SALT LAKE CITY – Utah lawmakers are sending mixed messages to the National Security Agency, which runs a massive data-storage warehouse outside of Salt Lake City.
One proposal calls for legislators to make good on a promise not to collect utility taxes from the center, following a commitment from former Gov. Jon Huntsman. That measure moved forward this week, but several lawmakers questioned why they should honor the estimated $6 million yearly tax break that they weren't consulted about.
Meanwhile, another lawmaker wants to cut off water to the center, which uses more than 1 million gallons daily to cool its computer processers. Republican Rep. Marc Roberts of Santaquin says his proposal, still in the works, protects state rights and also defends Utah residents' right not to be spied on.
"The end game here is to limit the encroachment on our 4th Amendment rights," Roberts told the Daily Herald of Provo. "We'd love to see Congress fix that on their own, but I don't have a lot of faith in that happening. So this is a state effort to take a step in that direction."
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines declined comment on the proposals, saying it wouldn't be appropriate because the issues are state matters.
The $1.7 billion facility, the NSA's largest data-storage center in the U.S., has generated much discussion and concern in Utah since the agency chose the location over 37 others because electricity is cheaper here and land more easily available.
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. But they don't offer 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.
Cybersecurity experts say it's a giant storeroom to store increasing volumes of secretly taped phone calls, intercepted emails and poached records of online purchases.
The facility itself is nondescript with long, squat buildings spanning 1.5 million square feet on a National Guard base some 25 miles south of Salt Lake City in the town of Bluffdale. Inside are super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of information. There are many large coolers outside that help keep the machines cool. That's what the water is used for.
Bluffdale sells water to the center at a discounted rate, though it won't disclose how much water the center uses. The agreement prohibits the town from shutting off the water, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
Roberts, a former basketball player at Brigham Young University, knows his bill faces a major challenge to get through the legislature considering state and local governments have made commitments to the NSA.
He does have supporters, though, including the Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Utah.
"If Congress and the courts are unwilling and unable to rein in the beast that is the NSA, then it falls to the states to do it," institute President Connor Boyack told the Daily Herald. "We are very excited to see the final text of Rep. Roberts' bill and hope to see it pass."
The other measure to ensure the NSA gets the tax breaks on utilities received preliminary approval from the Senate Wednesday by a vote of 22-7, but some lawmakers said they might switch their votes later.
"I don't remember that I've given any commitment to give tax subsidies to a spy center," said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the Tribune reports.