Senate Champion of NSA's Mammoth Data Center Is Now Silent

Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

Republican Orrin Hatch welcomed the $1.2 billion Utah complex as a tool to protect computer systems from cyber threats, but its role is actually much broader.

In 2009, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch praised the National Security Agency for choosing his state as the site of a $1.2 billion data center for tracking hackers. Now, expanded uses of the facility 15 times the size of MetLife stadium have come to light, and his office is mum. 

Four years ago, the stated purpose of the megaplex, near Salt Lake City, was to amass foreign intelligence and warnings about threats to U.S. networks.  Officials described it as an extension of former President George W. Bush's 2008 Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, a largely-classified, cross-agency program to protect computer systems against adversaries. 

Today, it is clear the data plantation will not be linked to any one intelligence program. Instead, the machines inside will warehouse legally collected counterterrorism information in aggregate, including millions of Americans' calling logs for five years and certain foreigners’ online messages, NSA officials told Nextgov. Personnel at other locations will decipher what's in there to stop terrorist attacks, cyber assaults, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

At the time of site selection, Hatch, a Republican, said, "Our networks are increasingly under attack from a range of sources, everything from the hacker who steals your identity and runs up huge credit card bills to a coordinated assault on a nation’s computer infrastructure, as was seen in Estonia and Georgia. This threat is real and I am very proud the intelligence community is utilizing Utahns’ unique skills in this critical national security endeavor.” 

Last week, the Guardian and The Washington Post reported NSA’s mass surveillance of domestic call records and select foreigners’ Internet activities.

This week, Hatch's staff was silent on the center’s use and did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. 

About 6,500 local contract employees just finished constructing the Utah compound’s buildings. Technicians now are installing the information technology, which will be operational by October, according to NSA. Then, a small technical staff of between 150 and 200 personnel will remain for system maintenance and custodial work. 

The complex will provide power, cooling and communications equipment to keep the enclosed systems running, agency officials said. The operations will support foreign intelligence activities that will be lawfully conducted, they added. 

On Wednesday, President Obama, during a joint briefing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the Internet surveillance "applies very narrowly to leads that we have obtained on issues related to terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

He added, "This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else. This is not a situation where we simply go into the Internet and start searching any way that we want. This is a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people.  And all of it is done under the oversight of the courts."

NSA agents tapping the Utah center can see "metadata" describing calls, including phone numbers dialed, the duration of conversations, and call times. They must seek a judge's permission to listen to the content of calls. 

Combined, the phone and Internet programs have averted more than 50 terror plots, according to U.S. national security officials. 
 
The administration is “trying to find ways to declassify further some of these programs without completely compromising their effectiveness” so they can share that information with the public, Obama said on Wednesday. 

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