mean “bottle of milk.” And if you follow it long enough, you develop a sense of what they’re really talking about. But it’s not possible to do unless you have the verbatim transcript.

We went to Fort Meade to ask then the NSA’s deputy director for operations for the transcripts, and she said, “We are not going to share that with you.” And that was the end.

NARRATOR: NSA declined NOVA’s repeated requests for interviews, but its policy since its founding has been to never share raw data, even with other intelligence agencies. Scheuer is so determined to get it, he persuades the CIA to build its own ground station. But without a satellite, he can only get half of the conversations.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: We would collect it, translate it, send it to NSA and ask them for the other half of it, so we could better understand it, but we never got it.

NEWSCASTER (8/7/98): A terrorist attack on Americans half a world away.

NARRATOR: August 7, 1998: Al Qaeda strikes two U.S. embassies in east Africa.

NEWSCASTER (8/7/98): The principle suspect is Osama bin Laden.

NARRATOR: Both NSA and CIA are monitoring the Al Qaeda network, but neither gives any warning of the two precisely timed attacks.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Truth of the matter is, though, we had various reports from human intelligence sources within East Africa that there was an Al Qaeda operation brewing somewhere on the east coast of Africa. We could never really pin it down.

NARRATOR: The embassy attacks are technically on American soil, so the FBI is called in and finds out about the house in Yemen.

MARK ROSSINI (Former Federal Bureau of Investigation Supervisory Agent): I first learned about the communications center in Yemen when I got to Nairobi, after the embassy bombing there. That house was a focal point for operatives in the field to call in, that number would then contact bin Laden to pass along information and receive instruction back.

NARRATOR: With only a handful of ways to pin down bin Laden’s location—reconnaissance satellites, spies on the ground and signals intelligence—NSA’s expertise is becoming increasingly important.

ERIC HASELTINE: If you’ve only got very few people who are hiding out in a cave somewhere, you’re looking for a very small target and very few targets, as opposed to a big army division or a big missile complex. So, imagery intelligence was of relatively less value. Human intelligence, in an environment where a terrorist network is all relatives, blood relatives…it becomes tougher to get information in that kind of network.

I think one interpretation was that NSA understood that they were becoming more important, in the grand scheme of things, in the war on terror.

NEWSCASTER (10/12/00): An American ship is attacked in Yemen.

NARRATOR: October 12, 2000: Al Qaeda strikes again. This time, it’s an attack on the U.S.S. Cole, moored off the coast of Yemen.

NEWSCASTER: Yemen’s Port Authority had been penetrated…immediately suspect Osama bin Laden.

NARRATOR: Once again, the U.S. intelligence community fails to give a timely warning of the attack. Frank Blanco, NSA’s Executive Director at the time, says NSA was still stuck confronting terrorist tactics with Cold War technology.

FRANK BLANCO (National Security Agency Executive Director, 1999–2001): You’ve got targets that are very mobile. They use a variety of communications, which are cell phones, laptops. NSA had to begin to think about, “What is the real technology that is necessary and how much is it going to cost and where do we get the money?”

NARRATOR: Money is a pressing issue. After the Cold War, Congress had reduced NSA’s budget by a third, while criticizing it for violating privacy laws.

CONGRESSPERSON 1: …concerned about the privacy rights of American citizens.

CONGRESSPERSON 2: There is no legitimate excuse for that.

CONGRESSPERSON 3: It is intolerable to think of the United States Government, of big brother, or anybody else…

NARRATOR: By law, NSA was prohibited from spying on American soil without approval from a special court, created by FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

JAMES BAMFORD: When I interviewed General Michael Hayden, the head of NSA, I was surprised when he told me that they were monitoring less than half a dozen people in the United States. He was very busy fighting Hollywood’s image of NSA like you saw in movie, Enemy of the State.

GENE HACKMAN (Film Clip, Enemy of the State): The National Security Agency conducts worldwide surveillance. Fax, phones, satellite communications — they’re the only ones including the military who could possibly have anything like this.

ERIC HASELTINE: To us, in the intelligence community, movies likeEnemy of the State are quite amusing, because it made us look omniscient, we could collect anything we want and it’s just not that way. It’s not that way, at all. You may collect a lot of stuff, but you don’t know what you’ve got. Really, the biggest technology challenge was how do you deal with volumes of information like that and find dots, connect dots and understand dots. That’s the problem.

NARRATOR: In late December, 1999, NSA finds one very important dot: it intercepts an alarming call to the house in Yemen, instructing two Al Qaeda foot soldiers to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for what sounds like a terrorist summit. The foot soldiers are Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. This is the phone call that sets in motion the 9/11 attacks.

JAMES BAMFORD: After picking up this critical call, NSA passed on their first names to the FBI and the CIA but not their last names. Nawaf’s last name had been in the NSA’s database for over a year, because of his association with bin Laden’s operations center in Yemen, but apparently the NSA never looked it up.

NARRATOR: The CIA does find al-Mihdhar’s name in its database. They ask security agents to make a copy of his passport as he passes through a checkpoint in Dubai. When analysts at CIA headquarters see it, they are astonished to find a valid U.S. visa inside. Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, now has two FBI agents detailed to it, Doug Miller and Mark Rossini.

MARK ROSSINI: Once they arrived in Kuala Lumpur, of course, the CIA requested the intelligence service over there in Malaysia to conduct surveillance of these subjects and find out as much as they can. They took photographs, followed them. And you read from that one of the individuals had a visa to come to the U.S.

NARRATOR: Fearing an Al Qaeda terrorist may be headed to the U.S., the agents are determined to tell the FBI, but a CIA official will not allow it.

MARK ROSSINI: I guess I was the more senior agent. So I went up to the individual that had the ticket on the Yemeni cell, the Yemeni operatives. And I said to her, I said, “What’s going on? You know, we’ve got to tell the Bureau about this. These guys clearly are bad. One of them, at least, has a multiple-entry visa to the U.S. We’ve got to tell the FBI.”

And then she said to me, “No, it’s not the FBI’s case, not the FBI’s jurisdiction.”

So I go tell Doug. And I’m like, “Doug, what can we do?” If we had picked up the phone and called the Bureau, I would have been violating the law. I would have broken the law. I would have been removed from the building that day. I would have had my clearances suspended, and I would be gone.

JAMES BAMFORD: This is one of the most astonishing parts of the story. The CIA had FBI operatives working within their bin Laden unit, but when the FBI operatives found out that one, and possibly two, of the terrorists had visas to the United States, were heading for the United States, the CIA wouldn’t let them tell their headquarters that they were coming. Only the FBI could have put out alerts to stop Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi if they tried to enter the United States.

NARRATOR: January 15, 2000, Los Angeles International Airport: United Airlines Flight 2 arrives from Bangkok, where the CIA lost al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi’s trail. They pass through U.S. Immigration undetected. Within two weeks they move into the anonymity of a San Diego suburb.

MARK ROSSINI: The FBI put together this chronology as part of its investigation into the 9/11 attack. The timeline, the declassified copy, is the movements and the activities of the hijackers while they are in the U.S., hiding in plain sight.

NARRATOR: They get drivers licenses in their own names. They use a local bank to pick up international wire transfers from a known Al Qaeda finance chief. Their telephone number is even listed in the San Diego white pages: Alhazmi Nawaf M 858-279-5919.

JAMES BAMFORD: The CIA was forbidden from operating within the United States, and the FBI didn’t know they were here, so the only way to track the terrorists was if NSA continued to monitor the conversations as they called back to the house in Yemen.

NARRATOR: But nine days after al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar arrive in California, the NSA has a catastrophic failure.

FRANK BLANCO: I remember getting a phone call on January 24, 2000, that began with, “We have a problem.” NSA systems had actually stopped working.

NARRATOR: The most technologically advanced intelligence agency in the world, capable of monitoring millions of simultaneous conversations, is deaf.

FRANK BLANCO: NSA was brain-dead. It took probably three to four, maybe even five days to bring everything back up the way it was.

NARRATOR: It is unclear whether, during those five days, NSA misses any calls from the hijackers in San Diego. But what is certain, as the FBI chronology spells out, is that the hijackers waste no time settling into their new neighborhood.

MARK ROSSINI: Here, as it says in the chronology: February 5, 2000: al-Mihdhar signed a lease to rent an apartment at 6401 Mount Ada Road, in San Diego.

February 25: Al-Mihdhar purchased a Toyota Corolla, in San Diego, California.

February 28: records at Progressive Insurance Company verify Al-Mihdhar’s insurance policy, number 604725921-0, Huggy Bear Insurance Corporation.

March 20: the San Diego telephone number associated with Nawaf al-Hazmi made a call, which lasted 16 minutes, to Yemen.

NARRATOR: That is one of many calls made from San Diego to bin Laden’s operations center, the house in Yemen that NSA has been monitoring for over three years. But NSA would not pass on that information to any other intelligence agency. Eleanor Hill investigated NSA’s role in 9/11 for Congress.

ELEANOR HILL (Staff Director, United States Congress 9/11 Committee): We were very surprised to learn that, you know, they had this information. And if there are contacts from known terrorists in the United States with terrorist facilities abroad, that’s exactly the kind of information our intelligence community needs to have. They didn’t have it.

MARK ROSSINI: You put the NSA intel and the FBI intel together, you have both sides of the conversation. So they come in, we follow them, find out where they’re going; listen to their homes, listen to their conversations at their home, or cell phone, whatever; emails. The possibilities are endless once you’re able to peer into someone’s life.

JAMES BAMFORD: Incredibly, the NSA never informed the FBI that these calls were coming from the United States, and we may never know why. No one from NSA will discuss it, and the 9/11 Commission never investigated it. They either didn’t realize the two terrorists were calling from the United States—which is hard to believe because even I have caller I.D., which shows where calls are coming from—or what’s more likely is that they ignored it because then they would have had to hand the contacts over to the FBI.

NARRATOR: April 12, 2000: almost three months after the hijackers arrive in the U.S., NSA director Michael Hayden hints at another possible explanation for NSA’s silence. Already warned by Congress to respect Americans’ privacy rights, Hayden responds to the House Intelligence Committee with extreme caution.

GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN (National Security Agency Director, 1999–2005): Let me put a fine point on this. If, as we are speaking here this afternoon, Osama bin Laden is walking across the Peace Bridge from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Niagara Falls, New York, as he gets to the New York side, he is an American person. And my agency must respect his rights against unreasonable search and seizure, as provided by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

JAMES BAMFORD: But General Hayden knew that the law permitted the agency to eavesdrop on the terrorists without interruption if they entered the United States.

MARK ROSSINI: You could link back who they were, their connection to bin Laden, the connection to the Yemeni house, et cetera. You could have gone to any court, any judge in the FISA court and say, “We want a FISA on that residence in San Diego.”

It would have been easy. And we would have surveilled them, and we would have learned more information. People who are going to watch this, they’re going to say, “Oh, it’s hindsight 20–20.” But, no, I’m not talking hindsight 20–20. I’m talking basic, logical investigation.

NARRATOR: Again, the FBI chronology, compiled after the 9/11 attacks, describes precisely how al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi begin training for their 9/11 operation.

MARK ROSSINI: April 4, 2000: Nawaf al-Hazmi received one hour of introductory flight instruction from the National Air College, located at 3760 Glenn Curtis Road, San Diego.

May 4: Khalid al-Mihdhar debit card purchase: two Jeppesen training kits.

June 10, 2000: Al-Mihdhar departed U.S. via Lufthansa Flight 457 from Los Angeles, California to Frankfurt, Germany.

NARRATOR: Khalid al-Mihdhar is heading home to see a newborn son. For the next 13 months he will live with his wife and baby in the house in Yemen, the house NSA is monitoring. He will even apply for a new U.S. visa, and, incredibly, he will get it.

December 8, 2000: Hani Hanjour, another 9/11 hijacker, touches down in San Diego. Three days later he joins Nawaf al-Hazmi on a road trip to New Jersey, where the rest of the hijackers are assembling. Once more, the FBI chronology, compiled after the attacks, documents their five-month trip.

MARK ROSSINI: March 1, 2001: Hanjour has eight hours of simulator training at Jet Tech.

April 1: Nawaf al-Hazmi received a speeding ticket and received a summons for failure to wear a seatbelt.

May 1: Al-Hazmi filed a police report with Fairfax County, Virginia, police department, alleging he was mugged by an unknown black male.

NARRATOR: June 21, 2001: a reporter from the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation interviews bin Laden’s lieutenants in Afghanistan. They hint that a major attack may soon take place. U.S. forces in the Mideast are put on the highest alert.

After the interview is released, NSA’s traffic analysis detects a huge spike of threatening communications.

ELEANOR HILL: There was a great anticipation that there was going to be an attack on U.S. interests by Al Qaeda. Most people believed it was going to be overseas. And so, tragically, their focus was on their job, which was looking overseas and not so much on what was happening in the U.S., which they viewed as the FBI’s job.

MARK ROSSINI: As the chronology goes on: July 4, 2001: Al-Mihdhar entered the U.S. on Saudi Arabian Flight 53, via J.F.K., in New York City, using a B1 business visa and listing his intended address as the Marriot Hotel, New York City. That was the Marriot Hotel at the World Trade Center.

NARRATOR: To make final preparations for their attack, al-Hazmi, al-Mihdhar and Hanjour drive south on the New Jersey Turnpike. They avoid staying in large cities. They avoid hotel chains with computerized registration. Instead, the crew drives into the Maryland town of Laurel and checks in to the low-budget Valencia Motel. By now they have their final assignment, targeting the Pentagon.

JAMES BAMFORD: Throughout their whole journey, whether they were in San Diego or they were in New Jersey or they were in Laurel, Maryland, they were communicating back and forth to the bin Laden ops center in Yemen. NSA was listening in on the ops center, recording the conversations and then transcribing them. But the NSA never alerted any other agency that the terrorists were in the United States and moving across the country, towards Washington.

NARRATOR: On the face of it, Laurel, Maryland, looks like a typical Washington suburb.

JAMES BAMFORD: What’s very different is that this town happens to be right next door to NSA’s headquarters.

NARRATOR: While NSA has detected a spike in communications threatening an imminent attack, Bin Laden’s hit men have taken refuge right in their backyard.

MARK ROSSINI: August 18: Hani Hanjour rented mailbox number 433.

The day before the hijacking: Nawaf al-Hazmi, Walmart, $36.65; Food Factory, Khalid al-Midhar.

9/6/2001: Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Midhar, Hani Hanjour: Gold’s Gym, Greenbelt, Maryland.

JAMES BAMFORD: The hijackers seemed to blend in very well. Even when they shopped for improvised weapons for the hijackings, they shopped in a Target Store just down the street from NSA. No one thought what they were doing was suspicious.

So here you have these two groups of people: one, the terrorists who were plotting the largest terrorist operation in U.S. history. And you have NSA, which had been listening to some of their phone calls for years. And now they are living side by side, neither of them knowing that the other is there.

What was really tragic is that if General Hayden had looked out his eighth floor window, west, towards Laurel, just two miles away, he could have almost seen the motel in which the hijackers were living. I mean, it’s one of the biggest ironies in the history of American intelligence.

NARRATOR: On the day of the 9/11 attacks, most of NSA’s employees are ordered to leave their headquarters. Afraid that NSA might be another target, some of the few who remain move from their upstairs offices to lower floors. Others tack up black curtains to block their windows. They seem to have no idea what their own agency and the CIA both knew but had said nothing about.

ELEANOR HILL: Had we been able to realize how significant that was, put it together and get it to the agencies who could have made use of it in time, would there have been a different end to the 9/11 story?

MARK ROSSINI: I can’t come up with a rational reason why I didn’t break the rules, pick up the phone, and tell that the hijackers, or really bad guys, are in the U.S. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to come to terms with that. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: On the 13th of September, I gave an address to an empty room, but we beamed it throughout our entire enterprise, about free peoples always having to decide the balance of security and their liberties, and then I told the workforce, there are going to be a lot of pressures to push that banner down toward security, and our job at NSA was to keep America free by making Americans feel safe again.

NARRATOR: Those pressures aren’t long in coming. When Hayden is asked by Vice President Cheney what more NSA can do, he answers, “Not much, without breaking FISA laws,” the laws force that force NSA to obtain a warrant to listen in on Americans.

Three weeks after the attacks, President Bush bypasses those laws, by secretly issuing an executive order: NSA will no longer have to worry about obtaining warrants to eavesdrop inside America. If 9/11 was a wake-up call, the response is a license to listen to almost anything and everything.

TIM SAMPLE: And part of that wake-up call, certainly right after 9/11, included the fact that you needed to take some strict measures. You needed to take some action that would allow you to not let that happen again.

NARRATOR: But to make the new program work, Hayden must finally bring the National Security Agency into the modern age. The backbone of global communications had moved from easily intercepted satellite signals in space, to fiber optic cables buried under the ocean. To understand the challenge NSA faces, NOVA follows one email message as it circles the globe.

In Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, James Bamford is researching Al Qaeda’s communications network. In a busy cafe, he types out an email message to NOVA’s producers, in Boston. Bamford’s message is harmless but contains the kinds of keywords and phrases that NSA supercomputers are programmed to detect, phrases like “blow up the White House,” “destroy the Capitol building,” “biological warfare.”

When he presses “send,” Bamford’s message is instantly mixed in with dozens of other messages on the same wireless network, then routed to a large telecommunications center in the city. There, voice calls are converted from analog to digital signals and streamed, as pulses of light, through a fiber optic cable that dives into the South China Sea, off Malaysia’s Coast.

Along the way, Bamford’s message is merged with thousands of phone calls, emails and faxes, in dozens of languages, from hundreds of Asian cities. The jumble of data crosses under the Pacific Ocean at the speed of light.

Just five hundredths of a second after the message was sent, it comes ashore, six feet under this lonely stretch of California beach, near Morro Bay. There, beneath screeching gulls and surfers in wet suits, Asian communications stream in. A few miles inland, the message passes through a small, nondescript building near San Luis Obispo.

JAMES BAMFORD: If you want to tap into international communications, it seems like the perfect place is San Luis Obispo. That’s where 80 percent of all communications from Asia enters the United States.

NARRATOR: But under NSA’s new orders, they don’t tap in here. Instead the cables run straight from San Luis Obispo to a building in San Francisco.

The building, at 611 Folsom Street, is AT&T’s regional switching center. All the international traffic snakes up to the seventh floor, and it is here that a crucial change takes place. The seventh floor is also where AT&T’s domestic traffic is routed—a cacophony of millions of conversations: cries and laughter, hopes and dreams, emails, faxes, bank statements, hotel reservations, love poems and death notices, all sent by people from inside the United States. The only thing they have in common is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

NARRATOR: In 2003, an AT&T engineer notices that the cables on the seventh floor have been rerouted, and a mirror image of all the traffic, both domestic and international, is now being sent to a secret room one floor below.

MARK KLEIN (Former AT&T Technician): It was obvious that this was some kind of NSA installation. I figured out that what they were doing was a blind wholesale copying of the entire internet data flow. And this meant randomly scooping up huge amounts of purely domestic data, as well as international data.

BRIAN REID (Internet Systems Consortium): When I hear the word wiretap, I’ve always imagined some person in a trench coat and a black hat and sunglasses, skulking around after dark, secretly tapping into a wire and hoping that no one notices. But what they’ve done in that facility is by full light of day, they’ve cut the fiber optic cables and then reconnected them in a splitter. What they have built is a facility that is capable of monitoring absolutely all data communication through it.

NARRATOR: Brian Reid, a communications expert, has examined AT&T’s internal documents that Klein provided. They show that the secret room contains electronic equipment specifically designed for signals intelligence, equipment programmed to sift through millions of messages, searching for keywords like the ones Bamford sent from Kuala Lumpur.

BRIAN REID: The most curious piece of equipment in that room is a completely flexible monitoring system that can be told on a moment’s notice, “Please monitor all conversations that contain the word hummingbird. Please monitor all conversation that goes to Mobile, Alabama. Please monitor all conversations that contain both the word hummingbird and go to Mobile, Alabama.”

NARRATOR: NSA has turned its giant ear to listen in on America.

BRIAN REID: Based on everything I know, I believe that there are between 15 and 30 of these secret rooms around the U.S.

NARRATOR: The post-9/11 rules authorized NSA to listen in to Americans both inside and outside the U.S., without any special court approval.

ADRIENNE KINNE: After 9/11, we were essentially put in charge of a new system which intercepted satellite phone communications in Iraq and Afghanistan and surrounding areas.

NARRATOR: Calls and data from the Middle East and North Africa are collected and relayed to a listening post, tucked in the hills, outside Augusta, Georgia. As a voice interceptor, Adrienne Kinne listened to some of those calls. Assigned by the Army to NSA, she was called back to active duty after 9/11.

ADRIENNE KINNE: For a voice interceptor, the computer system would essentially pop up, and it would be very similar, I would say, to iTunes, where you could just go through and click on various conversations, and it would have the phone number, the time up, time down. We were told that we were to listen to all conversations that were intercepted, to include those of Americans and other allied countries.

NARRATOR: Some of those conversations are personal, some even intimate.

ADRIENNE KINNE: And there was no directive to say that when you had conversations like this come through, that you should delete them. That’s what we did when I was on active duty in ’94 to ’98. We would never collect on an American. I had a real problem with the fact that people were listening to it and I was listening to it. The time that that interceptor, that voice interceptor, is spending listening to conversations in the States, that’s time that they can’t spend looking or listening for actual conversations related to terrorist organizations.

NARRATOR: As NSA began tapping in to fiber optic cables as well as satellites, information began to flood in like never before.

According to a Congressional study in 2008, some intelligence data sources grow at a rate of four petabytes—that’s four quadrillion bytes—per month, the equivalent of 12 filing cabinets of new information for every American citizen, every year. But what does it all mean?

ERIC HASELTINE: Computers, today, tell people what things are: “Here’s some data that you asked for.” They don’t tell you what it means. So there is some work going on to try to marry the power of computers to the power of humans.

NARRATOR: Specialized software can help extract important information based on context and meaning. Dr. Robert L. Popp does advanced research on these kinds of programs, known as classifiers.

DR. ROBERT L. POPP: Say you wanted to build a classifier for Al Qaeda, the term, the concept, Al Qaeda. The way it would work is you, as an analyst, would go find all these documents—whether they’re emails or things on the web or whatever—but all these documents that in your judgment are narratives associated with the concept of Al Qaeda.

NARRATOR: In the future, by refining the software and harnessing enough computing power, these classifiers could potentially reduce the mountain of information human analysts have to examine.

ERIC HASELTINE: So the next frontier may be, “Computer, do you see any unusual associations that I didn’t think to ask you about that I ought to have asked you about when it relates to a threat against the homeland?”

NARRATOR: But most experts agree that may take decades. And it could only help mine information in documents, emails and faxes. When it comes to human conversations, technology is of little help. It still takes people wearing headphones and listening in.

DAVID MURFEE FAULK (Former National Security Agency Voice Interceptor): I decided, a couple weeks after 9/11, to enlist, and go do Arabic. And I hoped to go hunt Osama at that time.

NARRATOR: David Murfee Faulk was one of the thousands of new linguists trained to work in the trenches of NSA’s signals intelligence operations.

DAVID MURFEE FAULK: NSA spends literally billions of dollars to obtain signals, to process them, move them from place to place without people knowing, to get them to an end user, a translator who can make some sense of them and write up a transcription.

What I found was a large number of translators simply not meeting minimal requirements in language skills, basically running some very expensive, very complicated equipment, without the kind of knowledge or context that they would need to do that properly.

NARRATOR: Before 9/11, the budget for U.S. intelligence was $26.7 billion. By 2008 that budget nearly doubled. NSA’s portion is secret, but believed to be over a third, more than the departments of Treasury, Interior or Labor. Its ranks have swelled to over 35,000.

TIM SAMPLE: Given all the additional money spent now, on rebuilding the intelligence community and its capabilities, are we really safer as a nation? I think generally, for me, the answer is yes—the fact that we haven’t had another attack, the fact that we have better coordination and better information-sharing. Are we to the point where we can relax and put our guard down? No. I think if we do, then we run the risk of changing the answer.

ELEANOR HILL: It’s very, very hard to draw a hard and fast line between where foreign intelligence stops and domestic intelligence starts. That doesn’t mean we want our foreign intelligence agencies on every street corner in America. But it does mean that you have to have very good communication and coordination between the foreign intelligence agencies, like the CIA and NSA, and our domestic agencies, like the FBI,

because if you don’t, things are going to slip between the cracks. And that’s exactly what happened with 9/11.

JAMES BAMFORD: The problem with reporting on a story like this is that you’re really searching in the dark. There’s no way to sit on the outside and really know what’s going on on the inside.

And, without an official inquiry, some questions can’t be answered: Why did the NSA fail to act or pass on information that could have warned of 9/11? Why didn’t it share information with the CIA and FBI that could possibly have stopped the plot?

As for the question of whether we are any safer now than we were before, we should have been safe the way it was. NSA had all the information that it needed to stop the hijackers, and it already had laws that allowed it to track them. So now, with NSA’s new rules, with all the money it’s spent, with all the data it collects, is NSA doing a better job or is its job that much harder because it’s just being flooded with data? How much information is enough, and won’t too much information end up making the world more dangerous?

Source: pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/spy-factory.html

Εξουσιαστές και Πρόθυμοι Εξουσιαζόμενοι

Του ΜΑΡΙΟΥ ΕΥΡΥΒΙΑΔΗ

Έχετε μήπως «μπερδευτεί» με όλα όσα ακούτε ή διαβάζετε αναφορικά με τον Αμερικανό φυγά Edward Snowden  και για τις κατηγορίες εναντίον του; Ότι αποκάλυψε πως λειτουργεί το αμερικανικό σύστημα παρακολούθησης , συλλογής και αποθήκευσης όλων των ηλεκτρονικών δεδομένων του κόσμου, συμπεριλαμβανομένου και των  εντός Αμερικής, δηλαδή αυτών που ανταλλάσσονται αναμεταξύ Αμερικανών πολιτών;

Για το τι ακριβώς συμβαίνει και γιατί συμβαίνει;  Και τι σημαίνει για τον καθένα μας προσωπικά όταν χρησιμοποιούμε το σύγχρονα ηλεκτρονικά μέσα για να επικοινωνούμε, να αγοράζουμε, να πουλάμε, να αγαπιόμαστε; Όταν για παράδειγμα οδηγούμε με τα σύγχρονης τεχνολογίας αυτοκίνητα που διαθέτουν το «δικό» τους σύστημα ελέγχου και οδήγησης – το δικό τους δηλαδή «μυαλό» που μπορεί να λειτουργήσει  ανεξάρτητα από τη βούληση αυτού που κρατά το τιμόνι;

Χωρίς να θέλω να μεταφέρω κάποιο αίσθημα υστερίας ή παράνοιας θα αρχίσω από το τελευταίο. Το σύγχρονης τεχνολογίας αυτοκίνητο μπορεί να λειτουργήσει εκτός βούλησης του οδηγού! Μπορεί δηλαδή να ελεγχθεί ηλεκτρονικά από κάποιον τρίτο εξ’ αποστάσεως και να το κάνει αυτός ό,τι θέλει, ρίχνοντάς τα ακόμα και στον γκρεμό!

Τις μέρες αυτές στην Αμερική μια σημαντική μερίδα περιθωριακών ΜΜΕ ασχολούνται εντόνως με το θάνατο από αυτοκινητιστικό ατύχημα ενός πολύ σημαντικού δημοσιογράφου, του Michael Hastings. Το ατύχημα συνέβη στις 18 Ιουνίου  στις τέσσερις το πρωί σε δρόμο του Λος Άντζελες. Ο Hastings οδηγούσε μόνος του ένα καινούριο Mercedes, έχασε τον έλεγχο, το αυτοκίνητο καρφώθηκε στο περιτοίχιο, ακολούθησε μια τρομακτική έκρηξη και μόνο μέσω DNA μπορούσε να διαπιστωθεί η ταυτότητα του νεκρού. Τις προηγούμενες μέρες ο Hastings, του οποιου η διερευνητική δημοσιογραφία τον είχε καταστήσει «στόχο» του συστήματος, έστειλε μηνύματα σε φίλο του ότι η FBI τον είχε παρακολουθήσει και ότι θα ήθελε για κάποιο χρονικό διάστημα να περιορίσει τα γραφόμενά του και να λειτουργήσει «εκτός ραντάρ».

Μέχρι στιγμής δεν υπάρχει κανένα τεκμήριο ότι ο Hastings δολοφονήθηκε. Μόνο εικασίες. Αλλά με αφορμή το γεγονός υπήρξαν δημοσιεύματα και αναφορές σε σοβαρές επιστημονικές μελέτες ότι το σύγχρονο αυτοκίνητο είναι δυνητικά εξαιρετικά επικίνδυνο για τον οδηγό και τους επιβάτες του, διότι μπορεί να ελεγχθεί εξ΄αποστάσεως από αυτοκίνητοπειρατές. Και αυτό τεκμηριώνεται από πολύ υψηλού επιπέδου επιστημονικές μελέτες και πειράματα (οι άπιστοι Θωμάδες παραπέμπονται στο κείμενο του Andrew Leonard  “Hacking a car is way too easy” στο ηλεκτρονικό περιοδικό Salon.com, 25 Ιουνίου 2013 και στα links , ειδικά στα κείμενα “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Vehicle” και “Comprehensive Experimental Analyses of Automotive Attack Surfaces”.

Επανέρχομαι όμως στο βασικό ερώτημα που έθεσα. Τι σημαίνουν και τι σηματοδοτούν οι αποκαλύψεις Edward Snowden; Καταρχάς όλα όσα λέει ο Snowden  δεν είναι καινούρια, έχουν την ιστορία τους και ανάγονται στη μεταπολεμική εποχή. Ως τέτοια αφορούν στην στρατηγική των ΗΠΑ να διαμορφώσουν  και να ελέγξουν το μεταπολεμικό κόσμο με το λιγότερο για αυτούς κόστος. Μια από τις μεθόδους που επέλεξαν ήταν η συστηματική παρακολούθηση όλων των επικοινωνιών όλου του κόσμου, με επίκεντρο τον κύριο ανταγωνιστή και δυνητικό αντίπαλο τη Σοβιετική Ένωση.

Αρχίζοντας από τη Σοβιετική Ένωση και ανάλογα με την τεχνολογική πρόοδο, οι παρακολουθήσεις διευρύνονταν συνεχώς και σήμερα καλύπτουν όλο τον κόσμο. Παλιά, επί Ψυχρού Πολέμου, οι τεχνολογικές ικανότητες των υπολογιστών δεν επέτρεπαν την αποθήκευση όλων των δεδομένων. Έτσι, πολλά καταστρέφονταν. Σήμερα αυτό δεν ισχύει και για αυτό όλα αποθηκεύονται.

Όλα άρχισαν το 1947 με την αμερικανική νομοθεσία, γνωστή ως National Security Act of 1947. Τότε δημιουργήθηκε η CIA, και η NSA – National Security Agency που σήμερα είναι ο κυρίαρχος θεσμός παρακολούθησης των πάντων. Είναι τα αρχεία και μυστικά της NSA  που διέρρευσε ο φυγάς Snowden.

Το 1947 οι ΗΠΑ υπέγραψαν μια συμφωνία με Αγγλο-σαξονικές χώρες, την Βρετανία, τον Καναδά, την Αυστραλία και τη Νέα Ζηλανδία (γνωστή ως UKASA) που αποτέλεσε το βασικό κορμό του παγκόσμιου συστήματος παρακολούθησης. Θεωρητικά, αυτή ήταν μια συμμαχία ισότιμων εταίρων. Στην πράξη, οι υπόλοιποι λειτουργούσαν ως  υποτελείς της Ουάσινγκτον και σε τέτοιο βαθμό μάλιστα που ακόμα και αυτοί υφίσταντο παρακολούθηση από την Ουάσιγκτον. Και όπως αποκάλυψε ο Snowden η παρακαλούθησή τους συνεχίζεται μέχρι τις μέρες μας.

Αρχικά η παρακολούθηση λάμβανε χώρα σε τρία επίπεδα. Αυτά ήταν το επίπεδο ELINT (Electric Intelligence), RADINT (Radar Intelligence) και COMINT (Communication Intelligence). Τα πρώτα δύο αφορούσαν στο σπάσιμο των κωδικών των αντιπάλων (της Σοβιετικής Ένωσης) και τη δημιουργία αντιμέτρων. Το τρίτο, το COMINT,  ήταν το πιο σημαντικό και αφορούσε το 95% της όλης παρακολούθησης. Μέσω του COMINT οι Αμερικανοί γνώριζαν όλο το σύστημα άμυνας των Σοβιετικών (αλλά και του υπόλοιπου κόσμου συμπεριλαμβανομένων όλων των συμμάχων τους) καθώς και όλα τα «προσωπικά» της εκάστοτε ηγεσίας του Σοβιετικού Πολιτπιούρο. Γνώριζαν μέχρι και τις εξωσυζυγικές τους σχέσεις.

Ο υπόλοιπος κόσμος άρχισε να μαθαίνει τις δυνατότητες των Αμερικανών λόγω κυρίως διαρροών από αμερικανούς αντιφρονούντες, όπως τον σημερινό Snowden. Καταλυτικό γεγονός για τις αποκαλύψεις ήταν ο Αμερικανικός πόλεμος στο Βιετνάμ που δίχασε την αμερικανική κοινωνία.  Η πρώτη καθοριστική διαρροή ήταν αυτή που έγινε από τον αξιωματούχο του Πενταγώνου Daniel Ellsberg που μας έδωσε τη μυστική ιστορία της αμερικανικής εμπλοκής στο Βιετνάμ, τα γνωστά Pentagon Papers (διαθέσιμα στο διαδίκτυο). Η διαρροή Ellsberg εξέθεσε την αμερικανική κυβέρνηση ως μαζικά και συνειδητά ψευδόμενη έναντι του λαού.

Η δεύτερη διαρροή, εμπνευσμένη από τον Ellsberg, υπήρξε μια καταπληκτική και για τα σημερινά δεδομένα συνέντευξη ενός κατασκόπου της NSA στο περιοδικό Ramparts τον Αύγουστο του 1972, «US- Electronic Espionage: A Memoir”. Εδώ θα βρείτε τα πάντα και θα κατανοήσετε ακριβώς τι έκανε ο Snowden . Το κείμενο είναι διαθέσιμο στο διαδίκτυο και το συστήνω ανεπιφύλακτα. Δεν χρειάζεται να διαβάσετε τίποτα άλλο.

Για την ιστορία, όμως, χρειάζονται δυο ακόμη αναφορές. Η μια είναι οι Ακροάσεις (Hearings) στο αμερικανικό Κογκρέσο που έλαβαν χώρα το 1975-76 κυρίως από το μακαρίτη Γερουσιαστή Frank Church. Αυτές ασχολούνται μεταξύ άλλων με την NSA, την CIA και τη δράση τους εντός και εκτός Αμερικής και την παρακολούθηση των πάντων. Και πάλι, όσα αποκαλύπτει ο Snowden θα τα βρείτε στα πρακτικά των Ακροάσεων.

Τέλος αναφορά πρέπει να γίνει και στο συγγραφέα James Bamford του οποίου τα δύο έργα για την NSA (The Puzzle Palace, 1982 και Body of Secrets, 2001αποτελούν το άλφα και το ωμέγα επί του θέματος.

Με αφορμή και δικαιολογία την 11η Σεπτεμβρίου φθάσαμε στο σήμερα. Η παρακολούθηση των πάντων έγινε δυνατή λόγω της γεωμετρικής εξέλιξης της τεχνολογίας. Και στο τρίπτυχο ELINT, RADINT, COMINT οι Αμερικανοί προσέθεσαν και το RUMINT,  Rumor Intelligence, ό,τι δηλαδή λέγεται και γράφεται ηλεκτρονικά σε παγκόσμιο επίπεδο, συμπεριλαμβανομένων και του κάθε ξεκατινιάσματος. Όλα πλέον είναι αναγκαία για τον καθολικό έλεγχο. Έχουμε εισέλθει για τα καλά στην εποχή της ηλεκτρονικής αυτοκρατορίας.

Παλιά ο αυτοκράτορας έπρεπε να γνωρίζει για το πέταγμα της κάθε πεταλούδας στην επικράτεια του ως δείγμα και απόδειξη της ισχύος του και τον έλεγχο που εξασκούσε επί των υποτακτικών του. Σήμερα πρέπει να γνωρίζει και για το κάθε ξεκατίνιασμα που γίνεται με τη βούληση όλων ημών. Έχουμε ως άτομα και ως κοινωνία αυτοεγκλωβιστεί από τις προσωπικές μας δουλείες και αδυναμίες. Και όλοι δουλεύουμε οικειοθελώς για τον κάθε εξουσιαστή Αμερικάνο ή μη και για την κάθε μορφή εξουσίας. Έχουμε καταντήσει ανδράποδα.

Πηγή: mignatiou.com

 

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NSA: We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state

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.

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including 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.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

For the NSA, overflowing with tens of billions of dollars in post-9/11 budget awards, the cryptanalysis breakthrough came at a time of explosive growth, in size as well as in power. Established as an arm of the Department of Defense following Pearl Harbor, with the primary purpose of preventing another surprise assault, the NSA suffered a series of humiliations in the post-Cold War years. Caught offguard by an escalating series of terrorist attacks—the first World Trade Center bombing, the blowing up of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and finally the devastation of 9/11—some began questioning the agency’s very reason for being. In response, the NSA has quietly been reborn. And while there is little indication that its actual effectiveness has improved—after all, despite numerous pieces of evidence and intelligence-gathering opportunities, it missed the near-disastrous attempted attacks by the underwear bomber on a flight to Detroit in 2009 and by the car bomber in Times Square in 2010—there is no doubt that it has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created.

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It 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. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.

UTAH DATA CENTER

When construction is completed in 2013, the heavily fortified $2 billion facility in Bluffdale will encompass 1 million square feet.

Utah Data Center

1 Visitor control center

A $9.7 million facility for ensuring that only cleared personnel gain access.

2 Administration

Designated space for technical support and administrative personnel.

3 Data halls

Four 25,000-square-foot facilities house rows and rows of servers.

4 Backup generators and fuel tanks

Can power the center for at least three days.

5 Water storage and pumping

Able to pump 1.7 million gallons of liquid per day.

6 Chiller plant

About 60,000 tons of cooling equipment to keep servers from overheating.

7 Power substation

An electrical substation to meet the center’s estimated 65-megawatt demand.

8 Security

Video surveillance, intrusion detection, and other protection will cost more than $10 million.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Conceptual Site plan

A swath of freezing fog blanketed Salt Lake City on the morning of January 6, 2011, mixing with a weeklong coating of heavy gray smog. Red air alerts, warning people to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, had become almost daily occurrences, and the temperature was in the bone-chilling twenties. “What I smell and taste is like coal smoke,” complained one local blogger that day. At the city’s international airport, many inbound flights were delayed or diverted while outbound regional jets were grounded. But among those making it through the icy mist was a figure whose gray suit and tie made him almost disappear into the background. He was tall and thin, with the physique of an aging basketball player and dark caterpillar eyebrows beneath a shock of matching hair. Accompanied by a retinue of bodyguards, the man was NSA deputy director Chris Inglis, the agency’s highest-ranking civilian and the person who ran its worldwide day-to-day operations.

A short time later, Inglis arrived in Bluffdale at the site of the future data center, a flat, unpaved runway on a little-used part of Camp Williams, a National Guard training site. There, in a white tent set up for the occasion, Inglis joined Harvey Davis, the agency’s associate director for installations and logistics, and Utah senator Orrin Hatch, along with a few generals and politicians in a surreal ceremony. Standing in an odd wooden sandbox and holding gold-painted shovels, they made awkward jabs at the sand and thus officially broke ground on what the local media had simply dubbed “the spy center.” Hoping for some details on what was about to be built, reporters turned to one of the invited guests, Lane Beattie of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Did he have any idea of the purpose behind the new facility in his backyard? “Absolutely not,” he said with a self-conscious half laugh. “Nor do I want them spying on me.”

For his part, Inglis simply engaged in a bit of double-talk, emphasizing the least threatening aspect of the center: “It’s a state-of-the-art facility designed to support the intelligence community in its mission to, in turn, enable and protect the nation’s cybersecurity.” While cybersecurity will certainly be among the areas focused on in Bluffdale, what is collected, how it’s collected, and what is done with the material are far more important issues. Battling hackers makes for a nice cover—it’s easy to explain, and who could be against it? Then the reporters turned to Hatch, who proudly described the center as “a great tribute to Utah,” then added, “I can’t tell you a lot about what they’re going to be doing, because it’s highly classified.”

And then there was this anomaly: Although this was supposedly the official ground-breaking for the nation’s largest and most expensive cybersecurity project, no one from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for protecting civilian networks from cyberattack, spoke from the lectern. In fact, the official who’d originally introduced the data center, at a press conference in Salt Lake City in October 2009, had nothing to do with cybersecurity. It was Glenn A. Gaffney, deputy director of national intelligence for collection, a man who had spent almost his entire career at the CIA. As head of collection for the intelligence community, he managed the country’s human and electronic spies.

Within days, the tent and sandbox and gold shovels would be gone and Inglis and the generals would be replaced by some 10,000 construction workers. “We’ve been asked not to talk about the project,” Rob Moore, president of Big-D Construction, one of the three major contractors working on the project, told a local reporter. The plans for the center show an extensive security system: an elaborate $10 million antiterrorism protection program, including a fence designed to stop a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling 50 miles per hour, closed-circuit cameras, a biometric identification system, a vehicle inspection facility, and a visitor-control center.

Inside, the facility will consist of four 25,000-square-foot halls filled with servers, complete with raised floor space for cables and storage. In addition, there will be more than 900,000 square feet for technical support and administration. The entire site will be self-sustaining, with fuel tanks large enough to power the backup generators for three days in an emergency, water storage with the capability of pumping 1.7 million gallons of liquid per day, as well as a sewage system and massive air-conditioning system to keep all those servers cool. Electricity will come from the center’s own substation built by Rocky Mountain Power to satisfy the 65-megawatt power demand. Such a mammoth amount of energy comes with a mammoth price tag—about $40 million a year, according to one estimate.

Given the facility’s scale and the fact that a terabyte of data can now be stored on a flash drive the size of a man’s pinky, the potential amount of information that could be housed in Bluffdale is truly staggering. But so is the exponential growth in the amount of intelligence data being produced every day by the eavesdropping sensors of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. As a result of this “expanding array of theater airborne and other sensor networks,” as a 2007 Department of Defense report puts it, the Pentagon is attempting to expand its worldwide communications network, known as the Global Information Grid, to handle yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabyte is a septillion bytes—so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.)

It needs that capacity because, according to a recent report by Cisco, global Internet traffic will quadruple from 2010 to 2015, reaching 966 exabytes per year. (A million exabytes equal a yottabyte.) In terms of scale, Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, once estimated that the total of all human knowledge created from the dawn of man to 2003 totaled 5 exabytes. And the data flow shows no sign of slowing. In 2011 more than 2 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people were connected to the Internet. By 2015, market research firm IDC estimates, there will be 2.7 billion users. Thus, the NSA’s need for a 1-million-square-foot data storehouse. Should the agency ever fill the Utah center with a yottabyte of information, it would be equal to about 500 quintillion (500,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.

The data stored in Bluffdale will naturally go far beyond the world’s billions of public web pages. The NSA is more interested in the so-called invisible web, also known as the deep web or deepnet—data beyond the reach of the public. This includes password-protected data, US and foreign government communications, and noncommercial file-sharing between trusted peers. “The deep web contains government reports, databases, and other sources of information of high value to DOD and the intelligence community,” according to a 2010 Defense Science Board report. “Alternative tools are needed to find and index data in the deep web … Stealing the classified secrets of a potential adversary is where the [intelligence] community is most comfortable.” With its new Utah Data Center, the NSA will at last have the technical capability to store, and rummage through, all those stolen secrets. The question, of course, is how the agency defines who is, and who is not, “a potential adversary.”

The NSA’S SPY NETWORK

Once it’s operational, the Utah Data Center will become, in effect, the NSA’s cloud. The center will be fed data collected by the agency’s eavesdropping satellites, overseas listening posts, and secret monitoring rooms in telecom facilities throughout the US. All that data will then be accessible to the NSA’s code breakers, data-miners, China analysts, counterterrorism specialists, and others working at its Fort Meade headquarters and around the world. Here’s how the data center appears to fit into the NSA’s global puzzle.—J.B.

SPY NETWORK

1 Geostationary satellites

Four satellites positioned around the globe monitor frequencies carrying everything from walkie-talkies and cell phones in Libya to radar systems in North Korea. Onboard software acts as the first filter in the collection process, targeting only key regions, countries, cities, and phone numbers or email.

2 Aerospace Data Facility, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado

Intelligence collected from the geostationary satellites, as well as signals from other spacecraft and overseas listening posts, is relayed to this facility outside Denver. About 850 NSA employees track the satellites, transmit target information, and download the intelligence haul.

3 NSA Georgia, Fort Gordon, Augusta, Georgia

Focuses on intercepts from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Codenamed Sweet Tea, the facility has been massively expanded and now consists of a 604,000-square-foot operations building for up to 4,000 intercept operators, analysts, and other specialists.

4 NSA Texas, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio

Focuses on intercepts from Latin America and, since 9/11, the Middle East and Europe. Some 2,000 workers staff the operation. The NSA recently completed a $100 million renovation on a mega-data center here—a backup storage facility for the Utah Data Center.

5 NSA Hawaii, Oahu

Focuses on intercepts from Asia. Built to house an aircraft assembly plant during World War II, the 250,000-square-foot bunker is nicknamed the Hole. Like the other NSA operations centers, it has since been expanded: Its 2,700 employees now do their work aboveground from a new 234,000-square-foot facility.

6 Domestic listening posts

The NSA has long been free to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. But after 9/11, it installed taps in US telecom “switches,” gaining access to domestic traffic. An ex-NSA official says there are 10 to 20 such installations.

7 Overseas listening posts

According to a knowledgeable intelligence source, the NSA has installed taps on at least a dozen of the major overseas communications links, each capable of eavesdropping on information passing by at a high data rate.

8 Utah Data Center, Bluffdale, Utah

At a million square feet, this $2 billion digital storage facility outside Salt Lake City will be the centerpiece of the NSA’s cloud-based data strategy and essential in its plans for decrypting previously uncrackable documents.

9 Multiprogram Research Facility, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Some 300 scientists and computer engineers with top security clearance toil away here, building the world’s fastest supercomputers and working on cryptanalytic applications and other secret projects.

10 NSA headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

Analysts here will access material stored at Bluffdale to prepare reports and recommendations that are sent to policymakers. To handle the increased data load, the NSA is also building an $896 million supercomputer center here.

Before yottabytes of data from the deep web and elsewhere can begin piling up inside the servers of the NSA’s new center, they must be collected. To better accomplish that, the agency has undergone the largest building boom in its history, including installing secret electronic monitoring rooms in major US telecom facilities. Controlled by the NSA, these highly secured spaces are where the agency taps into the US communications networks, a practice that came to light during the Bush years but was never acknowledged by the agency. The broad outlines of the so-called warrantless-wiretapping program have long been exposed—how the NSA secretly and illegally bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was supposed to oversee and authorize highly targeted domestic eavesdropping; how the program allowed wholesale monitoring of millions of American phone calls and email. In the wake of the program’s exposure, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which largely made the practices legal. Telecoms that had agreed to participate in the illegal activity were granted immunity from prosecution and lawsuits. What wasn’t revealed until now, however, was the enormity of this ongoing domestic spying program.

For the first time, a former NSA official has gone on the record to describe the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, in detail. William Binney was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. A tall man with strands of black hair across the front of his scalp and dark, determined eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses, the 68-year-old spent nearly four decades breaking codes and finding new ways to channel billions of private phone calls and email messages from around the world into the NSA’s bulging databases. As chief and one of the two cofounders of the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center, Binney and his team designed much of the infrastructure that’s still likely used to intercept international and foreign communications.

He explains that the agency could have installed its tapping gear at the nation’s cable landing stations—the more than two dozen sites on the periphery of the US where fiber-optic cables come ashore. If it had taken that route, the NSA would have been able to limit its eavesdropping to just international communications, which at the time was all that was allowed under US law. Instead it chose to put the wiretapping rooms at key junction points throughout the country—large, windowless buildings known as switches—thus gaining access to not just international communications but also to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US. The network of intercept stations goes far beyond the single room in an AT&T building in San Francisco exposed by a whistle-blower in 2006. “I think there’s 10 to 20 of them,” Binney says. “That’s not just San Francisco; they have them in the middle of the country and also on the East Coast.”

The eavesdropping on Americans doesn’t stop at the telecom switches. To capture satellite communications in and out of the US, the agency also monitors AT&T’s powerful earth stations, satellite receivers in locations that include Roaring Creek and Salt Creek. Tucked away on a back road in rural Catawissa, Pennsylvania, Roaring Creek’s three 105-foot dishes handle much of the country’s communications to and from Europe and the Middle East. And on an isolated stretch of land in remote Arbuckle, California, three similar dishes at the company’s Salt Creek station service the Pacific Rim and Asia.

Binney left the NSA in late 2001, shortly after the agency launched its warrantless-wiretapping program. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.” Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email. At the outset the program recorded 320 million calls a day, he says, which represented about 73 to 80 percent of the total volume of the agency’s worldwide intercepts. The haul only grew from there. According to Binney—who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago—the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light.

The software, created by a company called Narus that’s now part of Boeing, is controlled remotely from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland and 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.

The scope of surveillance expands from there, Binney says. Once a name is entered into the Narus database, all phone calls and other communications to and from that person are automatically routed to the NSA’s recorders. “Anybody you want, route to a recorder,” Binney says. “If your number’s in there? Routed and gets recorded.” He adds, “The Narus device allows you to take it all.” And when Bluffdale is completed, whatever is collected will be routed there for storage and analysis.

According to Binney, one of the deepest secrets of the Stellar Wind program—again, never confirmed until now—was that the NSA gained warrantless access to AT&T’s vast trove of domestic and international billing records, detailed information about who called whom in the US and around the world. As of 2007, AT&T had more than 2.8 trillion records housed in a database at its Florham Park, New Jersey, complex.

Verizon was also part of the program, Binney says, and that greatly expanded the volume of calls subject to the agency’s domestic eavesdropping. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he says. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” (Spokespeople for Verizon and AT&T said their companies would not comment on matters of national security.)

After he left the NSA, Binney suggested a system for monitoring people’s communications according to how closely they are connected to an initial target. The further away from the target—say you’re just an acquaintance of a friend of the target—the less the surveillance. But the agency rejected the idea, and, given the massive new storage facility in Utah, Binney suspects that it now simply collects everything. “The whole idea was, how do you manage 20 terabytes of intercept a minute?” he says. “The way we proposed was to distinguish between things you want and things you don’t want.” Instead, he adds, “they’re storing everything they gather.” And the agency is gathering as much as it can.

Once the communications are intercepted and stored, the data-mining begins. “You can watch everybody all the time with data- mining,” Binney says. Everything a person does becomes charted on a graph, “financial transactions or travel or anything,” he says. Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed picture of someone’s life.

The NSA also has the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls directly and in real time. According to Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked both before and after 9/11 as a voice interceptor at the NSA facility in Georgia, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks “basically all rules were thrown out the window, and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans.” Even journalists calling home from overseas were included. “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families,” she says, “incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” Kinne found the act of eavesdropping on innocent fellow citizens personally distressing. “It’s almost like going through and finding somebody’s diary,” she says.

But there is, of course, reason for anyone to be distressed about the practice. Once the door is open for the government to spy on US citizens, there are often great temptations to abuse that power for political purposes, as when Richard Nixon eavesdropped on his political enemies during Watergate and ordered the NSA to spy on antiwar protesters. Those and other abuses prompted Congress to enact prohibitions in the mid-1970s against domestic spying.

Before he gave up and left the NSA, Binney tried to persuade officials to create a more targeted system that could be authorized by a court. At the time, the agency had 72 hours to obtain a legal warrant, and Binney devised a method to computerize the system. “I had proposed that we automate the process of requesting a warrant and automate approval so we could manage a couple of million intercepts a day, rather than subvert the whole process.” But such a system would have required close coordination with the courts, and NSA officials weren’t interested in that, Binney says. Instead they continued to haul in data on a grand scale. Asked how many communications—”transactions,” in NSA’s lingo—the agency has intercepted since 9/11, Binney estimates the number at “between 15 and 20 trillion, the aggregate over 11 years.”

When Barack Obama took office, Binney hoped the new administration might be open to reforming the program to address his constitutional concerns. He and another former senior NSA analyst, J. Kirk Wiebe, tried to bring the idea of an automated warrant-approval system to the attention of the Department of Justice’s inspector general. They were given the brush-off. “They said, oh, OK, we can’t comment,” Binney says.

Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” he says.

There is still one technology preventing untrammeled government access to private digital data: strong encryption. Anyone—from terrorists and weapons dealers to corporations, financial institutions, and ordinary email senders—can use it to seal their messages, plans, photos, and documents in hardened data shells. For years, one of the hardest shells has been the Advanced Encryption Standard, one of several algorithms used by much of the world to encrypt data. Available in three different strengths—128 bits, 192 bits, and 256 bits—it’s incorporated in most commercial email programs and web browsers and is considered so strong that the NSA has even approved its use for top-secret US government communications. Most experts say that a so-called brute-force computer attack on the algorithm—trying one combination after another to unlock the encryption—would likely take longer than the age of the universe. For a 128-bit cipher, the number of trial-and-error attempts would be 340 undecillion (1036).

Breaking into those complex mathematical shells like the AES is one of the key reasons for the construction going on in Bluffdale. That kind of cryptanalysis requires two major ingredients: super-fast computers to conduct brute-force attacks on encrypted messages and a massive number of those messages for the computers to analyze. The more messages from a given target, the more likely it is for the computers to detect telltale patterns, and Bluffdale will be able to hold a great many messages. “We questioned it one time,” says another source, a senior intelligence manager who was also involved with the planning. “Why were we building this NSA facility? And, boy, they rolled out all the old guys—the crypto guys.” According to the official, these experts told then-director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, “You’ve got to build this thing because we just don’t have the capability of doing the code-breaking.” It was a candid admission. In the long war between the code breakers and the code makers—the tens of thousands of cryptographers in the worldwide computer security industry—the code breakers were admitting defeat.

So the agency had one major ingredient—a massive data storage facility—under way. Meanwhile, across the country in Tennessee, the government was working in utmost secrecy on the other vital element: the most powerful computer the world has ever known.

The plan was launched in 2004 as a modern-day Manhattan Project. Dubbed the High Productivity Computing Systems program, its goal was to advance computer speed a thousandfold, creating a machine that could execute a quadrillion (1015) operations a second, known as a petaflop—the computer equivalent of breaking the land speed record. And as with the Manhattan Project, the venue chosen for the supercomputing program was the town of Oak Ridge in eastern Tennessee, a rural area where sharp ridges give way to low, scattered hills, and the southwestward-flowing Clinch River bends sharply to the southeast. About 25 miles from Knoxville, it is the “secret city” where uranium- 235 was extracted for the first atomic bomb. A sign near the exit read: what you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here. Today, not far from where that sign stood, Oak Ridge is home to the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and it’s engaged in a new secret war. But this time, instead of a bomb of almost unimaginable power, the weapon is a computer of almost unimaginable speed.

In 2004, as part of the supercomputing program, the Department of Energy established its Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility for multiple agencies to join forces on the project. But in reality there would be two tracks, one unclassified, in which all of the scientific work would be public, and another top-secret, in which the NSA could pursue its own computer covertly. “For our purposes, they had to create a separate facility,” says a former senior NSA computer expert who worked on the project and is still associated with the agency. (He is one of three sources who described the program.) It was an expensive undertaking, but one the NSA was desperate to launch.

Known as the Multiprogram Research Facility, or Building 5300, the $41 million, five-story, 214,000-square-foot structure was built on a plot of land on the lab’s East Campus and completed in 2006. Behind the brick walls and green-tinted windows, 318 scientists, computer engineers, and other staff work in secret on the cryptanalytic applications of high-speed computing and other classified projects. The supercomputer center was named in honor of George R. Cotter, the NSA’s now-retired chief scientist and head of its information technology program. Not that you’d know it. “There’s no sign on the door,” says the ex-NSA computer expert.

At the DOE’s unclassified center at Oak Ridge, work progressed at a furious pace, although it was a one-way street when it came to cooperation with the closemouthed people in Building 5300. Nevertheless, the unclassified team had its Cray XT4 supercomputer upgraded to a warehouse-sized XT5. Named Jaguar for its speed, it clocked in at 1.75 petaflops, officially becoming the world’s fastest computer in 2009.

Meanwhile, over in Building 5300, the NSA succeeded in building an even faster supercomputer. “They made a big breakthrough,” says another former senior intelligence official, who helped oversee the program. The NSA’s machine was likely similar to the unclassified Jaguar, but it was much faster out of the gate, modified specifically for cryptanalysis and targeted against one or more specific algorithms, like the AES. In other words, they were moving from the research and development phase to actually attacking extremely difficult encryption systems. The code-breaking effort was up and running.

The breakthrough was enormous, says the former official, and soon afterward the agency pulled the shade down tight on the project, even within the intelligence community and Congress. “Only the chairman and vice chairman and the two staff directors of each intelligence committee were told about it,” he says. The reason? “They were thinking that this computing breakthrough was going to give them the ability to crack current public encryption.”

In addition to giving the NSA access to a tremendous amount of Americans’ personal data, such an advance would also open a window on a trove of foreign secrets. While today most sensitive communications use the strongest encryption, much of the older data stored by the NSA, including a great deal of what will be transferred to Bluffdale once the center is complete, is encrypted with more vulnerable ciphers. “Remember,” says the former intelligence official, “a lot of foreign government stuff we’ve never been able to break is 128 or less. Break all that and you’ll find out a lot more of what you didn’t know—stuff we’ve already stored—so there’s an enormous amount of information still in there.”

That, he notes, is where the value of Bluffdale, and its mountains of long-stored data, will come in. What can’t be broken today may be broken tomorrow. “Then you can see what they were saying in the past,” he says. “By extrapolating the way they did business, it gives us an indication of how they may do things now.” The danger, the former official says, is that it’s not only foreign government information that is locked in weaker algorithms, it’s also a great deal of personal domestic communications, such as Americans’ email intercepted by the NSA in the past decade.

But first the supercomputer must break the encryption, and to do that, speed is everything. The faster the computer, the faster it can break codes. The Data Encryption Standard, the 56-bit predecessor to the AES, debuted in 1976 and lasted about 25 years. The AES made its first appearance in 2001 and is expected to remain strong and durable for at least a decade. But if the NSA has secretly built a computer that is considerably faster than machines in the unclassified arena, then the agency has a chance of breaking the AES in a much shorter time. And with Bluffdale in operation, the NSA will have the luxury of storing an ever-expanding archive of intercepts until that breakthrough comes along.

But despite its progress, the agency has not finished building at Oak Ridge, nor is it satisfied with breaking the petaflop barrier. Its next goal is to reach exaflop speed, one quintillion (1018) operations a second, and eventually zettaflop (1021) and yottaflop.

These goals have considerable support in Congress. Last November a bipartisan group of 24 senators sent a letter to President Obama urging him to approve continued funding through 2013 for the Department of Energy’s exascale computing initiative (the NSA’s budget requests are classified). They cited the necessity to keep up with and surpass China and Japan. “The race is on to develop exascale computing capabilities,” the senators noted. The reason was clear: By late 2011 the Jaguar (now with a peak speed of 2.33 petaflops) ranked third behind Japan’s “K Computer,” with an impressive 10.51 petaflops, and the Chinese Tianhe-1A system, with 2.57 petaflops.

But the real competition will take place in the classified realm. To secretly develop the new exaflop (or higher) machine by 2018, the NSA has proposed constructing two connecting buildings, totaling 260,000 square feet, near its current facility on the East Campus of Oak Ridge. Called the Multiprogram Computational Data Center, the buildings will be low and wide like giant warehouses, a design necessary for the dozens of computer cabinets that will compose an exaflop-scale machine, possibly arranged in a cluster to minimize the distance between circuits. According to a presentation delivered to DOE employees in 2009, it will be an “unassuming facility with limited view from roads,” in keeping with the NSA’s desire for secrecy. And it will have an extraordinary appetite for electricity, eventually using about 200 megawatts, enough to power 200,000 homes. The computer will also produce a gargantuan amount of heat, requiring 60,000 tons of cooling equipment, the same amount that was needed to serve both of the World Trade Center towers.

In the meantime Cray is working on the next step for the NSA, funded in part by a $250 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s a massively parallel supercomputer called Cascade, a prototype of which is due at the end of 2012. Its development will run largely in parallel with the unclassified effort for the DOE and other partner agencies. That project, due in 2013, will upgrade the Jaguar XT5 into an XK6, codenamed Titan, upping its speed to 10 to 20 petaflops.

Yottabytes and exaflops, septillions and undecillions—the race for computing speed and data storage goes on. In his 1941 story “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagined a collection of information where the entire world’s knowledge is stored but barely a single word is understood. In Bluffdale the NSA is constructing a library on a scale that even Borges might not have contemplated. And to hear the masters of the agency tell it, it’s only a matter of time until every word is illuminated.

James Bamford (washwriter@gmail.com) is the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.

Source: wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1