FORT MEADE, Md. – At approximately 7:44 p.m. Sunday night, the National Security Agency pulled the plug on its controversial domestic surveillance program. Ruled unconstitutional and illegal by a federal appeals court, the program, based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, allowed for massive meta-data collection of millions of Americans’ phone records.
Hours before the scheduled shutdown of its surveillance program, in a rare public relations move, the NSA invited a select group of journalists, including this reporter and CNN contributor Paul Begala, on a heavily restricted tour of its headquarters in Fort Meade to witness, firsthand, the end of its meta-data collection operation.
Joined by other members of the media, I arrived at NSA headquarters shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday and was promptly greeted by a smiling Admiral Michael S. Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency. Over coffee and donuts, Rogers gave us a brief history of the NSA’s mission before turning us over to Jacob Hersch, who headed the department responsible for collecting Americans’ phone data. Hersch, like Rogers, was all smiles as he told us the NSA was “just happy to finally be in compliance with U.S. law” and that, beginning Monday, the agency will “turn over a new leaf and enter an age of government transparency.”
Following a scripted and well-choreographed tour of the facility, we were escorted to a service elevator which Hersch said would take us to a “ultra-secure level” where the domestic spying program was run. Upon exiting the elevator we were met with a brief security checkpoint before descending down two flights of stairs and up a third, at which point we reached a solid white door bearing the inscription “Restricted Access – Meta-Data Collection Center.” The door unlocked with a loud click after Hersch used a retinal scanner embedded in the wall to confirm his identity.
The NSA’s “Meta-Data Collection Center” is a solid white room about half the size of a high school gymnasium. The floors, appearing to be well-polished linoleum, further add to the feel of a sterilized atmosphere. The room is filled with rows upon rows of jet-black servers which, Hersch informed us, contain intimate details regarding “millions of Americans’ phone activity.” Near the back of the room, centered between two rows of quietly humming servers, sits a single computer terminal, which, upon close inspection, Paul Begala noted is “a 2005 Dell Dimension.” Displayed prominently on the monitor are the words “Meta-Data Collection Center Operations Hub.”
Beyond the computer terminal, on the far wall, is a remarkably large red button encased in glass and, stenciled in large black lettering just above it, is the word “OFF.” At 7:40 p.m. Hersch announced that the NSA would terminate the data collection program sixteen minutes ahead of the scheduled 8 p.m. shutdown. Then, at exactly 7:44 p.m., Hersch, using a small baton, broke the glass surrounding the red button before firmly striking it with the palm of his hand. An eerie silence fell over the room as the NSA’s controversial domestic spying program came to an abrupt end.
The silence was unexpectedly broken by a familiar popping sound, which turned out to be the uncorking of a champagne bottle held by Director Rogers, who had quietly entered the room moments before shutdown. Rogers poured himself, Mr. Hersch, and each journalist a glass of champagne before offering a toast to “freedom.” Then, quite unexpectedly, the Director of the National Security Agency and his subordinate, Mr. Hersch, began to sing “America the Beautiful” in its entirety as I and other members of the media looked on with a mixture of confusion and awe.
Following the ceremony, and prior to our departure from NSA headquarters, each member of the media was presented with a gift bag bearing the official seal of the National Security Agency. Upon closer inspection, the bags were found to contain a bottle of Poland Spring water, a granola bar, an apple, an RFID chip, and a pamphlet detailing each respective member of the media’s movements over the last 72 hours, complete with satellite imagery.
President Obama expressed deep concern Friday afternoon regarding the expiration of the USA Patriot Act. During a press conference, the President said Congress’ inability to renew the authorities granted under the Patriot Act puts the United States in danger and “for a certain period of time, those authorities go away and suddenly we are dark, and heaven forbid, we’ve got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity.” Congress is expected to renew some of the provisions detailed in the Patriot Act later this week.