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16 March 2012

NSA Decryption Multipurpose Research Facility

NSA Decryption Multipurpose Research Facility

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)

By James Bamford

March 15, 2012

[Excerpts of excellent NSA overview to focus on the MRF decryption facility.]

When Barack Obama took office, Binney hoped the new administration might be open to reforming the program to address his constitutional concerns. He and another former senior NSA analyst, J. Kirk Wiebe, tried to bring the idea of an automated warrant-approval system to the attention of the Department of Justice’s inspector general. They were given the brush-off. “They said, oh, OK, we can’t comment,” Binney says.

Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. “We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,” he says.

There is still one technology preventing untrammeled government access to private digital data: strong encryption. Anyone—from terrorists and weapons dealers to corporations, financial institutions, and ordinary email senders—can use it to seal their messages, plans, photos, and documents in hardened data shells. For years, one of the hardest shells has been the Advanced Encryption Standard, one of several algorithms used by much of the world to encrypt data. Available in three different strengths—128 bits, 192 bits, and 256 bits—it’s incorporated in most commercial email programs and web browsers and is considered so strong that the NSA has even approved its use for top-secret US government communications. Most experts say that a so-called brute-force computer attack on the algorithm—trying one combination after another to unlock the encryption—would likely take longer than the age of the universe. For a 128-bit cipher, the number of trial-and-error attempts would be 340 undecillion (1036).

Breaking into those complex mathematical shells like the AES is one of the key reasons for the construction going on in Bluffdale. That kind of cryptanalysis requires two major ingredients: super-fast computers to conduct brute-force attacks on encrypted messages and a massive number of those messages for the computers to analyze. The more messages from a given target, the more likely it is for the computers to detect telltale patterns, and Bluffdale will be able to hold a great many messages. “We questioned it one time,” says another source, a senior intelligence manager who was also involved with the planning. “Why were we building this NSA facility? And, boy, they rolled out all the old guys—the crypto guys.” According to the official, these experts told then-director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, “You’ve got to build this thing because we just don’t have the capability of doing the code-breaking.” It was a candid admission. In the long war between the code breakers and the code makers—the tens of thousands of cryptographers in the worldwide computer security industry—the code breakers were admitting defeat.

So the agency had one major ingredient—a massive data storage facility—under way. Meanwhile, across the country in Tennessee, the government was working in utmost secrecy on the other vital element: the most powerful computer the world has ever known.

The plan was launched in 2004 as a modern-day Manhattan Project. Dubbed the High Productivity Computing Systems program, its goal was to advance computer speed a thousandfold, creating a machine that could execute a quadrillion (1015) operations a second, known as a petaflop—the computer equivalent of breaking the land speed record. And as with the Manhattan Project, the venue chosen for the supercomputing program was the town of Oak Ridge in eastern Tennessee, a rural area where sharp ridges give way to low, scattered hills, and the southwestward-flowing Clinch River bends sharply to the southeast. About 25 miles from Knoxville, it is the “secret city” where uranium- 235 was extracted for the first atomic bomb. A sign near the exit read: what you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here. Today, not far from where that sign stood, Oak Ridge is home to the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and it’s engaged in a new secret war. But this time, instead of a bomb of almost unimaginable power, the weapon is a computer of almost unimaginable speed.

In 2004, as part of the supercomputing program, the Department of Energy established its Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility for multiple agencies to join forces on the project. But in reality there would be two tracks, one unclassified, in which all of the scientific work would be public, and another top-secret, in which the NSA could pursue its own computer covertly. “For our purposes, they had to create a separate facility,” says a former senior NSA computer expert who worked on the project and is still associated with the agency. (He is one of three sources who described the program.) It was an expensive undertaking, but one the NSA was desperate to launch.

Known as the Multiprogram Research Facility, or Building 5300, the $41 million, five-story, 214,000-square-foot structure was built on a plot of land on the lab’s East Campus and completed in 2006. Behind the brick walls and green-tinted windows, 318 scientists, computer engineers, and other staff work in secret on the cryptanalytic applications of high-speed computing and other classified projects. The supercomputer center was named in honor of George R. Cotter, the NSA’s now-retired chief scientist and head of its information technology program. Not that you’d know it. “There’s no sign on the door,” says the ex-NSA computer expert.

At the DOE’s unclassified center at Oak Ridge, work progressed at a furious pace, although it was a one-way street when it came to cooperation with the closemouthed people in Building 5300. Nevertheless, the unclassified team had its Cray XT4 supercomputer upgraded to a warehouse-sized XT5. Named Jaguar for its speed, it clocked in at 1.75 petaflops, officially becoming the world’s fastest computer in 2009.


1 Geostationary satellites

Four satellites positioned around the globe monitor frequencies carrying everything from walkie-talkies and cell phones in Libya to radar systems in North Korea. Onboard software acts as the first filter in the collection process, targeting only key regions, countries, cities, and phone numbers or email.

2 Aerospace Data Facility, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado

Intelligence collected from the geostationary satellites, as well as signals from other spacecraft and overseas listening posts, is relayed to this facility outside Denver. About 850 NSA employees track the satellites, transmit target information, and download the intelligence haul.

3 NSA Georgia, Fort Gordon, Augusta, Georgia

Focuses on intercepts from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Codenamed Sweet Tea, the facility has been massively expanded and now consists of a 604,000-square-foot operations building for up to 4,000 intercept operators, analysts, and other specialists.

4 NSA Texas, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio

Focuses on intercepts from Latin America and, since 9/11, the Middle East and Europe. Some 2,000 workers staff the operation. The NSA recently completed a $100 million renovation on a mega-data center here—a backup storage facility for the Utah Data Center.

5 NSA Hawaii, Oahu

Focuses on intercepts from Asia. Built to house an aircraft assembly plant during World War II, the 250,000-square-foot bunker is nicknamed the Hole. Like the other NSA operations centers, it has since been expanded: Its 2,700 employees now do their work aboveground from a new 234,000-square-foot facility.

6 Domestic listening posts

The NSA has long been free to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. But after 9/11, it installed taps in US telecom “switches,” gaining access to domestic traffic. An ex-NSA official says there are 10 to 20 such installations.

7 Overseas listening posts

According to a knowledgeable intelligence source, the NSA has installed taps on at least a dozen of the major overseas communications links, each capable of eavesdropping on information passing by at a high data rate.

8 Utah Data Center, Bluffdale, Utah

At a million square feet, this $2 billion digital storage facility outside Salt Lake City will be the centerpiece of the NSA’s cloud-based data strategy and essential in its plans for decrypting previously uncrackable documents.

9 Multiprogram Research Facility, Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Some 300 scientists and computer engineers with top security clearance toil away here, building the world’s fastest supercomputers and working on cryptanalytic applications and other secret projects.

10 NSA headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

Analysts here will access material stored at Bluffdale to prepare reports and recommendations that are sent to policymakers. To handle the increased data load, the NSA is also building an $896 million supercomputer here.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Multi-Program Research Facility


Oak Ridge National Laboratory - Multi-Program Research Facility

Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The Department of Energy (DOE) complex at Oak Ridge required the creation of a state of the art, large-scale, secure science and technology facility that would provide the appropriate infrastructure and environment to both integrate and consolidate multidisciplinary scientific capabilities for defense and homeland security activities. The Heery-designed and constructed Multi-Program Research Facility (MPRF) provides facilities for research and development activities in non-proliferation research, training and operations; cyber security research and development; geospatial analysis; inorganic membrane research and prototyping; and myriad other activities.

Based on Heery’s previous successful work with ORNL as part of a third-party development team, ORNL tapped the Keenan team to serve as its developer for the MPRF, with Heery in the role of design-builder.

The MPRF contains 218,000 SF of office and laboratory space. This highly secure building plays a key role in delivering the science and technology needed to protect homeland and national security. In addition, Heery International continues to work on various new assignments on the ORNL campus.

The goal was to develop cutting-edge facilities designed for sustainability and energy efficiency. Heery guided ORNL and the development team in delivering facilities to showcase energy and water efficiency and renewable energy improvements. With Heery’s assistance, ORNL now has the most LEED-certified space in the entire DOE system, having attained LEED certification for the firm’s earlier project, the East Campus Complex, and LEED Gold certification for the MPRF, which is the first LEED Gold facility on the ORNL campus.

Following images from

The MRF is at upper left.



Oak Ridge National Laboratory Multiprogram Research Facility (MRF)

(ORNL Multiprogram Research Facility)



Location: Oak Ridge, TN

Building type(s): Other, Laboratory, Commercial office

New construction

195,000 ft2 (18,100 m2)

Project scope: 5-story building

Rural setting

Completed October 2006

Rating: U.S. Green Building Council LEED-NC, v.2/v.2.1--Level: Gold (39 points)

The Multiprogram Research Facility (MRF) was implemented through a design-build contract, but is a complex mixture of labs and offices that have stringent operational, security, and environmental and energy requirements. The program was highly developed and has detailed technical parameters that could not be compromised.

Environmental Aspects

The building's vertical orientation minimized its footprint on the landscape. Using native, drought-resistant plants in the landscape obviated the need for irrigation. This, along with the use of low-flow plumbing fixtures, reduced potable water usage by approximately 34%.

The building was projected to use 25% less energy than that of a comparable facility built in minimal compliance with code. A hybrid solar lighting system with rooftop solar collectors was installed to test the feasibility of using fiber optics for natural lighting.

The project team preferred materials with recycled content and those that were manufactured regionally. The team also recycled construction waste wherever possible.

Owner & Occupancy

Owned by Keenan Development Associates, LLC, Corporation, for-profit

Occupants: Federal government

Typically occupied by 318 people, 40 hours per person per week

Expected Building Service Life: 35 years

Building Programs

Indoor Spaces:

Other (43%), Office (18%), Laboratory (14%), Conference (6%), Data processing (6%), Mechanical systems (3%), Retail general (3%), Public assembly (2%), Restrooms (2%), Lobby/reception (2%), Cafeteria, Circulation, Gymnasium, Electrical systems