NSA Failed to Disclose Construction Delays at $1.2 Billion Spy Compound

Cars sit at the security entrance of the new NSA Data Center on October 8, 2013 in Bluffdale, Utah. It has been reported that the data center has been plagued by power surges that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and has delayed the opening of the center for a year.
National Journal
Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
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Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
Oct. 9, 2013, 7:22 a.m.

While the gov­ern­ment was near­ing a shut­down and bra­cing for a de­fault, a $1.2 bil­lion Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency su­per­com­puter homestead in Utah, built to in­gest sur­veil­lance data, re­portedly was wast­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on fried equip­ment.

NSA of­fi­cials masked the woes out west, at a time when the agency already was fa­cing ac­cus­a­tions of ly­ing about do­mest­ic spy­ing prac­tices.

As re­cently as June 19, agency of­fi­cials told Nex­t­gov the spy cen­ter — 15 times the size of Met­Life sta­di­um — would be “op­er­a­tion­al” by Oct. 1. That month, NSA spokes­wo­man Vanee Vines also said in an email the “ex­ter­i­or is done. . . It’s now time for IT guts to be in­stalled,” re­fer­ring to in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy sys­tems.

But, be­hind the se­cur­ity peri­met­er, per­sist­ent elec­tric­al surges ap­par­ently sparked ex­plo­sions and a year-long delay that NSA of­fi­cials did not dis­close. On Monday night, the Wall Street Journ­al re­por­ted there have been 10 melt­downs dur­ing the past 13 months that have pre­ven­ted NSA from run­ning com­puters.

The rev­el­a­tions come after ex-NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden this spring leaked files to the me­dia de­tail­ing the agency’s mam­moth col­lec­tions of In­ter­net and phone data, rev­el­a­tions later ac­know­ledged by U.S. of­fi­cials. The 200-acre Utah com­puter fort­ress was de­signed to ware­house this data.

In June, Har­vey Dav­is, a top agency of­fi­cial, who handles mil­it­ary in­stall­a­tions, as well as power, space and cool­ing for all NSA data cen­ters, said in an in­ter­view that the con­struc­tion — un­der­taken by the Corps of En­gin­eers — has been an open pro­ject.

“The mil­it­ary con­struc­tion pro­cess by design is a very, very trans­par­ent pro­cess,” he said. “It’s a pub­lic dis­course. When we give out our re­quest for pro­pos­al, that’s through Fed­BizO­pps.gov,” a web­site that ad­vert­ises jobs for pro­spect­ive vendors, so “by its nature, mil­it­ary con­struc­tion is a very, very open pro­cess.”

Pro­ject con­tract pa­pers called for a 65-mega­watt cen­ter with a chiller plant, fire sup­pres­sion sys­tems, elec­tric­al gen­er­at­ors and an un­in­ter­rupt­ible power sup­ply backup ca­pa­city.

On Tues­day, NSA and Army Corps of En­gin­eers of­fi­cials de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about the fail­ure to dis­close that there would be some sort of delay.

Norbert Suter, the Corps chief of con­struc­tion op­er­a­tions, said in an email that power con­nectiv­ity re­mains in­com­plete. “The fi­nal com­mis­sion­ing of the en­tire elec­tric­al sys­tem is still on­go­ing,” he said, de­clin­ing to ad­dress cost over­runs. “The Corps is en­sur­ing it func­tions as re­quired and that it will be com­pletely re­li­able pri­or to re­leas­ing the pro­ject to the cus­tom­er,” mean­ing NSA. Suter did not say when the site would turn on.

He ac­know­ledged there have been a series of glitches. “Dur­ing the test­ing and com­mis­sion­ing of the Utah data cen­ter, prob­lems were dis­covered with cer­tain parts of the elec­tric­al sys­tem. Is­sues such as these can arise in any pro­ject, and are the reas­on the Corps tests and re­views every as­pect of any pro­ject pri­or to re­leas­ing it to the cus­tom­er,” he said.

More Corps pro­fes­sion­als were summoned and the source of the prob­lems was dis­covered, Suter said, without elab­or­at­ing fur­ther.

“Be­cause of the scope of this pro­ject, a spe­cial­ized team of ex­perts from the Corps’ headquar­ters was sent to re­view and as­sist with ad­dress­ing these is­sues. The cause of the elec­tric­al is­sues was iden­ti­fied by the team and is cur­rently be­ing cor­rec­ted by the con­tract­or,” he said.

The team also un­covered vent­il­a­tion troubles. In or­der to func­tion, data cen­ters need an air man­age­ment sys­tem able to cool IT equip­ment and re­move waste heat. Suter said, “An air­flow is­sue was dis­covered with the gen­er­at­ors and the con­tract­or is cor­rect­ing the prob­lem.”

On Monday night, Vines said, “On the whole, this is why ac­cept­ance test­ing is done - so that is­sues can be found and re­solved be­fore the gov­ern­ment takes pos­ses­sion.”

While fi­nal as­sess­ments con­tin­ue, Suter said the Corps is “mak­ing pre­par­a­tions to re­lease it to the cus­tom­er.”

The fi­nal tab for the ul­ti­mate cus­tom­er, the tax­pay­er, is a ques­tion mark. Dav­is this sum­mer said, “I came in un­der cost,” re­fer­ring to $100 mil­lion in sav­ings gained partly by re­fus­ing to let con­tract­ors ad­just the plan.

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