BLUFFDALE, Utah — From the top of the hill where artillery trainings are held on Camp Williams, I can see the roof of data halls one through four. The buildings are square and gray, but they look even more mundane with the white-capped Rockies and Utah Lake for a backdrop. Maybe one car drives along the surrounding perimeter. There isn’t a human in sight.
The National Security Agency’s newest research facility in Bluffdale, Utah is boring, and that’s how the government would like it to appear. Inside the cubes of cement surrounded by wire fencing and signs that tell you to never even think about setting foot on the property — or else — millions of emails, search histories and Amazon accounts of Americans are being scanned and stored without a warrant.
A few weeks ago, Utah representative Marc Roberts proposed a bill that would shut off the water supply to the whole thing—which would disable the facility from cooling its metadata-gathering computers that currently require 1.7 million gallons of water a day. If it passes, that bill, HB161, might go into law as early as this week.
This should come as no surprise, but it’s hard to get information from or about The NSA. Most of the people I contacted spoke of the center in vague terms. The most common refrain: “I don’t know what they do over there.”
“If you honestly never drove by it, you would never know it’s there,” a local Wal-Mart employee who preferred not to be named said. “It’s very hush hush. You don’t hear much about it.”
When I emailed the NSA a few weeks back—an out-and-out surrender of my GChat and Ebay shopping history—a representative wrote this email in response: “It’s a secure, federal, Intelligence Community site. Such a visit is not an option at this time.” The agency otherwise declined to comment.
But I was thinking it couldn’t hurt to try again, just to go to the Utah Data Center and see the vastness of the facility. So I called them. The woman said, “It is a controlled environment. But you know how you can see the Empire State Building from far away? See if you can get access to Camp Williams.”
Camp Williams is a 28,000-acre National Guard training base located in Bluffdale, population 8,000.They do artillery training in the rolling hills because the terrain is similar to Afghanistan. Before they drop any bombs, they warn the surrounding residential areas with radio announcements andtweets.The UDC was built on what was formerly a Camp Williams aircraft landing strip. Although you can see the NSA’s cooling towers steaming from the gates of the military base acrossRedwood Road,the UDC is a federal facility that is entirely separate from Camp Williams.
When I meet Lieutenant Colonel Hank McIntire, Public Affairs Officer for the Utah National Guard, it is one of the first things he mentions when I arrive at the gates of the base. In fact, he’ll note the disassociation after every statement related to the NSA’s facility.
Over the phone one week beforehand, he told me I could have a tour of the base “if I was nice.” He’s retiring in August and he’s got a sense of humor. He wears glasses without the frame along the bottom rim. I ask him what he’ll do after he retires. “Sticking around here,” he says. “I’ve got a family and all.” I later learn he has 12 children.
He picks me up in an immaculate white Dodge Durango and brings me up a dirt road adjacent to the NSA facility. It’s a windy 60 degrees. The breeze coming up from Utah Lake is killer. The kidney-shaped facility is roughly one million square feet, but it looks puny from the hilltop. McIntire told me it’s cold here in June and trainees call it Camp “Chilly Willy.”
The [link href=’http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/12/16/131216fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all’ link_updater_label=’external’ target=’_blank’]NSA has a history
Then we learned about the Snowden leaks last June — that the government has been secretly collecting personal information about American citizens for over 12 years. It wasn’t just other countries anymore, and there have been concerns about Fourth Amendment violations ever since.
Bill HB 161 was created to kill that surveillance in the simplest way possible — by letting the machines burn up in their own excess. It’s modeled from legislation crafted last year by theTenth Amendment Center andthe Bill of Rights Defense Committee. They launched OffNow, which volleys for the passage of like-minded regulations that would cut off water supply and “material support or assistance in any form” to NSA buildings in a dozen states. Maryland, California, and Tennessee are in the mix—and there’s a chance that Utah’s bill might pass as early as midnight on March 13, when the legislative session ends.
“It’s gonna be up to the people of Utah to pressure their legislatures—to say ‘We’re in a bad situation and this facility is being used to spy on people not just in Utah, but the entire world,'” TAC founder Michael Boldin says. “We need to ask: Where do our responsibilities lie?”
There are nine NSA facilities including the UDC. All of them have two things in common: cheap resources and willing local authorities. The NSA didn’t agree to build a new data center in San Antonio until it was confirmed that the independent power grid in Texas was available at a low cost and that the new Microsoft data center was going to open close by. Oak Ridge, Tennessee will see a new facility soon, too. Like the UDC, it will be built on a pre-established government building’s campus, on the east side of the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Cheap utilities, willing local authorities.
The NSA also plans to expand its Maryland headquarters by 2016. The five million gallons of water used every day for the new facility will be provided by the city, just like Bluffdale.
There’s a reason the NSA chose Bluffdale and it has nothing to do with the view. A deal was cut, and it’s been in the making since 2002: The NSA would receive cheap utilities and Bluffdale could entice new businesses to build near the premises. The nearly four miles of pipeline and electrical wiring—one that the city took out a $3.5 million bond to pay for—would bring infrastructure to an area previously overlooked by restaurants and other developers.
It was a sweetheart deal. It would have been 15 years before Bluffdale could have afforded to bring water to that area without revenue from the data center.
“Now that entire four-mile stretch of ground is developable as it has access to water power and sewer,” wrote Mark Reid, Bluffdale’s City Manager, in an email. “We provide water to (the data center) because it is in our city and we provide it at a rate that is comparable to what we charge any other residents or businesses in the city.”
But the numbers say otherwise. It’s simple: the water rates are multi-tiered in Bluffdale. Large consumers in the highest tier pay $3.25 per 1,000 gallons in excess of 100,000 gallons a month. But the city told the NSA (considered a large consumer) it would charge the facility at the second-tier rate, no matter how much water it uses, currently at $1.95 per 1,000 gallons excess.
And legislation passed last month says that Utah has the power to tax the NSA, but it’s not looking like that will happen anytime soon. That’s about a $6 million hit in tax revenue.
When I asked local Laura Garner if the UDC had impacted the community at all she quickly answered “Nope.” Then said,”Wait. Has it opened?”
She’s the President of the Bluffdale Arts Advisory Boardand has lived in Bluffdale since 1971. The population was 1,800 back then, and besides horses and a whole lot of space, there was one city building—a combined fire station/city hall and a gas station.
“I think it [The UDC] is a good thing for Bluffdale—it’s gonna help us grow more,” she says. “But it’s not really affecting anybody right now.”
After the initial construction which provided temporary jobs to roughly 10,000 people, fewer than 200 jobs at the NSA facility remain.
According to Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian lobbying group Libertas Institute and a vocal proponent of the proposed bill, no businesses are showing any signs of moving there. About 15 homes were built near to the facility since last October. All I can see from the hill besides a few homes is sagebrush.
Lt. Col. McIntire tells me on the tour that the only changes he’s seen are more protesters on the road. One time, a man tried to hop the fence to the Camp Williams campus, hoping to gain access to the data center. He reminds me again that the NSA facility is not on Camp Williams.
Disabling the data center in Utah would make an impact on the privacy of all American citizens, but I wondered what would happen to the city I was standing above. If the bill passes, the NSA will stop receiving water and consequently stop paying the city of Bluffdale for its services. In other words, Mark Reid will have some shit to wade through.
“I don’t know what they do up there. All I know is that at the end of the month, I send a bill for the water they’ve used,” Reid said, “I’m more concerned about safeguarding the Bluffdale water system. If they turn off the water, it will affect the Bluffdale community’s water supply.”
But Boyack says the bill would not take effect until the bond is paid off. The real loss for Bluffdale would be the income they hoped they’d get from new development.
“Bluffdale should face the consequences of their actions,” Boyack says. “They made a gamble offering the NSA a discount, but they’re not going to be hung out to dry.”
Either way, Bluffdale’s got a ton of money riding on whether or not the bill passes next week. And can you blame Reid for his opposition? The city’s water deal is his livelihood. It directly affects his job and his town.
“If you ask people in any other part of the country ‘Would you sacrifice Bluffdale for the sake of stopping this NSA building?’ they would say yes,” Reid says. “I don’t like that plan so much. It’s easy to throw someone else on the sword.”
But that’s exactly the question we should be asking: Can a state sacrifice a town for a political statement if that state really believes in it?