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Intelink is now expanding worldwide, connecting the intelligence
agencies of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United
States in a unique, private, Top Secret”SCI network known as "Intelink-
C" for Intelink-Commonwealth. Officials are considering expanding even
further, creating a unique, and somewhat unsettling, invisible
international espionage web.
Another”more limited but far speedier”communications network at
NSA is the Advanced Technology Demonstration Network, which links
the agency with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, the DIA, NASA, the Defense Information Systems Agency, and
the Naval Research Laboratory. Using a variation of a hyperspeed
technology known as ATM (for "asynchronous transfer mode"),
information can be transferred at the astonishing rate of 2.5 billion bits a
second”fast enough to send the text from nearly 500 copies of Moby-
Dick in one second. The applications of such a hyperfast system are
especially significant given the growing requirements to transfer near-
real-time pictures and video from spy satellites and reconnaissance
aircraft. A program known as Fastlane was recently created by NSA to
develop encryption techniques for ATM.
If Intelink is the intelligence community's Internet, the National
SIGINT File is its New York Times. It contains, said Fredrick T. Martin,
one of NSA's Intelink founders, "a feast of the world's most significant
events of the day that were derived from the codebreaking side of NSA's



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mission." For years, NSA's premier publication was the SIGINT Summary,
or SIGSUM. But despite the fact that it contained the end product of the
world's most advanced intelligence agency, it "was published and
distributed by techniques that would be used if the SIGSUM were not
much more than a club newsletter," said Martin in his book Top Secret
Intranet. Well into the 1990s, the SIGSUM was published the old-
fashioned way, on paper, and was manually distributed by courier.
Eventually, though such pioneering internal projects as Beam-rider,
NSA began disseminating its highly classified Sigint reports over secure
NSA communications lines to senior officials in Washington. This led to
the replacement of the SIGSUM with an electronic version known as the
NSA SIGINT Digest. Finally, in October 1997, NSA inaugurated its
"virtual" newspaper, the National SIGINT File, which completely replaced
both the regular and exclusive versions of the SIGINT Digest.
Unlike anything before in the spy world, the National SIGINT File
provides a "virtual window" into NSA's vast ocean of intercepted
communications. Its exclusive recipients can click on such options as the
National SIGINT Update, which can be specially tailored to the person's
interest”nuclear weapon transfers in Iran or terrorist movements
around Africa. Updates appear periodically throughout the day. Another
option allows one to view the latest signals intelligence on a menulike list
of general topics. Still another offers a TV Guide”like listing of available
Sigint "finished intelligence."
The "customer" can also define key world hot spots in which he or she
has a particular interest. Someone interested in the conflict in the Middle
East, for example, can receive all relevant finished Sigint every half-hour.
A Sigint search can be done to locate previously issued reports on the
subject. Also, a new feature will allow the viewer to see finished
intelligence in video format on the computer screen.
Of special significance is the capability to instantly display CRITIC
messages on screen. Critical Intelligence reports are of the highest
importance, and the CRITIC system is designed to get them to the
president in ten minutes or less from the time of an event. When Saddam
Hussein pushed into Kuwait in 1990, for example, the first alert came in
the form of a CRITIC. The issuance of a CRITIC is instantly noted in the
National SIGINT File by a flashing message in the top left corner of the
screen.


Among the dozens of buildings in the invisible city is a strange yellow
structure, across the street from the headquarters complex, with a large
round smoke pipe on its roof. Deep inside, in a cavernous vat, a chunky
man with a frowning mustache jabs a shovel into a soggy pile of gray
sludge. A few seconds later he plops it over a drain several feet from his


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frayed green knee boots. America's most closely held secrets”transcripts
of North Korean diplomats' conversations, plans for the next generation
of eavesdropping satellites, algorithms for a high-level crypto system”
have been transformed into a pastelike pulp. For the nation's secrets, it
is the penultimate stop in their metamorphosis into pizza boxes.
"Is the National Security Agency literally burying itself in classified
material?" a curious senator once asked. He probably did not anticipate
the response of the NSA assistant director seated across from him: "It
would seem that way." According to a report by congressional auditors,
the NSA classifies somewhere between 50 million and 100 million
documents a year. "That means," the General Accounting Office report
concluded, "that its classification activity is probably greater than the
combined total activity of all components and agencies of the
Government." With more secrets than are held by the CIA, the State
Department, the Pentagon, and all other agencies of government
combined, NSA likely holds the largest body of secrets on earth.
Every week, couriers from the Defense Courier Service lug nearly a
million pounds of materials stamped "Top Secret" and above to and from
the city. Formerly known as the Armed Forces Courier Service, the DCS
is responsible for transporting highly classified materials for all the
services and the Pentagon. Nevertheless, it is chiefly the NSA that packs
its well-guarded trucks and fills its thick canvas pouches. The NSA
produces approximately 80 percent of the 60 million pounds of material
that the courier service handles annually. Because of this, the NSA once
attempted, unsuccessfully, to take over the courier service.
While for most at NSA, the problem is how to acquire secret
information, for a few others the problem is how to get rid of it. At one
point the agency tried to have secret documents exported to a pulp plant.
The material, sealed in plastic bags, was trucked to the Halltown
Paperboard Company (apparently the only company that would have
anything to do with the scheme), several hundred miles away in
Halltown, West Virginia, where NSA would then take over the plant for
twenty-four hours. Dumped into a macerator, the NSA's secrets emerged
as low-quality cardboard. The problem with this system was that some
paper was just not acceptable, and the agency was left with 20,000
square feet of warehouse space full of paper that had to be burned.
Finally, in desperation, the agency turned to the American Thermogen
Corporation of Whitman, Massachusetts, for construction of what came
to be known as White Elephant No. 1. NSA officials journeyed up to the
Bay State to view a pilot model of a "classified waste destructor" and
came away impressed. According to the company, the three-story
machine was supposed to swallow the agency's mountains of secrets at
the rate of six tons an hour and cremate them at temperatures of up to
3,400 degrees Fahrenheit.


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When this marvel of modern pyrotechnics was finally completed, it
had only one problem: it didn't work. Instead of being converted into
gases and liquids, which could be piped off, the top secret trash would
occasionally congeal into a rocklike mass and accumulate in the belly of
the Elephant, where jackhammers were needed to break it up. On at
least one occasion, horrified security personnel had to scurry around
gathering up bits and shreds of undigested intercepts, computer
printouts, and magnetic tapes that had managed to escape destruction.
Twenty-ton Army trucks had to be drafted into service, along with armed
guards, to cart the undigested secrets to secure storage at Army
Intelligence headquarters at Fort Holabird, just outside Baltimore.
In all, the destructor managed to operate for a total of fifty-one days
out of its first seventeen months. By the time the agency canceled its
contract with American Thermogen, it had already paid off all but
$70,000 of the $1.2 million construction price. Said one red-faced NSA
official, "Our research will continue."
That research prompted NSA to turn from fire to water in order to
shrink its Mount Everest of forbidden papers. "Try to imagine," said one
NSA report, "a stack of paper six feet wide, six to eight feet tall and
twenty yards long traveling along a conveyor belt towards you every ten
minutes all day long." By the mid-1990s, Crypto City was annually
converting more than 22 million pounds of secret documents into cheap,
soluble slurry. And in case the paper flow increased, the new system was
capable of destroying three times that amount.
To transport the huge heaps of "burn bags" crammed with discarded
secrets, NSA turned, appropriately enough, to Florida's Disney World. In
Fantasyland and the rest of the Magic Kingdom, accumulated trash is
transported automatically by underground conveyor belt to a central
waste disposal facility. Similarly, burn bags from NSA, the intelligence
community's Fantasyland, are sent down a Rube Goldberg”like chute-
and-conveyer-belt contraption known as the Automatic Material
Collection System. The 6 ½ -foot-wide conveyer belt then dumps the bags
into a giant blenderlike vat that combines water, steam, and chemicals to
break the paper down into pulp. The pulped paper is processed, dried,
funneled through a fluffer, and finally, fifteen minutes later, baled.
Within a few weeks, the documents that once held the nation's most
precious secrets hold steaming pepperoni pizzas. In 1998, the agency
took in $58,953 in profit from the sale of its declassified pizza boxes.
Problems arise, however, when thick magnetic tapes, computer
diskettes, and a variety of other non-water-soluble items are thrown into
the burn bags. Once a week, destruction officers assigned to Crypto
City's Classified Materials Conversion Plant have to use rakes, shovels,
and hacksaws to break up the "tail," the clumps of hard, tangled debris
that clog up the room-sized Disposall. Among the stray items that have


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found their way into the plant are a washing machine motor, a woman's
slip, and an assortment of .22-caliber bullets. Because this residue,
totaling more than fifty-two tons a year, still may contain some
identifiable scrap bearing an NSA secret, it is left to drain for about five
days and then put in boxes to be burned in a special incinerator.
NSA was able to turn an additional thirty tons of old newspapers,
magazines, and computer manuals into pizza boxes as a result of a
spring cleaning program, dubbed "The Paper Chase," in 1999. But paper
is not the only thing NSA recycles. It also converts metal from the tiny
chips and circuit boards in the agency's obsolete computers into
reusable scrap. So many computers hit the junk pile every year that the
agency is able to recycle more than 438 tons of metal annually from the
small components.
Despite the unfathomable amount of information destroyed by NSA
every year, it is almost negligible compared to the amount of data it
actually saves, mostly in the form of magnetic tapes. In Support
Activities Building 3, a flat, nearly windowless structure in Crypto City,
NSA's Magnetic Media Division maintains the agency's 95,000-square-
foot tape library containing approximately 1.6 million data tapes. NSA is
nearing the point”if it hasn't reached it already”where it will be able to
store the equivalent of more than half a million typed, double-spaced
pages (up to ten gigabytes) on a square inch of tape. Thus its mammoth
tape library may soon reach the point where all the information on the
planet can be placed inside, with room left over.
To cut down on the expense of purchasing new tapes, NSA uses large
"degaussers" to erase used reels. Because of the enormous volume of
tapes, however, worries have developed over the degausser operators'
exposure to electromagnetic fields. More than a thousand current and
former degausser operators were surveyed in 1998 by the agency's Office
of Occupational Health, Environmental and Safety Services. Although the
question of adverse health effects is still unanswered, shielding was
installed and the operators were told to keep a distance from the
powerful magnetic coils.
While copies of secrets are regularly destroyed, the original
information is seldom given up. Down the street from the tape library, in
Support Activities Building 2, is the NSA Archives and Records Center.
Here, more than 129 million documents, all more than a quarter of a
century old, are still hidden from historians and collecting dust at
enormous cost to taxpayers. Even NSA has a hard time comprehending
the volume of material. "The sheer number of records is astounding,"
said one internal report. A stack of them would be over nine miles tall,
higher than the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747.
Also held are tens of millions of recent documents, including 11



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million "permanent records" that trace the history of the secret city. In
April 1996, NSA finally declassified a January 1919 memorandum from
U.S. Army Colonel A. W. Bloor, a commander of the American
Expeditionary Force in France. "The German was a past master at the art
of 'Listening In,' " the memorandum said. "It was therefore necessary to
code every message of importance." However, many other documents
from that same period, and even earlier, are still classified.
As a result of a tough executive order issued by President Clinton in
1995, NSA must now declassify over 10 million pages of yellowing
secrets. According to the internal report quoted above, "The agency must
review these records or they will be considered automatically declassified
on 17 April 2000." (The deadline was later extended to 2001.)
To accomplish this Herculean task, NSA established a project
appropriately named Plethora. As part of the project, a unique facility
was built: the Automated Declassification System. With advanced
imaging technology, boxloads of ancient documents”including delicate
onionskin and smudgy carbon copies”are scanned into the system from
various workstations. Then, after consulting databases containing
declassification guidance, specialists magically erase still-sensitive
information from the now electronic documents. The sanitized pages are
then optically stored in a memory capable of holding up to 17 million
pages. But in the end, given NSA's numerous exclusions from the
Freedom of Information Act, the odds that the public will ever see even a
small fraction of those documents remain less than slim.
That NSA has the technical capability to intercept and store enough
information to wallpaper much of the planet is unquestionable. What is
in doubt, however, is the agency's ability to make sense of most of it.
"Sometimes I think we just collect intelligence for the thrill of collecting
it, to show how good we are at it," said former CIA director Robert Gates.
"We have the capacity to collect mountains of data that we can never
analyze. We just stack it up. Our electronic collection systems appear to
produce far more raw intelligence data than our analysts can synthesize
and our policymakers can use."


The city's brown, boxy OPS 3 building is the home of NSA's
Information Systems Security Organization and the agency's naval
service, the Naval Security Group. It is also where the agency's mammoth
66,000-square-foot printing plant pumps out code and cipher materials
for the U.S. government's sensitive communications. Among the
cryptographic items produced in the NSA Print Plant are the "go codes,"
used to authorize nuclear war; small, square one-time pads”row after
row of scrambled numbers and letters”designed to be used only once
and then destroyed; and perforated cipher "key tape." Packaged in sealed



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Scotch tape”like holders, the cipher strips are pulled out, torn off, and
inserted in cryptographic machines. The key tape is changed every day to
ensure security.
Across the street is the ultramodern Special Processing Laboratory,
NSA's state-of-the-art microelectronics fabrication and printed-circuit-
board factory. There, cloaked head to toe in white clean-room apparel,
agency scientists develop and produce the chips and other components

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