As revelation after revelation spills into the news media about the National Security Agency’s digital spying, the world’s attention can’t help but shift to Utah, home of NSA’s colossal Data Storage Center, a global vortex of phone-tapping, email eavesdropping and all manner of digital snooping.
Everyone from Germany’s Angela Merkel to Utah’s Tea Party wants to know what is going on in the 200,000-square-foot complex of Walmart-esque boxes squatting on the hillside due west of Point of the Mountain. Of course, this being the $1.5 million beating heart of a spy agency, we aren’t meant to know what’s out there—to paraphrase the Roach Motel slogan: Vast amounts of information go in, but none comes out. If it weren’t for Edward Snowden, we wouldn’t know much at all. But the tantalizing bits—including that NSA monitors terrorists’ porn browsing, Internet gamers, and a few employees’ ex-lovers—boggles the imagination.
We know this about the Utah Data Center: It’s architecturally a blot upon the landscape, uses mammoth amounts of electrical power (60 backup diesel generators just in case) and gulps water at a rate of 1.7 million gallons per day to cool the fevered brows of its computers as they snoop on 5 billion phone calls daily. It has a canine corps. (NSA won’t reveal how many dogs, but we can guess their purpose.) The Data Center’s start up last fall was plagued with electrical problems that turned sections into deadly “kill zones.” (Add that to the genetically engineered dogs and you’ve got a climactic Austin Powers scene.)
And we must admit, Utah is the perfect home for NSA’s covert operations. We have a long and celebrated history of keeping all sorts of secrets. Perhaps it’s the dominant culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has always shrouded its sacred places and rituals in secrecy, and our long relationship with the military-industrial complex. In any case, when it comes to spooky stuff in our midst, Utahns have always adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell philosophy (especially if there’s a little economic development involved).
What more could a spy ask for?
1. Enola Gay–Mother of Armageddon
B-29 Enola Gay and her crew trained in total secrecy in the West Desert before kicking off the nuclear age by dropping the world’s first atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Sure, the Smithsonian Institute got the Enola Gay, herself, but Utah got to keep the box she came in—a weather-beaten hangar.
2. German and Japanese Theme Parks
During World War II, the military built exact replicas of German row houses and a Japanese apartment building at Dugway to test fire bombs. It was a horrible “Three Little Pigs” experiment: “Japanesetown,” made out of wood, has long ago vanished. But the brick-and-plaster Germantown is still out there.
3. Dugway’s Bugs
The military, if they talk about it at all, explains that the labs at Rhode Island-sized Dugway Proving Ground develop “defensive measures” against potential biological attacks. The Army is fuzzy about what or how much bad juju they keep on hand. A guess: anthrax, botulism, encephalitis, typhus, Rift Valley fever and unsightly acne.
4. Indian Tomb
The remains of 84 prehistoric Indians whose bones were discovered when the Great Salt Lake receded in 1990 have been interred in a concrete vault in Emigration Canyon. “Those spirits were wandering aimlessly,” an Indian leader explained. The exact location is kept quiet, if not secret, to prevent the tomb from being vandalized.
5. The Vault—the Roots of Everyone’s Family Tree
Near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, carved 600 feet into solid rock, is the Granite Mountain Records Vault, the nuclear blast-proof home of 3.5 billion pages of family history. Ironically, the Vault’s records are probably more secure than the NSA’s. Public access is prohibited, but the LDS church offers a video.
6. Temple Rituals—the Mormon Tradition of Secrecy
No one can argue that the culture of Utah isn’t heavily influenced by the dominant religion. Historically key to the LDS religion are blood/death oaths of secrecy. Up until recently, the secret temple ceremony included the motions of slashing one’s own throat and stomach if one were to reveal the temple’s secrets that can be googled on the Internet. In reality, most Mormons regard the temple ceremonies as not secret, but sacred, and not to be discussed with outsiders.
7. Lost Gold Mines
Legend: Under the Uinta Mountains near Moon Lake (or Utah Lake’s Pelican Point, or the Hurricane Cliffs—take your pick) lie the lost mines of Carre-Shin-Obthat worked by Indians enslaved by the Spanish. The Indians rebelled and went on to slaughter or dismember, Indiana Jones-style, anyone who attempted to enter them. Some myths say that a Ute chief revealed the location to Brigham Young lieutenant Thomas Rhoades who mined the gold for the temple’s Moroni statue.
8. Taliban HQ, 84022
The military reproduced a Taliban mountain lair on Utah Test and Training Range—basically a sophisticated shooting gallery for U.S. and NATO pilots. One of Utah’s unsung attributes is that it looks exactly like Afghanistan (not to mention parts of Iraq and Iran), making military tourism (22,000 sorties annually) to the 19,000-square-mile bombing range a lucrative economic engine. Resembling a low-budget a movie set, the “Taliban camp” includes caves, buildings and mobile launchers complete with dummy missiles.
9. Mountain Meadows Mishap
In 1857, a group of Arkansas emigrants to California were intercepted near Cedar City by Mormon militia and Indians. The militia massacred 120 emigrants, sparing only 17 children under age 7. “The whole United States rang with its horrors,” Mark Twain wrote. Exactly why it happened and Brigham Young’s role in it was a closely guarded secret that even now is shrouded in mystery. Only one participant, John D. Lee, took the rap, some say to protect the Mormon hierarchy. He was executed.
10. Mormon Catacombs Under Main Street
Underneath downtown Salt Lake, tunnels connect the Temple with the church’s office building and, some say, the Utah Legislature. Reality? The tunnels, dating from 1889, are actually carpeted underground passages. Sorry, no piles of skulls. Golf carts whisk high church leaders about—similar to Florence’s Vasari Corridor used by the Medici, or Bruce Wayne’s Bat Cave.
11. Utah’s UFO
In the 1990s, NASA prepared an environmental impact statement for testing the mysteriously named (if you’re into ‘50s sci-fi) X-33 at Michael Army Air Field at Dugway. The X-33 would be a robot plane capable of flying at 15 times the speed of sound at altitudes of 250,000 feet. Who knows? Maybe it happened.
12. From Area 51 With Love—the Spy Plane That Wasn’t
Shortly after test pilot Ken Collins flew his super-secret A-12 out of Nevada’s Area 51 in 1963, he ran into foul weather. Before Collins knew it, he was dangling from a parachute, drifting down 20 miles south of Wendover near the smoking wreckage of his A-12. Within hours, the Air Force showed up with trucks and bulldozers to “sanitize” the crash site. Hikers in the area still find shards of titanium stamped with “Skunkworks,” the secret name for Lockheed aircraft company.
13. Poison Gas—Syria’s Got Nothing on Utah
Two years ago, the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility finished incinerating 14,000 tons of chemical weapons that had been stored there since the 1940s. But nearby (as the mustard agent blows), Dugway Proving Ground keeps its own stash. We know because it was locked down in 2011 when a vial of VX, the most potent of all nerve agents, went missing. Whether it was found, of course, remains a secret.
14. Little Mountain, Big Boom
Little Mountain Test Facility, a 1,000-acre laboratory for simulating nuclear hardness and survivability of defense systems, lies 15 miles west of Ogden near other facilities where munitions up to the most powerful ICBM rocket motors are tested.
15. Atomic Sheep
1953: Ranchers were moving 2,000 sheep from a winter range near the Nevada Test Site into Southern Utah when they saw the flash from a nuclear explosion—five nuclear bombs were being exploded above ground. By the time the ranchers got to Cedar City, their sheep were dropping dead and lambs were stillborn. A veterinarian found strontium radiation in the sheep’s bone marrow. The Atomic Energy Commission said the sheep died from poor range conditions.
16. Careless Sheep
1968: 6,000 sheep gamboling in scenic Skull Valley suddenly died in unison. The Army investigated what is known as the Dead Sheep Incident and reported the animals had died from eating pesticide-sprayed vegetation. Three decades later (Utah keeps its secrets), the “pesticide” was identified as VX nerve agent that was sprayed on the sheep from an military plane. The Army paid compensation to the ranchers, but never copped to spraying the nerve gas.
17. Stoner Sheep
1971: 1,200 sheep grazing near Garrison collapsed and died with blood pouring from their noses. A few weeks earlier, an underground nuke test in Nevada had blown through the ground, sending a radioactive cloud over Utah. Gov. Calvin Rampton argued the sheep would not have died instantly from radiation—instead he hypothesized they expired from eating addictive locoweed.
18. Wild, and dead, horses
1976: A helicopter crew spotted 50 mustangs that apparently “just fell over dead.” Suspicious types said an equine encephalitis germ-warfare agent was behind it. Government investigators concluded the horses died of thirst, even though full water troughs were only a few yards away.