Spies like us: NSA to build huge facility in Utah
Hoping to protect its top-secret operations by decentralizing its massive computer hubs, the National Security Agency will build a 1-million-square-foot data center at Utah's Camp Williams.
The years-in-the-making project, which may cost billions over time, got a $181 million start last week when President Obama signed a war spending bill in which Congress agreed to pay for primary construction, power access and security infrastructure. The enormous building, which will have a footprint about three times the size of the Utah State Capitol building, will be constructed on a 200-acre site near the Utah National Guard facility's runway.
Congressional records show that initial construction -- which may begin this year -- will include tens of millions in electrical work and utility construction, a $9.3 million vehicle inspection facility, and $6.8 million in perimeter security fencing. The budget also allots $6.5 million for the relocation of an existing access road, communications building and training area.
Officials familiar with the project say it may bring as many as 1,200 high-tech jobs to Camp Williams, which borders Salt Lake, Utah and Tooele counties.
It will also require at least 65 megawatts of power -- about the same amount used by every home in Salt Lake City combined. A separate power substation will have to be built at Camp Williams to sustain that demand, said Col. Scott Olson, the Utah National Guard's legislative liaison. He noted that there were two significant power corridors that ran though Camp Williams -- a chief factor in the NSA's desire to build there.
The NSA bills itself as the home of America's codemakers and codebreakers, but the Department of Defense agency is perhaps better known for its signals intelligence program, which is reported to have the capacity to tap into a significant amount of the world's communications. The agency also has been the subject of significant criticism by civil libertarians, who have accused it of unwarranted monitoring of the communications of U.S. citizens.
The NSA's heavily automated computerized operations have for years been based at Fort Meade, Maryland, but the agency began looking to decentralize its efforts following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Propelling that desire was the insatiable energy appetite of the agency's computers. In 2006, the Baltimore Sun reported that the NSA -- Baltimore Gas & Electric's biggest customer -- had maxed out the local grid and could not bring online several supercomputers it needed to expand its operations.
About the same time, NSA officials, who have a long-standing relationship with Utah based on the state Guard's unique linguist units, approached state officials about finding land in the state on which to build an additional data center.
Olson said NSA officials also seemed drawn to Utah's increasing reputation as a center of technical industry and the area's more traditional role as a transportation hub.
"They were looking at secure sites, where there could be a natural nexus between organizations and where space was available," he said. "The stars just kind of came into alignment. We could provide them everything they need."
The agency is building a similar center in San Antonio at the site of a former Sony microchip plant.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, refused to answer questions about the project. Officials from Hatch's office said they were not at liberty to discuss a classified matter, though it is referenced in several public documents and has been spoken about openly by state officials for the past week.
NSA officials also declined to comment immediately on the project, but pledged to answer questions later this week.
Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story