FORT MEADE, Md. — Sometime this fall with a few clicks, stacks upon stacks of computer servers in Utah will begin to suck in intelligence data as needed by military commanders, CIA officials and the White House.
Billions and trillions and quintillions of bytes eventually will flow through the Bluffdale center on their way to National Security Agency analysts at Fort Meade and at other locations. The data farm will harvest phone calls, emails and other communications, but it's only one cog in a worldwide operation and in many ways, is meant to play a backup role in the nation's intelligence gathering operations.
“It's an important device,' John Inglis, the NSA's deputy director and the top civilian at the agency, told The Salt Lake Tribune in an exclusive interview. “We're investing quite a bit of resources in it. And most of what we'll get from that will come from the brainpower that actually then employs it.'
The “device' Inglis describes, of course, is actually five times the size of the U.S. Capitol, stretching across 120 acres at the Utah National Guard's Camp Williams. It looms, secret yet visible, to drivers on Interstate 15 and residents living in its shadows in suburban Salt Lake City.
What goes on inside its walls — even what's actually inside — is classified.
NSA officials, who invited The Tribune to the Fort Meade facility in a show of transparency, stress the agency and the data center won't and can't touch the content of Americans' private emails or personal phone calls. The conversation was an outreach effort to assuage concerns among Utahns watching the facility take shape and fearing what will occur inside.
But that was before the leak of a top secret court order showed the NSA has been collecting data from millions of American citizens' phone calls and revelations the agency has access to private information on major Internet sites such as Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple and Yahoo.
Already a mystery to many, the Utah Data Center may have instantly become a new symbol of government intrusion into privacy — Big Brother incarnate.
The revelations even spurred a rally mid-week at the Utah Capitol, with organizers calling the newly revealed NSA surveillance a shocking violation of Bill of Rights protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
``The idea that the NSA, the CIA, law enforcement or any government entity should have unfettered access to our private communications may not have occurred to the framers of the Constitution over 200 years ago,'' said Pete Ashdown, owner of Xmission, Utah's oldest Internet service provider. ``But that doesn't mean we as Americans need to accept it today.''
Many took umbrage that a crucial instrument in the spying program would be situated in their home state. NSA officials, however, stress Utahns should be proud and thankful to host such an important facility in the fight to protect national security.
NSA's top boss, General Keith Alexander, told Congress last week that the agency's efforts have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks. He promised to declassify some information to prove how useful its operations have been.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein defends the NSA's use of telephone “metadata' as a resource, noting there are serious threats to America.
“This is the reason why we keep TSA doing what it's doing,' she told reporters recently. “This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the National Counterterrorism Center that's been set up in the time we've been active. It's to ferret this out before it happens. It's called protecting America.'
That doesn't mean it sits well with all Americans.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring legislation that would require the attorney general to publicly release opinions or summaries from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court if such disclosure doesn't undermine national security interests.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., wants an independent investigation into NSA's actions.
“It's very, very difficult to have a transparent debate about secret programs, approved by a secret court issuing secret court orders based on secret interpretations of law,' Udall said at a hearing last week.
That's the tough spot NSA finds itself in.
Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and the CIA, often noted that the NSA is the most powerful and most secret U.S. agency, a tough spot when the two things Americans most distrust are secrecy and power.
The agency's mission, simply put, is to help save lives, advance U.S. alliances with other countries and to secure vital military and civilian networks against cyber attacks — all while honoring privacy rights, according to the NSA.
More than 30,000 employees work for the NSA — the exact number is secret — and it already has major facilities in Maryland, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Hawaii, in addition to other classified spots across the nation and around the world.
At the other major U.S. facilities, NSA cyberspies pick out patterns that could be related to terrorism or a host of other dangers, ranging from state-sponsored cyber assaults to a basement hacker bent on penetrating or destroying a critical government network.
Utah's new facility, essentially the world's largest backup hard drive, won't house teams of analysts or translators, NSA officials say, but mainly about 200 workers to keep the machines running. It'll be one of several data farms that make up the agency's digital backbone, but information kept there won't be unique.
Lonny Anderson, the NSA's chief information officer, noted in an interview the agency had 40 data centers when he took the job in 2008, and most of them were in or around Washington, D.C., on a single power grid.
Some of those have closed and others opened, dispersed across the country, such as in Texas, which has its own power grid, to ensure continued operation in case of power failure or attack.
Utah's center will house the most data but everything is networked and if the center goes down, Anderson says, no data will be lost.
“What we're trying to do is build this integrated network, where I've got redundancy built in so I can ensure mission [operators] they can do what they need to do,' Anderson says.
The sheer size of the Utah Data Center is staggering, but then again, so is the amount of information produced online and it continues grow exponentially.
In 1995, there were 16 million Internet users. Last year, there were 2.4 billion. Nowadays, some 294 billion emails and 5 billion text messages are sent every day.
IBM estimates that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily. To put that into perspective, IBM says 90 percent of the data that exists in the world today has been created in the past two years.
Therefore, even to tap the targeted data NSA wants, there's the need for a cavernous hall with monstrously sized computer towers in Utah and floors of former computer hackers and analysts elsewhere to plug and play the data when needed.
NSA's Inglis notes that machines in his operation are useful to capture and store data to help connect the dots between key elements. But they're still just machines.
“My competitive advantage is people,' he says. “We have tens of thousands of people who we bring to bear, and their competitive advantage is that, you know, we outthink, outwit, outmaneuver adversaries in the space known as cyberspace, and we do that with some degree of audacity, meaning we solve problems that people think are impossible. But it's principled audacity. We have to do it exactly the right way.'
The debate over the NSA's actions and its authority to go after telephone metadata or tap into Internet services will continue, as will the construction of the Utah Data Center, set to open this fall no matter how that debate turns out.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and has toured the data center, says he can understand Utahns seeing the news of late and worrying about the facility being built in their backyard. But they shouldn't be worried, he adds.
“A lot of things the NSA does are completely unrelated to that that are very important, not just to the war on terror but to a lot of conventional operations as well and I think they'd be very comfortable with the operations that they're doing,' Stewart says.
Such a large, national security facility finding a home in Utah should be a positive, Stewart says.
“It symbolizes just the might and the technological marvel that the United States is capable of achieving,' he adds. “The second thing it symbolizes is a real commitment to national security on a lot of different fronts.'
Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this story.