Surrounded by barbwire fencing, the anonymous yet massive building on West Military Drive near San Antonioâ€™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.
Thereâ€™s a strangely blurry line during such an interrogation. After viewing the five photos Iâ€™d taken of the NSAâ€™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.
Americaâ€™s top spy agency has taken over the former Sony microchip plant and is transforming it into a new data-mining headquarters â€” oddly positioned directly across the street from a 24-hour Walmart â€” where billions of electronic communications will be sifted in the agencyâ€™s mission to identify terrorist threats.
â€œNo 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,â€ writes author James Bamford in the Shadow Factory, his third book about the NSA. â€œCosting, 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.â€
Bamfordâ€™s book focuses on the NSAâ€™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 â€œSecret Agency Man,â€ November 5, 2008.]
The new facility is a potential boon to the local economy since itâ€™s reportedly going to employ around 1,500 people, but questions remain about whether there will be adequate oversight to prevent civil-rights violations like Uncle Samâ€™s recent notorious warrantless wiretapping program. The NSA would suggest the facilityâ€™s ability to sort through surveillance data is one of Americaâ€™s top defenses against terrorist threats, but the NSAâ€™s presence comes with concerns that abuse of its secretive power could see the agency become akin to the â€œThought Policeâ€ of 1984, George Orwellâ€™s classic novel depicting the nightmare of a total surveillance society â€” and all for nothing. Even as the facility is completed, a new government-backed report has concluded that data surveillance is an ineffective method for identifying potential terrorists or preventing attacks. …
Ah. So everything I ever type on this blog will be archived forever in some secret underground government computer… and based on what I have written, the computer can determine what I will and will not do.Â It would be nice if they would provide some added service to ordinary citizens. … like fortunes, or advice:Â “Based on your profile, the NSA Superbrain recommends that you stop eating walnuts and buy a large screen TV in October.”