Last Sunday, I took a writer from the German magazine Stern to visit NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale. Norbert Hoefler, U.S. correspondent for the glossy magazine, has written about subjects important to Germans, including Edward Snowden and the tragic deaths of the Arizona hot shot firefighting crew last June.
Stern, which is investigating the explosive growth of NSA snooping since 9/11, sent Hoefler to Lehi to ferret out how Utahns, world-famous hard-core conservatives, feel about hosting a privacy invasion center. (Apparently, the Germans haven't gotten over U.S. spooks listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.)
Norbert had read the satirical piece SLMag did on the Data Center, “Utah: Land of Secrets” and, curiously, thought I could background him on Utah’s culture and mentality. (I’m still not entirely sure he understood that my article about how well Utahns keep secrets, from the Enola Gay to Mountain Meadows Massacre, was a goof.)
First things first, I told him definitively that he could get a decent beer in Utah. Just not on Sunday. And not in any of the restaurants at Thanksgiving Point, ever.
As for acceptance of the NSA center—I tried to explain the nuanced balance between Utahns' God-given conservative principles and a tsunami of federal money. "Ahhh," he said.
The good ol' days at NSA.
Norbert had requested a tour of the Utah Data Center, but NSA told him that wasn’t going to happen. So he flew out to Utah and rented a room looking west to the Data Center. Seriously, he’s staying at the Hampton Inn at Thanksgiving Point. “I asked them for a room with a view of the Data Center,” he told me. This guy is good.
Thus, in the cause of investigative journalism, Norbert has been waking up to a panoramic view of the hideous retail-and-residential developments around T-giving Point. In the distance, beyond the rows of nearby big gray boxes, he can see another group of larger gray boxes that look very much like Costcos or Walmarts. The guys at NSA are obviously masters of camouflage.
A non-typical Bluffdale native
I sympathized with Norbert, of course. Not only did NSA blow him off, but the mayor of Bluffdale refused to meet with him or even be interviewed over the phone about the NSA center. So, I picked Norbert up in a driving snow/rain/sleet squall and we set out for the spy nest on the hill.
A Utah State Trooper guarding the service road to the Data Center told us we couldn’t drive up to get a close look. After careful questioning, we learned that, yes, sitting in a cruiser with the lights flashing on a stormy day is boring. But it's better duty than the Festival of Colors in Spanish Fork: “You’ve got to wonder what’s in that powder they’re throwing," the trooper said. "It can’t be good for the soil.”
The photo NSA has on file, no doubt, from Saturday's Colors Fest.
(BTW—I know….What the heck is a Utah trooper doing providing security to the NSA? I’ve got a call into DPS.)
And yes, James Bond, we did try to circle around by that dirt road, but the alfalfa field was too muddy and visibility in the squall was less than a quarter mile. OK, we made a miserable pair of spies.
When I left, Norbert was setting up interviews with a state lawmaker who has concerns about the NSA facility and some other local officials, including Salt Lake County Mayor McAdams. I didn't breathe easy, as usual, until I crossed the Salt Lake County line.