BLUFFDALE, UTAH—Even now, you’d have a hard time finding a politician in Utah opposed to the construction of the Utah NSA Data Center in Bluffdale.
“If the 9-11 attack were to happen again, what would the public opinion be?” Bluffdale Mayor Derk Timothy asked in response to email questions from New West about the Utah NSA Data Center. “Do you think many of the same people who are critical of the National Security Agency and the UDC (Utah Data Center) would be the same critics of the government not doing enough to protect the public?
“I personally haven’t had anyone in Bluffdale relay to me he was uneasy about the UDC being in Bluffdale.”
Then he asked: “What is worse: fighting a battle from within the walls of the NSA or sending our children to fight for our freedoms on foreign land?”
The $1.6-billion Utah NSA Data Center is scheduled to go online in September, despite documentation by former contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA has, for years, been collecting enormous amounts of “metadata” on millions of U.S. citizens who weren’t suspected of any wrongdoing from telecom carriers and internet providers.
“Metadata,” according to an article in The Guardian, which broke the story on NSA domestic spying, is “information generated as you use technology…Examples include the date and time you called somebody or the location from which you last accessed your email.”
Metadata can be used to discern who citizens have spoken with in phone conversations and who they have corresponded with by email, and when, and where. It does not include the actual content of the phone call or email.
Governor Gary Herbert has downplayed fears about the NSA metadata collection program, according to a story on KUTV.
“I think all of us are concerned about a 1984 scenario,” Herbert said. However, he added, “This is a post-911 world…The bad guys are out to get us and they’ve got technology.”
Herbert said there was a “national conversation going on” concerning the NSA’s dragnet metadata collection programs and the evidence was still out on whether the new Utah NSA Data Center would be used to store data on U.S. citizens.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who voted to extend the Patriot Act in 2011, and who was vocal, prior to his last election, about the hard work he invested bringing the center to Utah, has not answered questions about the Utah NSA Data Center from New West.
Lee: Less Secrecy Needed
Sen. Mike Lee voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act because of controversial provisions that he and others said could allow the federal government to collect information from businesses on U.S. citizens.
Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, says Lee believes “we should be allowed to know the legal justification on which the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court is basing its decisions.”
“The senator is in favor of the executive branch making its requests (for surveillance) as specific as possible instead of making a blanket seizure of records,” he says.
A similar amendment to the FISA reauthorization bill last year was voted down in the Senate.
Some believe the bill doesn’t have a chance in this go-round, either. Phillips says that he got the impression in his conversations with the senator that the revelations of mass surveillance detailed by Snowden actually were just “the tip of the iceberg,” to quote Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California.
But, he says it is difficult even for senators on the Select Committee on Intelligence, which is supposed to oversee NSA activities, to get information on NSA programs.
When they review NSA documents, he says, they aren’t allowed to make any notes.
“They can’t even take a pencil with them,” he says.
The courts established by FISA in 1978 are supposed to decide on the issue of warrants for surveillance of suspected foreign intelligence agencies inside the U.S.
Critics of the FISA Court, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have accused it of rubber-stamping practically every surveillance request that has come its way.
The FISA Court also sanctioned the NSA’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 allows the government to collect “any tangible thing” that is “relevant to an authorized preliminary or full investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a U.S. person…”
Questioning Warrantless Data Requests
Utahns with strong political beliefs but no ties to Washington D.C. are the most apprehensive about how Section 215 impinges on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of U.S. citizens to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Pete Ashdown, Democratic candidate U.S. Senate in 2006 and founder of Utah Internet provider Xmission, which Ashdown says has never caved to warrantless requests for information on its customers, spoke to a thin crowd that gathered at the capitol to protest the NSA’s dragnet operations in June.
“How is it that our congressional representation signed off on a billion-dollar facility in Utah with very little idea as to what it does?” he asked.
About 150 people showed up for another protest in front of the Utah NSA Data Center construction site on July 4 but were forced away by security guards.
Courtney White, Chairman of the Utah Libertarian Party, says he is uneasy about the Utah NSA Data Center, and about surveillance on U.S. citizens.
“The groups I run with are going to be upset about these programs,” he says. “But I don’t think most Utahns are going to object to the data center. They will think that it’s good for national security and Utah’s economy. It’s going to provide jobs.”
However, White believes the more U.S. citizens learn about the NSA spy program the more uneasy they will become about it.
White is particularly concerned that government intelligence could be used to watch political groups outside the two main parties, as has often happened in the past.
“The Libertarian Party could be targeted,” he says. “When you look at what happened to communists during the McCarthy era…they were made into scapegoats. It’s not much of a stretch for some people to see liberty groups in the same light. Some people have already equated them with terrorism.”
If one of the thousands of groups critical of big government was accused of “terrorist activities,” White says, “Then it would become a matter of ‘who do you know’?”
At that point, White says, the NSA could trace phone and email records from the suspect group back to other organizations and individuals who might have shared some of its goals but didn’t the same means for attaining them.
Everyone who had joined a group whose aim was reducing the size and scope of the federal government, for example, would be suspect if another group urged violence to “resist tyranny.”
Connor Boyack, the founder of the “Libertas Institute” whose mission is to “advance the cause of liberty within this great state,” wrote an editorial in the Deseret News in 2009 questioning whether elected leaders should welcome the new NSA center.
Boyack, who recently received his 15 seconds of fame trying to help Colbert visualize the “yottabyte” of information that the NSA center will allegedly be able to store (think 300 trillion DVDs), posted a follow-up article in light of Snowden’s revelations on the NSA programs.
Boyack noted that Gov. Herbert had been reassured before construction on the center began that only “appropriate activity will be conducted, according to constitutional law.”
“This reassurance,” Boyack wrote, “came from people who have been lying to the American public for years…The NSA’s facility being built in our backyard will stand for decades as a testament to the political short-sightedness of local officials who chased after a few fleeting dollars and bought into the PR being promoted by one of the world’s most deceptive, secretive spy agencies.”
Full disclosure: As a Verizon customer whose personal data was affected by the NSA, author Christian Probasco is looking for a way to sign on to one of the lawsuits being filed against the agency.