National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

The Secret Sentry

By James Bamford
The New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

The Secret Sentry
The Untold History of the National Security Agency
By Matthew M. Aid

On a remote edge of Utah's arid high desert, construction workers are preparing to build a library. This library is a $2 billion structure that will be one-third larger than the US Capitol and will use as much electricity as every house in Salt Lake City combined.

This library is being built by the National Security Agency. The building will house trillions of phone calls, e-mail messages, and data trails of web searches, parking receipts, bookstore visits, and other digital litter. Lacking adequate space and power at its city-sized Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, the NSA is also completing work on another data archive, this one in San Antonio, Texas, which will be nearly the size of the Alamodome. Once stored in these libraries, the data will be analyzed by powerful supercomputers running complex analytic programs.

In the near decade since 9/11, the tectonic plates beneath the American intelligence community have undergone a seismic shift. The new director of the NSA is in charge of an organization three times the size of the CIA and empowered in 2008 by Congress to spy on Americans to an unprecedented degree. He was recently named to head the new Cyber Command, which also places him in charge of the nation's growing force of cyber warriors.

Wasting no time, the agency has launched a building boom, doubling the size of its headquarters, expanding its listening posts, and constructing enormous data factories. The new centers in Utah, Texas, and possibly elsewhere will likely become the centralized repositories for the data intercepted by the NSA.

Matthew M. Aid has been after the NSA's secrets for a very long time. As a sergeant and Russian linguist in the NSA's Air Force branch, he was court-martialed, thrown into prison, and slapped with a bad conduct discharge for making off with a stash of NSA documents stamped Top Secret Codeword. He now reads the NSA's secrets legally, through the front door of the National Archives.

The NSA first learned of the September 11 attacks on CNN. In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the NSA told the administration only what it wanted to hear, despite the ambiguous nature of the evidence. For years the agency's coverage of Iraq was disastrous, and the little intelligence it did have pointed away from Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. That did not prevent the NSA director, Lieutenant Gen. Michael V. Hayden, from stamping his approval on the CIA's 2002 National Intelligence Estimate arguing that Iraq's WMDs posed a grave danger, which helped prepare the way for the war.

Aid discusses the ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the NSA was forced to marry its high-tech strategic capabilities in space with its tactical forces on the ground. Before the September 11 attacks, the agency's coverage of Afghanistan was even worse than that of Iraq. It was a new type of war, one the NSA was not prepared for. Eight years later, despite billions of dollars spent by the agency, the NSA is no closer to success.

Aid concludes that the biggest problem facing the agency is not the fact that it's drowning in untranslated, indecipherable, and mostly unusable data. The NSA needs more electrical power for bigger data centers, which means more access to phone calls and e-mail, and hence more political power.

Rather than give the NSA more money for more power, some have suggested pulling the plug.

The NSA Spy Center

Wired, March 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

The Utah Data Center is being built in Bluffdale for the National Security Agency. Its purpose is to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013.

The Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role: breaking codes. Much of the data the center will handle will be heavily encrypted. An official says the NSA made a big breakthrough several years ago in its ability to decode complex encryption systems: "Everybody's a target. Everybody with communication is a target."

Established by the Department of Defense following Pearl Harbor, the NSA was humiliated by 9/11. In response, the NSA has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created. It has created a colossal supercomputer to look for patterns and unscramble codes. They say NSA stands for Never Say Anything.

The amount of information that could be housed in Bluffdale is staggering. But so is the exponential growth in the amount of intelligence data collected. Global Internet traffic will reach a zettabyte (1 ZB = 10^21 B) per year by 2015. The Pentagon wants to expand its Global Information Grid to handle yottabytes (1 YB = 10^24 B) of data. According to one estimate, all human knowledge created from the dawn of man to 2003 totaled 5 EB (1 EB = 10^18 B). If and when filled, the Utah Data Center will hold a yottabyte of data.

The NSA is more interested in the deep web of data beyond the reach of the public. This includes password-protected data, government communications, and noncommercial file-sharing between trusted peers. From a 2010 Defense Science Board report: "The deep web contains government reports, databases, and other sources of information of high value to DOD and the intelligence community."

A former NSA official held his thumb and forefinger close together: "We are that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."

The technology preventing untrammeled government access to private digital data is strong encryption. For years, one of the hardest shells has been the Advanced Encryption Standard. First rolled out in 2001, the AES is expected to remain secure for at least a decade, and the NSA has approved it for secret U.S. government communications.

Breaking into complex mathematical shells like the AES is a key reason for the center in Bluffdale. To do the work, the government is developing the most powerful computer the world has ever known. The High Productivity Computing Systems program is tasked to advance computer speed into petaflops (10^15 operations a second).

An unclassified Department of Energy team had its Cray XT5, named Jaguar, clocked at 1.75 petaflops, becoming the world's fastest computer in 2009. But the NSA has built a much faster supercomputer and modified it specifically for cryptanalysis on algorithms like the AES. The NSA's next goal is to reach exaflops (10^18 flops).

Last November, a bipartisan group of 24 senators urged President Obama to approve funding through 2013 for the DOE's exascale computing initiative, citing the need to keep up with China and Japan. By late 2011, the Jaguar (now with a peak speed of 2.33 petaflops) ranked third behind Japanese K Computer (10.51 petaflops) and the Chinese Tianhe-1A system (2.57 petaflops).

But the real competition will take place in the classified realm. Cray is working on the next step for the NSA, funded in part by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA.

AR  This is scary.