SALT LAKE CITY — The National Security Agency's sweeping secret surveillance programs are violating Americans' constitutional rights, and a new warehouse in Utah is a symbol of the agency's unbridled power and extraordinary secrecy, a former agency executive said Thursday in Utah.
Thomas Drake, who was targeted in a government leak investigation, said the NSA's $1.7 billion data storage facility located on a National Guard base about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City stores massive amounts of records on taped phone calls, intercepted emails and poached records of online purchases.
"It is basically the government's dark net," said Drake, speaking to about 75 people at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "There is a fundamental question: What is it doing in your backyard and what is its purpose?"
NSA officials say the center plays a key role in the nation's effort to protect national security networks and allow U.S. authorities to monitor for potential cyber threats. They say operations there are lawfully conducted in accordance with U.S. laws and policies.
But they haven't offered any details about what exactly goes on in the center, and fears grew after revelations last year that the NSA is collecting millions of U.S. phone records along with digital communications stored by nine major Internet providers.
Drake said the agency is incentivized to keep people guessing about what it is doing. The Utah warehouse does contain records of legitimate foreign intelligence but also reams of information from people who are doing nothing wrong. The target, Drake said, is "the entire world effectively."
"Technology now affords the ability of a state-sponsored surveillance regime," Drake said. "They have an obsessive compulsive hoarding complex. They can never get enough."
Drake started working for the NSA in 2001 and blew the whistle on what he saw as a wasteful and invasive program at the agency. He was later prosecuted for keeping classified information. Most of the charges were dropped before trial in 2011, and he was sentenced to one year of probation and community service.
Drake spent time discussing how he discovered the creation of an "electronic dragnet surveillance program of extraordinary scale" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said his efforts to fight from within the agency went nowhere, leading him to take the information to the press and risk his career.
"I lived with incredibly dark knowledge," Drake said. "I decided to stand up."
He repeated what he's said before: The conduct of NSA approved by President Barack Obama is the single greatest threats to the country's democracy. He urged citizens to challenge the government.
"Is it necessary to collect everything there is to know about everybody just as an insurance policy," Drake said. "Do we really want citizens turning in to subjects of the state again?"