NSA's Big Dig
It’s no secret that Harvey Davis has a sensitive job building massive spy data centers.
He works at one of the three-letter intelligence agencies and oversees construction of a $1.2 billion surveillance data center in Utah that is 15 times the size of MetLife Stadium, home to the New York Giants and Jets. Long Island native Harvey Davis, a top National Security Agency official, needs that commanding presence. His role is to supervise infrastructure construction worldwide for NSA, which is part of the Defense Department. That involves tending to logistics, military installations, as well as power, space and cooling for all NSA data centers.
In May, crews broke ground on a $792 million computing center at the agency’s headquarters near Baltimore that will complement the Utah site. Together the Utah center and Maryland’s 28-acre computer farm span 228 acres—more than seven times the size of the Pentagon.
During an interview with Government Executive in June, amid the uproar over leaked details of NSA’s domestic espionage activities, Davis describes the 200-acre Utah facility as very transparent: “Only brick and mortar.” A data center just provides energy and chills machines, he says.
About 6,500 contractors, along with more than 150 Army Corps of Engineers and NSA workers, including some with special needs, are assigned to the project. Davis perks up when he talks about the hundreds of individuals with disabilities he has steered into NSA.
But ask him why the facility is so big and what’s inside, and he is less forthcoming. “I think we’re crossing into content. It’s big because it’s required to be big,” says Davis, a 30-year veteran of the spy agency.
At NSA, secrecy is not exclusive to intelligence analysts. Every civil servant in the Installations and Logistics Directorate Davis leads has a security clearance. He earned his in the early 1980s, entering the agency with a master’s degree in business administration, experience managing inventory for a women’s apparel chain, and a yearning for a higher calling than retail.
For security reasons, some of the contractors erecting the data center don’t even know its purpose, other than the equipment needed—nothing about snooping. The 2010 public work solicitation called for a 65-megawatt center with a chiller plant, fire suppression systems, electrical generators and an uninterruptible power supply backup capacity.
Davis lets out that inside there will be supercomputers, or what NSA labels “high performance computers.” These need “different cooling and different power distributions as opposed to something you bought from Best Buy,” he says. The machines, along with whatever other technology is tucked in the facility, are slated to power on by Oct. 1.
Four years ago, the stated purpose of the megaplex near Salt Lake City was to amass foreign intelligence and warnings about hackers. Officials described it as an extension of President George W. Bush’s 2008 Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, a largely classified, cross-agency program to protect U.S. computer networks against adversaries. Today, it is evident the data plantation will not be linked to any one program. Instead, the systems inside will warehouse counterterrorism information collected in aggregate, including millions of Americans’ phone logs for five years and certain foreigners’ online messages, NSA officials confirm. Spies at other locations will decipher what’s accumulated to thwart terrorist attacks, cyber assaults, and weapons of mass destruction.
The Utah effort is the largest ongoing Defense construction project in the United States. Still, it is only three-quarters the size of the department’s largest in the world—the Medical Center Replacement Project at Rhine Ordnance Barracks, Germany.
Davis is reluctant to discuss the ratio of contractors to civil service employees in Utah—a week after The Guardian and The Washington Post have reported an NSA contractor leaked Top Secret documents. Prosecutors are pursuing former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden for exposing files about PRISM, the agency’s foreign Internet surveillance program, and domestic call data-monitoring while he was administering NSA data systems in Hawaii.
Compared with the 6,500 contract employees, “there is a smaller number of people on my core project management team,” Davis says. An agency official in the room adds: “We can talk in total numbers here . . . We can’t get into how many are ours, how many are theirs.”
A few days after the interview, when asked why NSA’s reliance on contractors is hush-hush, agency officials released some figures. Ten people are on Davis’ core team. About 150 employees from the Army Corps of Engineers, along with an undisclosed number of employees from the 1,000-member Installations and Logistics Directorate, are involved with the Utah project. NSA considers the total sum of agency personnel staffed to certain construction projects operational details and would not provide that statistic. A small workforce of up to 200 government and contract employees—building engineers, systems administrators and maintenance workers—will stay permanently to keep the facility running.
Davis is more eager to discuss the quality than quantity of his employees. Roughly 10 years ago, while working as an NSA human resources director, he encountered an untapped talent pool that he now draws from regularly. “The disabled population is just so thankful to have a job. They would just come in here and you’d have to actually force them to go home,” Davis says. “I have engineers that are hard of hearing, and our workforce all took sign language so they could actually communicate with one another.”
Nobody waters down security clearance exercises to facilitate special needs applicants, he adds. “Somebody who was deaf, we would do polygraph in sign language,” Davis says. “What we look for is qualifications first. We have someone developing software—working on the computers—that is blind. There is really no limitation that we have found as long we can find the skill match.” At least a dozen engineers who have disabilities work in his directorate. Grounds maintenance and snow removal contractors in Utah will be hired through SourceAmerica (formerly NISH), a nonprofit organization that fits agency needs with the skills of job seekers with disabilities.
“He has integrated this into the fabric of the company,” says Joyce A. Bender, past chair of the board of the American Association of People with Disabilities, who met Davis when he decided NSA needed more diversity. “What makes this work at any company is a passionate leader, someone in leadership, whether it’s in the private sector or a federal agency,” says Bender, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who recruits people with disabilities for work in government and industry.
Her firm refers to NSA about 200 individuals annually for positions in finance, linguistics, math and other specialties. Since 2010, about 550 candidates have been hired. “If he says, ‘I’m going to do something,’ you can count on it that he is going to do it,” Bender says of Davis. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He’s very direct and to the point.”
A Leak During Construction
No matter their background or how they came to NSA, civil servants and contract employees alike all serve in silence. “That’s really the culture of this agency, and we’re really not looking for big accolades,” Davis says. “What really makes the people satisfied here is that they did the job and they did it right and they’re doing things within the appropriate manner.” The mentality is that NSA operates in the dark for the safety of Americans. Some citizens, however, argue it should operate in the sunshine a little more for the safety of democracy.
The secrecy dispute is “a distraction and a weakness that has been presented by this guy,” Snowden, who should not have seen such sensitive information in the first place, says one former NSA official. “They’ve got to do some internal homework about how to keep that data separate,” the ex-official says, adding that technical controls are not very difficult to configure. “How the heck did this guy in Hawaii gain access to all that?”
Some human rights advocates are grateful for the exposure of the agency’s surveillance methods. “Communications about millions of innocent Americans are being stored for five years in a government database—whether or not there is any reason to search our call records, and I don’t think our Constitution allows that,” says Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
Even some former Pentagon officials say citizens should know NSA’s intentions for the Utah data center. “When you have this much centralization of capabilities, which in government terms can translate into real power—that and resources—it’s important that the public be able to look at these things and figure out what they are doing,” says a cyber official who recently left Defense and now works as a private contractor. The official is not involved in the project and was not authorized to speak on behalf of the department.
A 2012 article in Wired reported that NSA needs the megaplex partially because the Pentagon wants to expand the military global communications network to manage yottabytes of data. “A yottabyte is a septillion bytes—so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude,” the article said. “Should the agency ever fill the Utah center with a yottabyte of information, it would be equal to about 500 quintillion (500,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.” NSA officials told Government Executive, however, they do not discuss such operational details.
An Open House
The contents of the NSA computer fortress might be a mystery to the public, but Davis says his project has been open to congressional and industry scrutiny.
“The military construction process by design is a very, very transparent process. We work through the Corps of Engineers,” he says. “It’s a public discourse. When we give out our request for proposal, that’s through FedBizOpps.gov.” But on the website, many of the work descriptions for that project are locked behind a firewall. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines says the documents are restricted because “they must be accounted for and are only for cleared defense contractors.”
Davis acknowledges the controversy over his project has taken an emotional toll. “We’ve been pressured to disclose what’s been going in the Utah Data Center for quite a while independent of the current events,” he says. “My workforce and the workforce that I work with here [in Utah] take our jobs and our responsibility very, very seriously, and for somebody to say that we’re doing something untoward is a pretty big hit on the morale here.”
No matter the outcome of the debate, the Utah computers are expected to go online within two months. This is where the MBA comes in. From choosing a site, to convincing Congress to agree with blueprints to surmounting a late-in-the-game budget chop, balancing the books is key. “Utah is a wonderful place with abundant and inexpensive power,” Davis says. “Plenty of sources of water for cooling.” NSA applied a mathematical model to select the location. The surrounding environment simplified construction. “Utah, because of the facility and the utilities, just came out far and ahead of everywhere else,” he says. “Lots of good roads. We could get the steel in. We could get the concrete in. We have lots of sand pits nearby,” he says. “We built our own cement slabs in that area. It’s pretty well offset from the road for the security that we need for the data center.”
The price tag for the project is in line with industry standards, according to NSA. “It’s actually relatively cheap and I came in under cost,” Davis says, referring to $100 million in savings gained partly by refusing to let contractors adjust the plan. Penny-pinching became mandatory when governmentwide spending cuts, known as sequestration, kicked in this year.
“One of the biggest cost drivers on a project this size is something called an engineering change proposal. They really number in the tens to hundreds in a project of this size,” but one could “count on a couple of hands the numbers of change orders that we allowed to happen,” he says. “We spent a lot of time honing the requirements tightly up front, making sure we knew what we were building, building it, and not going back and changing it later.” That’s the New York strong arm talking.