Greg M. Schwartz - 12/3/2008
The NSA’s new data-mining facility is one component of a growing local surveillance industry
Surrounded by barbwire fencing, the anonymous yet massive building on West Military Drive near San Antonio’s Loop 410 freeway looms mysteriously with no identifying signs of any kind. Surveillance is tight, with security cameras surrounding the under-construction building. Readers are advised not to take any photos unless you care to be detained for at least a 45-minute interrogation by the National Security Agency, as this reporter was.
There’s a strangely blurry line during such an interrogation. After viewing the five photos I’d taken of the NSA’s new Texas Cryptology Center, the NSA officer asked if I would delete them. When I asked if he was ordering me to do so, he said no; he was asking as a personal favor. I declined and was eventually released.
America’s top spy agency has taken over the former Sony microchip plant and is transforming it into a new data-mining headquarters — oddly positioned directly across the street from a 24-hour Walmart — where billions of electronic communications will be sifted in the agency’s mission to identify terrorist threats.
“No longer able to store all the intercepted phone calls and e-mail in its secret city, the agency has now built a new data warehouse in San Antonio, Texas,” writes author James Bamford in the Shadow Factory, his third book about the NSA. “Costing, with renovations, upwards of $130 million, the 470,000-square-foot facility will be almost the size of the Alamodome. Considering how much data can now be squeezed onto a small flash drive, the new NSA building may eventually be able to hold all the information in the world.”
Bamford’s book focuses on the NSA’s transformation since 9/11, with the impetus for the new facility being a direct ramification of those attacks. At the time, the NSA had only about 7 percent of its facilities outside the Washington D.C./Baltimore area. But the realization that additional attacks could virtually wipe out the agency catalyzed a regional expansion. [See “Secret Agency Man,” November 5, 2008.]