Huge new NSA facility suddenly appears on Fort Gordon’s radar
Out of thin air
It’s a boom time for spooks. Much like the Pentagon’s Cold War megaprojects put entire cities on the map virtually overnight, the untold billions in tax dollars now pouring into the intelligence agencies fighting the Global War on Terrorism are beginning to trickle down to the local level.
And Augusta is about to get a $340-million taste of Sweet Tea.
The National Security Agency is building a massive new operations facility, dubbed project Sweet Tea. It will come complete with all the amenities: a workout room, nursing areas, a mini-shopping center, a credit union, an 800-seat cafeteria and thousands of exclusive parking spaces. Secret parking spaces.
There are, of course, actual operational national security-type elements to the project. For example, it will include a new shredder facility (for all those classified documents) and an antenna farm (to help listen in on enemy combatants like Osama bin Laden and Princess Di).
According to unclassified NSA documents obtained by the Metro Spirit, the project will relocate all existing antennas to the southern end of the new site. The location “provides the perfect look angles with no possibility for encroachment to their required line-of-sight in the future.”
The project also includes a new 7,600-square-foot Visitor Control Center, thousands of additional square feet for warehouses, a vehicle inspection facility, modular training spaces and modular workspace for the growing Navy contingent at NSA-Georgia.
The plans will also force some adaptations to existing facilities. The primary entrance to Back Hall, the socalled compartmented information facility on Chamberlain Avenue and 25th Street, will change to what is now the rear entrance.
“Anyone working or visiting Back Hall knows that space has been at a premium for years,” the document says. “To ease the growth and handle new mission personnel” in coming years, an 800-workstation facility will be added in the Back Hall parking lot.
Those 800 seats translate into 1,200 new personnel, the document notes. Equipment will be added as personnel arrive, to “ensure that the IT placed for new arrivals is current technology, is under warranty, and is the best strategy for reducing initial construction costs.”
The document says the main new structure, a 525,000- square-foot Regional Security Operations Center, should be complete by May 2010.
The NSA and its allies in the U.S. Congress have been pushing this project for years. The Defense Department requested a $340.8 million appropriation for the Georgia Regional Security Operations Center back in February. And a construction award was scheduled for Sept. 25, NSA documents show.
Maybe the deal was awarded on schedule. Maybe there was a delay. Either way, it wasn’t announced until Dec. 8, one day after the Metro Spirit started calling around with questions. The announcement was one of only eight press releases that the usually silent spy agency had issued all year.
The NSA announcement said The Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, awarded the contract on Dec. 7.
The world is full of strange coincidences. But this deal is rife with them.
Not only was the long-awaited contract ostensibly awarded the very day a reporter happened to call a Congressional staffer about it, the press release was sent out three days before the award was published on federal contracting Web sites.
It almost gives the impression that if the government hadn’t been asked, it wouldn’t have bothered to say how it planned to spend more than a third of a billion dollars.
“NSA is not in the habit of announcing these contracts. Certainly not in any kind of expedited manner,” says Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC.
“If the overall intelligence budget is on the order of $45 billion, only a small fraction of that is publicly reported,” Aftergood says. “The largest and most consequential programs, which have annual appropriations in the $100-million or larger category, go completely unremarked on in public. It’s a strange way to do business.”
Military and intelligence agencies enjoy the luxury of so-called black budgets, pools of money intended for top-secret projects that even members of Congress are prohibited from knowing about.
The blanket secrecy increases the likelihood of corruption, such as last year’s garish, prostitute-ridden bribery scandal surrounding former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
“When billions of dollars each year are allocated in secret, you can be pretty confident that that money is not being adequately overseen,” Aftergood says.
Indeed, there is reason to believe that the NSA-Georgia project’s actual cost will be even higher than the $340 million that’s known to have been appropriated.
A military source familiar with cost analysis told the Metro Spirit that the facilities may wind up costing more than $1 billion.
The $286 million award for the new NSA facilities went to Phelps/Kiewit Joint Venture, which is, as the name suggests, actually two companies sharing the work and the profits. This is an increasingly common practice in the world of major military projects, where competition between lead contractors is often more theoretical than actual.
Phelps appears to be part of Hensel Phelps Construction, which, four days after the 9/11 attacks, won the rebuilding contract for the Pentagon. It was worth up to $758 million. Kiewit is not as high-profile. In 2002, one of the company’s divisions won a $15 million contract to build a vehicle maintenance facility at Fort Gordon. Both companies are based in the military contracting mecca of Virginia.
Clyde Taylor, military legislative assistant to Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, said his office spent a couple of years obtaining the appropriation. Taylor also gave credit to Georgia Rep. Charlie Norwood, whose office issued its own press release last Friday.
The need for the new NSA facility is driven by the growth in overseas surveillance activities, Taylor said. He said that the agency plans to move linguists and analysts down from its Fort Meade, Md., headquarters to the Augusta listening station, which targets the Middle East.
Billy Birdwell, chief of public affairs with the Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, says Phelps/Kiewit will probably get the go-ahead to proceed in January.
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