New feature by The Intercept, based on documents provided by Ed Snowden: NSA surveillance site TITANPOINTE.
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.
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.
It has long been known that AT&T has cooperated with the NSA on surveillance, but few details have emerged about the role of specific facilities in carrying out the top-secret programs. The Snowden documents provide new information about how NSA equipment has been integrated as part of AT&T’s network in New York City, revealing in unprecedented detail the methods and technology the agency uses to vacuum up communications from the company’s systems.
“This is yet more proof that our communications service providers have become, whether willingly or unwillingly, an arm of the surveillance state,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The NSA is presumably operating under authorities that enable it to target foreigners, but the fact that it is so deeply embedded in our domestic communications infrastructure should tip people off that the effects of this kind of surveillance cannot be neatly limited to non-Americans.”
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 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.
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.
The inquiry, led by Democratic Sen. Frank Church, published its findings in April 1976. It concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies had “invaded individual privacy and violated the rights of lawful assembly and political expression.” Surveillance programs operated by the NSA through this period, it was later revealed, had targeted “domestic terrorist and foreign radical” suspects, including a host of eminent Americans, such as the civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Whitney Young, the boxer Muhammad Ali, Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald, and New York Times journalist Tom Wicker.
The Church Committee recommended that new and tighter controls be placed on intelligence gathering. And in 1978, Congress approved the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, requiring the executive branch to request warrants for spying operations from a newly formed court.