ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Rocky Mountain Spies

The National Security Agency's westward ho.

The next boomtown for spend-happy spies is . . . Aurora, Colo.? The growing Denver suburb will play home to a major operations center for the National Security Agency, amid a broader move by the intelligence community to align its operations with the military.

The Denver Post first reported NSA's move in January, and the buzz spread that its electronic eavesdroppers were building a new "warning hub" at Buckley Air Force Base. National security historian William M. Arkin has reported that the base is a major downlink for intelligence satellites, including NSA's. Buckley also is home to the 460th Space Wing, which runs the Defense Support Program satellites, the "eyes in the sky" that detect missile launches and warn the military.

Given the Centennial State's pivotal role in national security-U.S. Northern Command is at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs-it makes sense that NSA and other intelligence agencies would want to centralize operations. (The CIA last year planned to move a division to Denver.) But relocating also is a great deal.

The cost of doing business in Aurora is cheaper than almost any other U.S. city, thanks to its low tax rates for new and existing businesses. That makes the town a big draw-the great skiing nearby doesn't hurt, either.

Some of the biggest names in the intelligence business, including SAIC and Lockheed Martin Corp., have satellite offices nearby. Only Las Vegas and Colorado Springs-go figure-have better tax rates than Aurora, according to The Kiplinger Letter.

As NSA expands operations, it has been running out of office space at its Fort George G. Meade, Md., headquarters, says James Bamford, author of the definitive NSA histories The Puzzle Palace: Inside America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization (Penguin, 1983) and Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency (Anchor, 2002). Security concerns also prompted the move, he says. After Sept. 11, agency officials "got very nervous" that "all the facilities [including the counter-terrorism unit] were in one place, in a glass tower, which was one of the highest buildings around," he says.

NSA hasn't said how many employees it will shift to Aurora, but a spokesman told The Denver Post, "This strategy better aligns support to national decision-makers and combatant commanders."

Sounds like a corporate restructuring. Aurora "could easily become as much a place of synergy as Washington," says one former intelligence official, now a contractor. "The intelligence community is . . . adapting to the idea that it does not have the manpower or the brain power to do the job, so it's hiring contractors to help them. And that doesn't mean you have to hire them here" in Washington, he says.

Of course, there's no shortage of government and military employees in the Denver area. Dozens of agencies have offices there, and Buckley Air Force Base alone serves more than 92,500 people. According to Buckley's Web site, the base contributes $1.22 billion annually to the local economy.

NSA's expansion appears to be picking up steam. As Government Executive reported in 2004, "NSA is building a massive data storage facility in Colorado, which will be able to hold the electronic equivalent of the Library of Congress every two days." Harry Gatanas, NSA's senior acquisition executive, said then that the agency needed contractors to assist in knowledge management, high-end computing and analytic tool development. From 2000 to 2004, NSA doubled procurement spending, and Gatanas said it would again by decade's end.

We know now that NSA's need for analytic tools-not to mention data storage-has risen steadily because of all those domestic phone calls and e-mails it collects for terrorist clues. Aurora might benefit from the new trend in domestic snooping. And why not? It's already in on the action. The city's Web site lets visitors type in a local address and pull up a satellite image of the dwelling, complete with value and square footage.

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