Surprise Visitors Are Unwelcome At The NSA's Unfinished Utah Spy Center (Especially When They Take Photos)
IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE...YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR
If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.
Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
Most people who visit Salt Lake City in the winter months are excited about taking advantage of the area’s storied slopes. While skiing was on my itinerary last week, I was more excited about an offbeat tourism opportunity in the area: I wanted to check out the construction site for “the country’s biggest spy center.”
An electrifying piece about domestic surveillance by national security writer James Bamford that appeared in Wired last year read like a travel brochure to me:
My outing to the facility last Thursday was an eventful one. I can confirm that the National Security Agency’s site is still under construction. It was surprisingly easy to drive up and circle its parking lot. But if you take photos while there, it is — much like Hotel California – very hard to leave.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.”
When the University of Utah professor who invited me to Salt Lake City to talk to his students asked how I wanted to spend three hours of downtime Thursday afternoon, the super-secret spy center was at the top of my list. The professor, Randy Dryer, was dubious about the value of visiting the construction site, assuming there would be a huge fence that would prohibit us from getting close or seeing anything significant. That turned out not to be the case.
We drove about 30 minutes south of downtown Salt Lake City to an area described to me as “out in the desert.” As we got close, I could see from the highway four grey mortared buildings that will soon be holding massive amounts of the world’s data. They appeared half-finished. I snapped some photos with my iPad (which, yes, does make me feel like a ridiculous person).
Then we came to a paved turn-off on the right that led directly to the facility. Driving up the road, we came to a sign emblazoned with the seals of the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; it was topped with a digital banner that proudly declared in flashing lights, “Look This… Sign Works!!!!” Behind the sign was a building that looked like a gas pumping station, minus the pumps. We took a right into a parking lot, where I snapped photos of the majestic view of the mountains that NSA data workers will have, another building that looked almost like a visitor’s center (it is #1 — a $9.7 million Visitor Control Center — in this diagram from Wired), and closer views of the data center and the unimposing, barbed-wire-topped fence that surrounded it. That seemed to be the end of the tour. I expressed surprise to Randy Dryer that no one had come out to see why we were slowly driving through the lot.
Two minutes later as we circled back to the flashing sign to take a few more photos, including one of a green sign with an arrow that read, “Rejection Lane,” a uniformed but baby-faced officer with NSA and “K9 unit” badges came out and walked up to the car.
“Were you taking photos?” he asked. I said that I was. He responded, “You’re going to need to delete those.”
I explained that I was a journalist and that I preferred not to. He insisted, saying we were on restricted federal property and that taking photos there was illegal. Luckily for me, Randy Dryer is not just a university professor but a practicing and long-experienced media lawyer. He explained to the officer who we were, why we were there and that we hadn’t realized we were on restricted property. The officer, who carried a gun and a portable radio, began writing everything we said down in a little green notebook. When the officer insisted again that the photos be deleted, Dryer asked if we could talk to his supervisor.
At this point another uniformed officer pulled up behind us. He came up to the car and went essentially through the same question-asking routine while the first officer, who took our driver’s licenses, walked away from the car to call his supervisor. Officer #2, who seemed slightly older than the first but who also carried a little green notebook to record what we had to say, told us he would like for me to delete the photos, and mentioned that it would be easier if we did and that we could be charged with a crime for trespassing and for taking the photos.
Honestly, I was starting to feel pretty nervous at this point but also painfully aware of the irony of the situation. They didn’t want me to capture information about a facility that will soon be harvesting and storing massive amounts of information about American citizens, potentially including many photos they’ve privately sent.
I also remembered that I’d recently turned the passcode off on my iPad so it wouldn’t lock up on me during a presentation to political science students about “privacy watchdogs;” I suddenly had a strong urge to turn it back on.
We sat there for about 30 minutes with the car window down and the cold Utah air making its way inside. As we waited for “the supervisor,” we began chatting with the NSA officers. They asked for more information about us, including whether we had guns in the car. (This wouldn’t be hugely surprising in the state of Utah, but we did not.) I confessed that the photos I had weren’t terribly revealing. “You can see the facility from the highway,” I argued. One of the officers grimaced at that and suggested that this has occurred to him and he “didn’t think they built it in the best spot.”
“We didn’t see any signs on our way in,” said Dryer. “They must be tiny.”
“Yeah, that road recently opened,” said Officer #1. “I was just thinking the other day as I was driving in that those signs are too small.”
I said that I expected the construction to be farther along at this point, given that the center is due to be completed in seven months. They said this is “just the half I can see.” Gesturing at the rather puny looking fence, I told them it didn’t seem very high-security.
“Oh it’s stronger than it looks,” replied Officer #2. “It would stop a tractor trailer.”
“Yeah, but too bad it’s not higher and not see-through,” added Officer #1.
Meanwhile, I saw a more casually dressed man make his way into the back entrance of the building that would hold the junk food, sodas, and cash register if this were indeed the gas station it appeared to be. Officer #1 went in to join him. We asked who the supervisor was. “Agent Federman,” we were told. (It sounded like “Federman;” I’m not sure about the spelling.)
We sat in the car some more, while they — I assume — ran background checks on us, Googled us, checked my Forbes credentials, poked around my Facebook page and called other supervisors, and perhaps a Public Information Officer to decide what to do about us. After maybe another 15 minutes, an aggressively chummy man with piercing blue eyes, wearing a sweater and slacks, came out to the car. He introduced himself as a special agent and asked us to explain why we were there, with an aside to Officer #1 that he wanted him to record everything. Dryer offered a lengthy explanation, including all of the classes I’d spoken to. Agent Federman responded with a direct question: “Did anyone send you to take those photos and do you plan to distribute them to enemies of the United States?”
I would have laughed at that had I not been so intimidated and nervous. I said no one sent me and that I didn’t intend to do that. He asked why I did take them. I said I was amused by the sign and wanted to document the trip, and that I’m a journalist and recording information is what I do. He asked whether I would distribute or publish them, and I said again that I was a journalist so that was a possibility. He asked if I had already sent them from my device elsewhere. While the thought had certainly crossed my mind, I had not emailed, Facebooked, or Instagrammed them (yet). He asked me to describe the photos I’d taken, which I did.
He asked me again if I would delete them saying this would make things easier. Feeling like Bartleby the Scrivener by that point, I told him that I would prefer not to. He told me I could have called the Public Information Office, requested a tour and gotten official photographs; he suggested I delete my photos and do that instead. (It struck me at that moment as his version of “come back with a warrant.”) Dryer asked if we could go on a tour now. “No,” he responded. He went back inside the building.
I later contacted James Bamford, the author of the Wired article, to ask whether he requested a tour of the facility. He did not as it was just a hole in the ground when he first wrote the article many months before it came out. “But, having written about NSA for years, I’ve had little success in getting ‘tours’ of NSA facilities,” he said by email.
Now Officer #1 began asking for more information, such as my home address, the name of my hotel in Salt Lake City, where we had been driving from and where we were driving to. (If I didn’t have a government intelligence file before, I certainly do now.) He also asked for our social security numbers. We declined to give them – though I suspect it wouldn’t be very hard for these types to get them if they wanted them.
We began chatting again. Officer #2 expressed some personal discomfort around having photos taken, saying that if a photo of him was taken and put on the Internet that someone might come after him just because of who he worked for. “I had enough of that in the Army,” he said.
Officer #1 said they had to protect against “just anyone coming up here.” After the Wired article came out, there were two “sovereign citizens” who drove up and wanted to know “exactly what was going on in there;” the guards turned them away. The sovereigns are considered a domestic terrorist movement by the FBI. Officer #1 mentioned that both Dryer and I had clean records.
Our encounter with the officers started around 3:30. At this point, it was nearing 4:30. I was wondering if there was going to be a showdown and whether they were going to seize my iPad. I started thinking about whether I might have anything sensitive on there that I needed to worry about.
Agent Federman came back out. This time he came around to my side of the car. “Can I see the photos?” he asked. I was hesitant but it seemed like a reasonable request; plus, I was starting to fear that a federal citation was going to be my souvenir from this trip. So I scrolled through the photos I’d just taken on my iPad for him. He apparently didn’t see anything too objectionable. He asked me to go through again and count them. There were 13. He asked if I would delete two of the photos, which showed a K9 unit SUV including its license plate. I didn’t want to out of principle, but after an hour of being detained in a cold car – or as they described it, “engaging in a chat,” – I was really wanting to leave. I agreed to do so. That’s when they let us depart.
Coincidentally, the gas station-looking building where we were questioned turned out to be an entrance where people working in the facility presumably will have to show their credentials to gain entrance. Our interrogation took place in the lane with the green sign that read “Rejection Lane.” We were the first of the rejects.
On the road on the way out, we noticed the signs we had missed: a speed limit sign, a small yellow one to the right side of the road that said “authorized personnel only” and another at the turn off – on the opposite side of the road, in front of a big field – that said “no trespassing.” We stopped at each one, of course, so I could take pictures of them.
It was an intimidating hour. While I’ve interviewed federal agents for stories, I’ve never been interrogated by them before. We may have been treated as gently as we were because I’m a mainstream journalist with a prominent platform and because I was accompanied by a lawyer. I was grateful that I could hold up “professional journalist” as my own badge; it felt protective.
I suspect this would’ve been a much more difficult encounter for someone without journalism credentials. That’s despite the fact that people have legitimate questions about the lengths to which intelligence agencies are going in order to monitor our communications and electronic activity to look for threats. My trespass and capture of information about the center was easy for NSA officers to spot, but the extent of the electronic trespassing against American citizens that might occur inside that data center when it’s finally completed will be much harder for us to discern. And, as the Supreme Court recently ruled in turning back a challenge to U.S. government surveillance of communications with people abroad, if you can’t prove that an unconstitutional invasion of privacy is happening, you can’t stop it from happening.
Kashmir Hill Forbes Staff