The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What
[Excerpts of excellent NSA overview to focus on the MRF decryption facility.]
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,”
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
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
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.
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
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
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 here.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Multi-Program Research Facility
Oak Ridge, Tennessee
The Department of Energy (DOE) complex at Oak Ridge required the creation
of a state of the art, large-scale, secure science and technology facility
that would provide the appropriate infrastructure and environment to both
integrate and consolidate multidisciplinary scientific capabilities for defense
and homeland security activities. The Heery-designed and constructed
Multi-Program Research Facility (MPRF) provides facilities for research and
development activities in non-proliferation research, training and operations;
cyber security research and development; geospatial analysis; inorganic membrane
research and prototyping; and myriad other activities.
Based on Heery’s previous successful work with ORNL as part of a third-party
development team, ORNL tapped the Keenan team to serve as its developer for
the MPRF, with Heery in the role of design-builder.
The MPRF contains 218,000 SF of office and laboratory space. This highly
secure building plays a key role in delivering the science and technology
needed to protect homeland and national security. In addition, Heery
International continues to work on various new assignments on the ORNL campus.
The goal was to develop cutting-edge facilities designed for sustainability
and energy efficiency. Heery guided ORNL and the development team in delivering
facilities to showcase energy and water efficiency and renewable energy
improvements. With Heery’s assistance, ORNL now has the most LEED-certified
space in the entire DOE system, having attained LEED certification for the
firm’s earlier project, the East Campus Complex, and LEED Gold certification
for the MPRF, which is the first LEED Gold facility on the ORNL campus.
Location: Oak Ridge, TN
Building type(s): Other, Laboratory, Commercial office
195,000 ft2 (18,100 m2)
Project scope: 5-story building
Completed October 2006
Rating: U.S. Green Building Council LEED-NC, v.2/v.2.1--Level: Gold (39 points)
The Multiprogram Research Facility (MRF) was implemented through a design-build
contract, but is a complex mixture of labs and offices that have stringent
operational, security, and environmental and energy requirements. The program
was highly developed and has detailed technical parameters that could not
The building's vertical orientation minimized its footprint on the landscape.
Using native, drought-resistant plants in the landscape obviated the need
for irrigation. This, along with the use of low-flow plumbing fixtures, reduced
potable water usage by approximately 34%.
The building was projected to use 25% less energy than that of a comparable
facility built in minimal compliance with code. A hybrid solar lighting system
with rooftop solar collectors was installed to test the feasibility of using
fiber optics for natural lighting.
The project team preferred materials with recycled content and those that
were manufactured regionally. The team also recycled construction waste wherever
Owner & Occupancy
Owned by Keenan Development Associates, LLC, Corporation, for-profit
Occupants: Federal government
Typically occupied by 318 people, 40 hours per person per week
Expected Building Service Life: 35 years
Other (43%), Office (18%), Laboratory (14%), Conference (6%), Data processing
(6%), Mechanical systems (3%), Retail general (3%), Public assembly (2%),
Restrooms (2%), Lobby/reception (2%), Cafeteria, Circulation, Gymnasium,