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Power Shortage for the National Security State

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In a review-essay in the New York Review of Books, James Bamford discusses the latest monster-projects of the highly secretive National Security Agency:

On a remote edge of Utah’s dry and arid high desert, where temperatures often zoom past 100 degrees, hard-hatted construction workers with top-secret clearances are preparing to build what may become America’s equivalent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel,” a place where the collection of information is both infinite and at the same time monstrous, where the entire world’s knowledge is stored, but not a single word is understood. At a million square feet, the mammoth $2 billion structure will be one-third larger than the US Capitol and will use the same amount of energy as every house in Salt Lake City combined.

Unlike Borges’s “labyrinth of letters,” this library expects few visitors. It’s being built by the ultra-secret National Security Agency—which is primarily responsible for “signals intelligence,” the collection and analysis of various forms of communication—to house trillions of phone calls, e-mail messages, and data trails: Web searches, parking receipts, bookstore visits, and other digital “pocket litter.” Lacking adequate space and power at its city-sized Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters, the NSA is also completing work on another data archive, this one in San Antonio, Texas, which will be nearly the size of the Alamodome.

The latest NSA project is storage on a massive scale of everything—signals intelligence harvested continuously from all over the world. It represents one of the clearest examples of “capture” in the intelligence community. Contractors make equipment and sell it to the government at princely prices. The government agencies are always eager to own whatever the contractors can deliver to them. The investment in intelligence slides continuously towards these newfangled toys and away from human beings, particularly away from investment in human capital geared to digesting, interpreting, and understanding this massive flow of data. This process has been with us for some time, but in the Bush era, particularly under the questionable leadership of General Michael Hayden, it accelerated quite dramatically. Is the nation’s security enhanced by this process? To put it another way, is our intelligence very intelligent?

Curiously, we learn that NSA’s key challenge at this point is power, of the electrical sort:

With supercomputers measured by the acre and estimated $70 million annual electricity bills for its headquarters, the agency has begun browning out, which is the reason for locating its new data centers in Utah and Texas.

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Borges reminds us of the Tower of Babel, that notorious monument to human self-confidence destroyed in the early days after the flood. Flavius Josephus recounts this tale in the Antiquities of the Jews:

Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God… He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it were through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power… Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than any one could expect… When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another.

As this new Tower of Babel rises in the desert outside of Salt Lake City, it seems that the curse has already been put upon it. The intelligence community has amassed the chatter of humankind from across the globe, but who is there to listen and understand it? Does the government put too much confidence in this scheme? And isn’t it the kind of scheme that would be invented by a tyrant, just as Josephus writes?

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