Titanpointe: The NSA’s Spy Hub in New York, Hidden in Plain Sight

 

THEY CALLED IT Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.

The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”

Construction began in 1969, and by 1974, the skyscraper was completed. Today, it can be found in the heart of lower Manhattan at 33 Thomas Street, a vast gray tower of concrete and granite that soars 550 feet into the New York skyline. The brutalist structure, still used by AT&T and, according to the New York Department of Finance, owned by the company, is like no other in the vicinity. Unlike the many neighboring residential and office buildings, it is impossible to get a glimpse inside 33 Thomas Street. True to the designers’ original plans, there are no windows and the building is not illuminated. At night it becomes a giant shadow, blending into the darkness, its large square vents emitting a distinct, dull hum that is frequently drowned out by the sound of passing traffic and wailing sirens.

For many New Yorkers, 33 Thomas Street — known as the “Long Lines Building” — has been a source of mystery for years. It has been labeled one of the city’s weirdest and most iconic skyscrapers, but little information has ever been published about its purpose.

It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.

Documents obtained by The Intercept from the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden do not explicitly name 33 Thomas Street as a surveillance facility. However — taken together with architectural plans, public records, and interviews with former AT&T employees conducted for this article — they provide compelling evidence that 33 Thomas Street has served as an NSA surveillance site, code-named TITANPOINTE.

Inside 33 Thomas Street there is a major international “gateway switch,” according to a former AT&T engineer, which routes phone calls between the United States and countries across the world. A series of top-secret NSA memos suggest that the agency has tapped into these calls from a secure facility within the AT&T building. The Manhattan skyscraper appears to be a core location used for a controversial NSA surveillance program that has targeted the communications of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and at least 38 countries, including close U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan, and France.

THE CODE NAME TITANPOINTE features dozens of times in the NSA documents, often in classified reports about surveillance operations. The agency uses code names to conceal information it deems especially sensitive — for instance, the names of companies it cooperates with or specific locations where electronic spying is carried out. Such details are usually considered “exceptionally controlled information,” a category beyond top secret and thus outside the scope of most of the documents that Snowden was able to obtain.

The 33 Thomas Street building is located almost next door to the FBI’s New York field office — about a block away — at Federal Plaza. The 2011 NSA travel guide instructs employees traveling to TITANTPOINTE to head to the FBI’s New York field office. It adds that trips to the site should be coordinated with AT&T (referenced as “LITHIUM”) and the FBI, including an FBI “site watch officer.”

When traveling to TITANPOINTE, NSA employees are told to hire a “cover vehicle” through the FBI, especially if they are transporting equipment to the site. In order to keep their true identities secret while visiting, agency employees are instructed not to wear any clothing displaying NSA badges or insignia.

Upon arrival at TITANPOINTE, the 2011 travel guide says, agency employees should ring the buzzer, sign in, and wait for a person to come and meet them. The Intercept visited 33 Thomas Street and found a buzzer outside its entrance and a sign-in sheet on a desk in the building’s lobby, which is manned by a guard 24 hours a day. There are also parking bays in front of the skyscraper designated “AWM,” a traffic code for federal agencies.

A 1994 New York Times article reported that 33 Thomas Street was part of AT&T’s “giant Worldwide Intelligent Network, which is responsible for directing an average of 175 million phone calls a day.” Thomas Saunders, a former AT&T engineer, told The Intercept that inside the building there were at least three “4ESS switches” used to route calls across phone networks. “Of the first two, one handled domestic long-distance traffic and the other was an international gateway,” said Saunders, who retired from his role at the company in 2004. The NSA’s documents describe TITANPOINTE as containing “foreign gateway switches” and they state that it has a “RIMROCK access.” RIMROCK is an NSA code name for 4ESS switches.

The NSA’s documents also reveal that one of TITANPOINTE’s functions is to conduct surveillance as part of a program called SKIDROWE, which focuses on intercepting satellite communications. That is a particularly striking detail, because on the roof of 33 Thomas Street there are a number of satellite dishes. Federal Communications Commission records confirm that 33 Thomas Street is the only location in New York City where AT&T has an FCC license for satellite earth stations.

THE MAN BEHIND the design of 33 Thomas Street, John Carl Warnecke, was one of the most prominent architects in the U.S. between the 1960s and 1980s.

Warnecke’s high-profile projects included producing designs for the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and the Hawaii State Capitol. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s administration commissioned Warnecke to preserve and restructure buildings at Lafayette Square, across from the White House. And following Kennedy’s assassination, Warnecke was asked to design the president’s eternal flame and gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. He also helped construct a new embassy complex in Washington for the Soviet Union, in which the Soviets claimed they found eavesdropping equipment embedded in the walls.

But it was not only governments that trusted Warnecke — who died in 2010, aged 91 — with major construction projects. He cultivated a close relationship with telecommunications companies, too, possibly helped by family ties to the industry. Warnecke’s father-in-law had been a director at Pacific Bell, a California-based AT&T subsidiary. In the 1960s, Warnecke was asked to design a telephone exchange building for Pacific Bell in Oakland. He would subsequently receive a series of other major commissions from AT&T: Aside from the 33 Thomas Street building, he also designed a telephone exchange in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and an AT&T facility in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Some of Warnecke’s original architectural drawings for 33 Thomas Street are labeled “Project X.” It was alternatively referred to as the Broadway Building. His plans describe the structure as “a skyscraper to be inhabited by machines” and say that it was “designed to house long lines telephone equipment and to protect it and its operating personnel in the event of atomic attack.” (At the time the building was commissioned and built, amid the Cold War, there were genuine fears in the U.S. about the prospect of a Soviet nuclear assault.)

It is not clear how many people work at 33 Thomas Street today, but Warnecke’s original plans stated that it would provide food, water, and recreation for 1,500 people. It would also store 250,000 gallons of fuel to power generators, which would enable it to become a “self-contained city” for two weeks in the event of an emergency power failure. The blueprints for the building show that it was to include three subterranean levels, including a cable vault, where telecommunications cables likely entered and exited the building from under Manhattan’s bustling streets.

IN 1975, JUST a year after Warnecke’s 33 Thomas Street building was completed, the NSA became embroiled in one of the biggest scandals in the U.S. intelligence community’s history. Following revelations about domestic surveillance operations targeting anti-Vietnam War activists, a congressional select committee began investigating the alleged abuses.

At the TITANPOINTE site, the NSA equipment is stored inside a secure room, known as a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” Top-secret diagrams dated April 2012 show that within the secure space there is “NSA controlled” equipment linked to the routers of its “access partner,” referring to AT&T. Intercepted internet data was collected from the “backbone,” then processed at TITANPOINTE, before being passed to NSA for storage. Phone calls that were intercepted were collected from TITANPOINTE’s “foreign gateway switches” before being routed through the partner’s “call processor.” They were then forwarded to NSA’s headquarters in Maryland through an interface shared with the partner.

Much of the surveillance carried out at TITANPOINTE seems to involve monitoring calls and other communications as they are being sent across AT&T’s international phone and data cables. But the site has other capabilities at its disposal. The NSA’s documents indicate that it is also equipped with powerful satellite antenna — likely the ones located on the roof of 33 Thomas Street — which monitor information transmitted through the air.

The SKIDROWE spying program focuses on covertly vacuuming up internet data — known as “digital network intelligence” — as it is passing between foreign satellites. The harvested data is then made accessible through XKEYSCORE, a Google-like mass surveillance system that the NSA’s employees use to search through huge quantities of information about people’s emails, chats, Skype calls, passwords, and internet browsing histories.

The NSA’s documents do not state that it can “connect directly to” or “otherwise control” AT&T’s networks, but they do make clear that the agency has placed its own equipment inside TITANPOINTE to tap into phone calls and internet data. It may be the case that the secure room where the equipment is installed is overseen by AT&T’s own engineers or technicians who have a security clearance. One NSA document dated from March 2013 suggests such a relationship, noting that the “corporate sites” the agency collects data from “are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to NSA.”

As in 1983, AT&T may not be completely alone at 33 Thomas Street. Earlier this year, a technician working at the building — who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media — told The Intercept that a handful of Verizon employees were still based inside. However, the NSA’s documents do not suggest that Verizon is implicated in the surveillance at the TITANPOINTE facility, and instead only point to AT&T’s involvement. Verizon declined to comment for this story.

AT&T IS FAR from the only company that has a relationship with the NSA. The agency has established what it calls “strategic partnerships” with more than 80 corporations. But some companies are more cooperative than others.

Historically, AT&T has always maintained close ties with the government. A good example of this came in June 1976, when a congressional subcommittee served AT&T with a subpoena demanding that it hand over information about its alleged role in unlawful FBI wiretapping of phone calls. President Gerald Ford personally intervened to block the subpoena, stating that AT&T “was and is an agent of the United States acting under contract with the Executive Branch.” Ford said the company was in a “unique position” with respect to telephone and other communication lines in the U.S., and therefore it had been “necessary for the Executive Branch to rely on its services to assist in acquiring certain information necessary to the national defense and foreign policy.” The details sought by the committee could not be shared, Ford asserted, because they could expose “extremely sensitive foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information.”

Full article: Titanpointe: The NSA’s Spy Hub in New York, Hidden in Plain Sight (The Intercept)

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