National Security Agency headquarters,
Fort Meade, Maryland
The Secret Sentry
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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.