NERMEEN SHAIKH: A new exposé in Wired
Magazine has revealed new details about how the National Security Agency
is quietly building the largest spy center in the country in Bluffdale,
Utah, as part of a secret NSA surveillance program codenamed "Stellar
According to investigative reporter James Bamford, the NSA has
established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift
through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they
originate within the country or overseas.
The Utah spy center will
contain near-bottomless databases to store all forms of communication
collected by the agency.
This includes 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."
AMY GOODMAN: In addition, the NSA has
also created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for
patterns and unscramble codes.
James Bamford writes the secret
"is, in some measure, the realization of the 'total
information awareness' program created during the first term of the Bush
...but later killed by Congress in 2003 due to privacy
concerns and public outcry.
James Bamford joins us now from London, England. His article in Wired is
called "The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center
- Watch What
Jim Bamford is an investigative journalist who’s been
covering the National Security Agency for the last three decades.
came close to standing trial after revealing the NSA’s operations in an
explosive 1982 book called The Puzzle Palace. His latest book is the
last in his trilogy on the NSA; it’s called The Shadow Factory: The
Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.
James Bamford, welcome to Democracy Now! Your piece is so dramatic.
was wondering if you might read the first few paragraphs as we begin.
JAMES BAMFORD: I’ll give it a try.
“The spring air in the small, sand-dusted town has a soft haze to it,
and clumps of green-gray sagebrush rustle in the breeze. Bluffdale sits
in a bowl-shaped valley in the shadow of Utah’s Wasatch Range to the
east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. It’s the heart of Mormon
country, where religious pioneers first arrived more than 160 years ago.
They came to escape the rest of the world, to understand the mysterious
words sent down from their god as revealed on buried golden plates, and
to practice what has become known as 'the principle,' marriage to
“Today Bluffdale is home to one of the nation’s largest sects of
polygamists, the Apostolic United Brethren, with upwards of 9,000
members. The brethren’s complex includes a chapel, a school, a sports
field, and an archive. Membership has doubled since 1978 - and the number
of plural marriages has tripled - so the sect has recently been looking
for ways to purchase more land and expand throughout the town.
“But new pioneers have quietly begun moving into the area, secretive
outsiders who say little and keep to themselves. Like the pious
polygamists, they are focused on deciphering cryptic messages that only
they have the power to understand.
Just off Beef Hollow Road, less than
a mile from brethren headquarters, thousands of hard-hatted construction
workers in sweat-soaked T-shirts are laying the groundwork for the
newcomers’ own temple and archive, a massive complex so large that it
necessitated expanding the town’s boundaries.
Once built, it will be
more than five times the size of the US Capitol.
"Rather than Bibles, prophets, and worshippers, this temple will be
filled with servers, computer intelligence experts, and armed guards.
And instead of listening for words flowing down from heaven, these
newcomers will be secretly capturing, storing, and analyzing vast
quantities of words and images hurtling through the world’s
In the little town of Bluffdale, Big Love
and Big Brother have become uneasy neighbors."
AMY GOODMAN: And those are the opening words
of Jim Bamford’s piece, "The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy
Center - Watch What You Say." So, James Bamford, it’s good to have you
on, albeit from Britain right now.
But talk further about what you have
found and what the capacity of this data center, as they call it,
seemingly so innocuous, is.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it’s going to be a million square feet. That’s
gigantic. There’s only one data center in the country that’s larger, and
it’s only slightly larger than that. And it’s going to cost $2 billion.
It’s being built in this area on a military base outside of Salt Lake
City in Bluffdale. As I said, they had to actually extend the boundary
of the town so it would fit into it.
And the whole purpose of this is the centerpiece of this massive
eavesdropping complex, this network that was created after 9/11. During
the '90s, the NSA had a disastrous decade, following the Cold War.
missed the first World Trade Center bombing. They missed the attack on
the USS Cole. They missed the attack on the U.S. embassies in East
Africa. And finally, they missed
the 9/11 attacks.
So NSA wanted to
pretty much recreate itself as this massive eavesdropping organization
that was, during the Cold War, focused on the Soviet Union, primarily,
and to some degree, the Eastern Europe and China and Cuba, communist
countries, and today it's focused on anybody that could use a piece of
communication, because the terrorists that they’re eventually after use
the same kind of communications that everybody else does.
So it has to
focus on the worldwide network of communications, the same network that
all of us use.
So you have this massive agency that’s collecting a tremendous amount of
information every day by satellites, by tapping into undersea cables, by
picking up microwave links and tapping of cell phones and data links on
your computer, email links, and so forth.
And then it has to store it
someplace, and that’s why they built Bluffdale. And then that acts as,
in essence, like a cloud, a digital cloud, so that agency employees,
analysts from around the country at NSA headquarters and their listening
posts in different parts of the U.S. - in Georgia, Texas, Hawaii and
Colorado - can all access that information held in Bluffdale in that data
And that’s pretty much a summary of what that data center is all
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James Bamford, can you explain also for - you know, I
think most people are more familiar with the work of the CIA or the FBI
or other intelligence agencies. The National - the NSA is the most
So can you say a little about what the work they do, how
that’s different from what the other agencies do?
JAMES BAMFORD: Sure.
The NSA is much different from
the CIA. First of
all, it’s about three times the size. It costs far more. It’s
tremendously more secret than the CIA. And what it does is very
It’s focused on eavesdropping, on tapping into major
communications links, on listening to what people around the world and,
to some degree, in the United States say on telephones, email,
communications. That’s really the high point of intelligence these days.
Human intelligence is what the CIA does. It goes out and recruits spies,
or it blows people up with drones.
So, the actual collection - and human
intelligence hasn’t really been very good historically. Most the
intelligence that the U.S. gathers comes from NSA, is from tapping into
communications. So that’s a very big difference between the two.
is really the most powerful intelligence agency, not only in the U.S.,
but in the world today.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you also mention, one of the
key - key functions that this new facility will undertake is - has to do
with the Advanced Encryption Standard.
Can you say a little about that
and why it’s important?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, yeah, the other purpose, in addition to storing
material, is it’s a - it plays a major role in the codebreaking aspects of
NSA. NSA has several missions.
One of them is intercepting
communications. The other is breaking codes, because a lot of that
information is encrypted. And the third function of NSA is making codes
for the U.S., encrypting U.S. communications. So Bluffdale will play a
major role in the breaking of codes because, for breaking codes, you
really need two key ingredients.
One is a very large - a place where you
can store a very large amount of material, because the more material you
have, when you’re going through it, using computers to go through it,
what you’re looking for is patterns.
And the more material that you
have - the more data, the more telephone calls, the more email, the more
encrypted data that you have - the more patterns that you’re likely to
And the second thing you need is a very, very powerful computer, a very
fast computer that can go through enormous amounts of information very
fast looking for those patterns.
And so, the NSA is now also building a
very secret facility down in Tennessee at Oak Ridge, where during World
War II the U.S., in great secrecy, developed the atomic bomb as part of
the Manhattan Project. So now, instead of an atomic bomb, you have a
massive computer that the NSA is working on to be the fastest computer
in the world, with speeds that are just beyond most people’s
And the reason for that is because they have to use
these computers to do what they call "brute force" - in other words,
take this data and just go through it as fast as possible just to look
for these key patterns.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to James Bamford, investigative reporter
who’s covered the National Security Agency for more than three decades.
His piece in Wired Magazine, that we’re going to continue with after
break, is called "The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center
(Watch What You Say)."
He’s speaking to us from Britain. This is
Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Jim Bamford in a minute, and we will
also be joined later by Thomas Drake.
If there was a trial, Jim Bamford
might have testified at the trial of Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower.
Stay with us.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yesterday, Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson of
Georgia questioned NSA director and CYBERCOM commander, General
Alexander, about reports that the NSA is intercepting U.S. citizens’
phone calls and emails.
Johnson specifically refers to your article, Jim Bamford. Let’s go to that clip.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: General, a article in Wired Magazine reported this
month that a whistleblower, formerly employed by the NSA, has stated NSA
signals intercepts include, quote, "eavesdropping on domestic phone
calls" and "inspection of domestic emails," end-quote.
Is that true?
GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: No, not in that context. The question that
- or, I
think what he’s trying to raise is, are we gathering all the information
on the United States? No, that is not correct.
REP. HANK JOHNSON: The author of the Wired Magazine article’s name is
James Bashford [sic]. He writes that NSA has software that, quote,
"searches US sources for target addresses, locations, countries, and
phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases in
email. Any communication that arouses suspicion, especially those to or
from the million or so people on agency watch lists, are automatically
copied or recorded and then transmitted to the NSA."
Is this true?
GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: No, it’s not.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was NSA director, General Keith Alexander, being
questioned by Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson. James Bamford, your
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, you know, the NSA has constantly denied that
they’re doing things, and then it turns out they are doing these things.
They denied they were doing domestic eavesdropping back in the '70s, and
it turned out they had
Operation SHAMROCK and
Operation MINARET, and
they've been reading every single telegram coming in or going out of the
country for 30 years at that point, and also eavesdropping on antiwar
That came out during the Church Committee report.
recently, a few years ago, President Bush said before camera that the
United States is not eavesdropping on anybody without a warrant, and
then it turns out that we had this exposure to all the warrantless
eavesdropping in the New York Times article.
And so, you have this
constant denial and parsing of words in terms of what he’s saying.
So, what I would like to do - I quote from a number of people in the
article that are whistleblowers. They worked at NSA. They worked there
many years. One of my key whistleblowers was the senior technical person
on the largest eavesdropping operation in NSA.
He was a very senior NSA
official. He was in charge of basically automating the entire world
eavesdropping network for NSA. So - and one of the other people is a
intercept operator that was actually listening to these calls, listening
to journalists calling from overseas and talking to their wives and
having intimate conversations. And she tells about how these people were
having these conversations, and she felt very guilty listening to them.
These people came forward and said, you know, this shouldn’t be
happening. Bill Binney, the senior official I interviewed, had been with
NSA for 40 years almost, and he left, saying that what they’re doing is
What I’d like to see is, why don’t we have a panel, for the first time
in history, of some of these people and have them before Congress,
sitting there telling their story to Congress, instead of to me, and
then have NSA respond to them?
I mean, this is the American public who
we’re talking about whose phone calls we’re talking about, so - and email
and data searches and all that.
So I think it’s about time that the
Congress get involved, instead of asking questions from a newspaper or
from a magazine article, and start actually questioning these people on
the record in terms of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and
to whom they’re doing it - you know, to whom they’re doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to James Bamford, longtime reporter on
intelligence activities in this country, has been doing it for more than
30 years, been covering the National Security Agency, a top-secret
agency far bigger than the CIA. Jim Bamford, you referred to some of
And in 2008, I spoke with retired Army Sergeant
Adrienne Kinne here on Democracy Now!, who revealed she was personally
ordered to eavesdrop on Americans working for news organizations and
NGOs in Iraq. Take a listen.
ADRIENNE KINNE: After 9/11, when we were mobilized and given this new
mission, it was very - starting something from the bottom up, and it was
really striking that in intercepting all these satellite phone
communications, the majority of the traffic was not Arabic.
languages beyond our translation capabilities. We would get Chinese,
Japanese, Tagalog, Tadzhik, a lot of Dari, Persian, Pashto, some minimal
Arabic, but really not that much. And so, we would just go through this
process of going through and identifying who belonged to what.
And as we
began to identify different phone numbers which belong to these
humanitarian aid organizations and journalists, we actually had the
capability to block those phone numbers from being intercepted, but due
to guidance given to our officer in charge, we did not do that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a retired Army Sergeant Adrienne Kinne, who was
here in the United States eavesdropping on the Palestine Hotel, which
was later bombed.
She said she saw a piece of paper that showed that the
Palestine Hotel was going to be bombed and went to her superiors and
"You’re bombing the hotel where I am listening to the people
inside, and I can tell you that they are journalists."
Jim Bamford, you
quote Adrienne in your piece, as well, in your piece in Wired Magazine
called "The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What
JAMES BAMFORD: Yes, I first interviewed Adrienne for my book, The Shadow
Factory, a number of years ago.
And she’s extremely credible. And these
are people, just like Bill Binney, that aren’t speaking to me
confidentially; they’re speaking to me on the record, and they’re
risking jail, basically, to tell the country what’s going on.
people have a great deal of courage and a great deal of credibility, and
that’s why I think that the NSA owes them and owes the country a duty to
come out and say what they’re doing.
I mean, this is a democracy, as
your program often says, and I think the public should really have at
least a fair insight into what the government is doing with their
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most extraordinary things about the
eavesdropping program is the number of languages that people are - at the NSA are eavesdropping on.
Can you say a little about what kind of
linguistic ability the people who are listening in have?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the NSA was always very hurting for linguistic
capabilities, especially in the lead-up to 9/11, so they had very few
people that spoke [Pashto] or Dari, the languages in Afghanistan.
had very much an insufficient number of people who spoke Arabic. And
Adrienne Kinne was telling me how they had an instructor down in
Georgia, where she was working for NSA, trying to teach rudimentary
[Pashto], I think it was, to some of the people, but they - it was very
hard for them to pick it up.
So, there’s 7,000 languages in the world.
And NSA is - that’s one of the very difficult things NSA has. It’s trying
to understand what people are saying. Picking up the information,
intercepting it, is far less difficult than understanding what they’re
AMY GOODMAN: In response to your article, Jim Bamford, Forbes Magazine
published a piece yesterday by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute
called "NSA’s Secret Data Center Is a Threat, But Only to America’s
The author writes, quote,
"The real reason the intelligence
community needs big cryptological and analytic complexes is that modern
information technology has empowered hostile states and extremists of
every stripe, giving them unprecedented access to the sources of
American strength while enabling them to thoroughly obscure the authors
and content of their communications."
James Bamford, your comment?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, listen, I mean, we’ve - I wrote another book called A
Pretext for War about how we got into the Iraq War. And I’ve been
hearing this fear mongering, fear mongering, fear mongering forever.
We’re spending enormous amounts of money on NSA to pick up
communications. And even though they lost all these - they had all these
failures during the 1990s, you know, failure after failure - the World
Trade Center One and World Trade Center Two, the attack on the Cole, the
East African embassies bombings - and even after they started all this
rebuilding and more and more money, they still missed the person flying
over on the Christmas Day flight to Detroit with a bomb in his
They missed the person in Times Square. So, you know, all
this eavesdropping we’re doing and all this money we’re spending, I
don’t see an awful lot of value coming out of that.
But I do hear
tremendous amounts of fear mongering, that sort of nonstop fear
mongering from the people that are pushing this agenda.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you’ve raised in the past has to
do with the way in which the NSA worked with the telecommunications
industry here in the U.S. to eavesdrop on American citizens. But they
apparently outsourced the eavesdropping - I mean, the relationship between
the NSA and the telecommunications companies, to a third party.
say a little bit about who that third party was, who those companies
were, and where they were based?
JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah, the - two of the companies that were heavily
involved, one of them
was Narus. It was a company that has been since
bought by Boeing. It was a company formed in Israel by Israelis, and
then it ran its company from California.
But the NSA - or, I guess it was
AT&T that basically hired them. And they - or NSA, maybe the two of them
But the bottom line was, Narus provided the equipment
that NSA was using in the AT&T facilities. AT&T had this big switch in
San Francisco. And it would be using this Narus equipment that would
take the information from the wires coming in, the cables coming in, and
then route it to NSA, the information that NSA wanted. So it used this
company called Narus.
And again, it’s a company that had been formed
overseas, and you really have to start wondering when you have companies
that were formed in foreign countries, and they’re giving such intimate
access to U.S. telecommunications, especially very secret U.S. work.
The other company was Verint, and they do a lot of the monitoring for
Verizon. And Verint also was formed in Israel by Israelis. And it turns
out that the chairman and founder of the company ended up being a
fugitive now from the United States, wanted on multiple counts of fraud
and theft and so forth.
He’s hiding out in Namibia in Africa now. And
then two other members of the general counsel and another senior
executive from the parent company, Comverse, was also arrested and
charged in the theft and pleaded guilty.
So you have the problem
of - these companies that are actually doing the very sensitive work of
monitoring everybody’s communications, you have real questions about
them, let alone the people that the NSA is targeting.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, you have been writing about the NSA for
decades. It’s interesting speaking to you in London.
We usually speak to
you in the United States. You’re sitting right along the Thames, across
the river from MI6, from British intelligence agencies, as we speak.
as you unveiled this story in Wired Magazine about this small place or
obscure, until now, place, Bluffdale, Utah, right near the Four Corners
where, you know, Colorado and New Mexico, Utah and Arizona hit on the
map there in the Southwest of the United States, I can’t help but think
about how you came close to standing trial in 1982 for your book on the
NSA, The Puzzle Palace, revealing what was going on with the NSA.
you at all concerned about what it means to reveal this information?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, as you mentioned, I’ve been doing it for 30 years,
so I’ve had concerns about that from time to time.
In 1982, as you
mentioned, I didn’t come close to trial, because they never - I was never
arrested or prosecuted or anything, but I was threatened twice by the
Justice Department to return documents that they said were classified.
But these were documents that had been released to me by the attorney
general under the Carter administration, Attorney General Civiletti.
so, I never returned the documents, because they were unclassified when
they were given to me. And what the Reagan administration did was
reclassify them as top secret and then order that I give them back. But
we found a passage in the executive order on secrecy that said once a
document has been declassified, it can’t be reclassified.
So then Reagan
changed the executive order to say that it could be reclassified, but
that couldn’t apply to my case because of the principle of ex post
facto. So that was fairly dramatic, where they were threatening me
during the writing of The Puzzle Palace.
But, you know, ironically, the second book I had on NSA after that, Body
of Secrets, they had a book signing for me at NSA. And I interviewed,
you know, the director in his office and had tours of the agency and all
that other - everything else.
But then, when I discovered that NSA was
doing all this illegal warrantless eavesdropping, I wrote the third
book, which was The Shadow Factory, showing how NSA got involved in all
this illegal activity after they had basically given it up for many
years, ever since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was
created in - around 1978.
So, you know, I’ve had sort of a love-hate
relationship with NSA over the years.
But I - so, sometimes I’ll
compliment them if they do something good, and other times I’ll
criticize them, as I do in this article, for things that I don’t think
they’re doing very good.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James Bamford, can you say what your response is to the
way in which
the Obama administration has dealt with this issue, as
the Bush administration did, what differences there are, if
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I haven’t seen a lot of differences. President
Obama, for example, when all the furor broke out over the warrantless
eavesdropping during the Bush administration, came out and said that he
was totally against that, he was going to vote against changing the law
to allow that kind of thing and also to vote against giving immunity to
the telecom companies.
The telecom companies could have been charged
with a crime for violating everybody’s privacy. But then, when he - when
push came to shove and it came time to vote, he didn’t.
opposite to what he said, and he voted for the legislation, sort of
creating this warrantless eavesdropping change to the law that he
was - said he was previously against, which basically legalized what the
Bush administration had been doing in their warrantless eavesdropping.
And he also voted against - or he voted in favor of giving immunity to the
telecom companies, which is again opposite of what he said previously.
And now he’s, you know, the president here last three years, while
they’ve been building this enormous - or at least completing this enormous
infrastructure, and they hadn’t even started this when he became
president, the large data center in Bluffdale. So I don’t really see an
awful lot of difference between the two in terms of what’s going on with
If anything, it’s gotten much larger under Obama than it was under
AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, we’re going to ask you to stay with us
speaking to us from London, investigative reporter who wrote The Puzzle
Palace, Shadow Factory, now a piece in Wired called "The NSA Is Building
the Country’s Biggest Spy Center - Watch What You Say" - because we’re
going to be joined by two whistleblowers.
One of them, if he had stood
trial, Thomas Drake, who worked at the NSA, possibly Jim Bamford would
have testified at that trial. We’ll also be joined by Jesselyn Radack,
who took on the Justice Department, particularly around the case of John
Walker Lindh, who is still in prison.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
We’ll be back in less than a minute.