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Paul Rolly: Utah's spy center is easy to enter, hard to leave

Published March 5, 2013 8:23 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

With all the anti-federal government bills in the Utah Legislature this year, lawmakers might have a softer attitude toward the feds if they knew that National Security Agency guards spent an hour last week interrogating and generally harassing a journalist and a Democrat.

The rhetoric on the Hill the last few years would suggest our Republican protectors of all that is good in Utah dislike journalists and Democrats at least as much as they do the feds.

The showdown occurred Thursday when local attorney and University of Utah adjunct professor Randy Dryer was hosting Forbes magazine reporter Kashmir Hill on campus to share her experiences with students.

When Dryer asked how she would like to spend about three hours of free time, she opted to take a peek at the new national spy center, called the Utah Data Center, under construction near Camp Williams in the southwest corner of Salt Lake County.

The two were surprised at how easy it was to enter the property and drive around the parking lot amid the construction of what will be a super-secret spy center.

Hill, being a journalist, took photos with her iPad.

They circled the lot one more time to get a picture of a flashing electronic sign that read: "This sign is working."

That's when they were intercepted by a uniformed guard who asked: What are you doing? After a series of intimidating questions and the guard's demand that Hill delete the pictures, Dryer asked to speak to a supervisor but just got a second guard asking the same questions.

Eventually, a third person emerged in plainclothes calling himself a special agent and wanting to know if Dryer and Hill were sent there by anyone wanting to harm the United States.

Remember, this is a construction site with actual operations not scheduled until later this year and can easily be seen from the nearby public highway and had little to no security to keep people out.

Hill, who chronicled the experience on the Forbes online magazine, was worried the agents would confiscate her iPad, which contained all of her personal information. She also worried about being cited for trespassing, which all three interrogators threatened.

They sat in the cold with the window down while being questioned for about an hour before the feds finally let them go, but not before Hill agreed to delete two of her photos.

Dryer says the special agent kept going inside the building and suspects he was communicating with officials higher up the food chain in the federal spy bureaucracy. He suspects that if he had not been an attorney and she had not been a reporter for a national publication, with the potential of causing a huge public relations dust-up, the consequences for the two may have been more dire.

He is now using the experience as a great topic for his privacy policy class and his privacy law class.

Correction • My apologies to Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, for lumping him in with Rep. Mike Noel, Sen. Margaret Dayton and other ideologues on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee who voted to reject about $71 million in federal grants for vital programs throughout the state.

In my column Monday, I noted that several committee members voted against accepting the federal money just to make a point, without facing the consequences of their position.

After the point was made, the committee took another vote and passed the motion to accept the money.

I erroneously included McKell as one of the no votes when he, in fact, was the one who made the motion to accept the money and voted "yes" both times.

prolly@sltrib.com