Utah city ordered to turn over NSA water records to Salt Lake Tribune

Here’s one way to pursue a scoop on the National Security Agency (NSA) without documents from Edward Snowden. The Salt Lake Tribune today reports that the city of Bluffdale, Utah, has been ordered by the Utah State Records Committee to turn over to the newspaper water records for the NSA’s sprawling Bluffdale-based Utah Data Center.

The proceeding followed Bluffdale’s denial of the records request. And take a guess at the rationale for the denial. Here’s how the Tribune describes it:

Bluffdale officials argued that releasing records on water usage and billing for the $1.5 billion NSA facility threatened the security of the site and operations conducted there, which are thought to include storage and analysis of vast troves of data collected under several NSA surveillance programs.

In resisting the newspaper’s request, a Bluffdale attorney had argued that the water-usage records could be used to extrapolate the computing power of the data center, according to the paper. The newspaper has challenged that contention, insisting in an appeal letter that the NSA is procuring “culinary” water from Bluffdale — water that can be used in toilets, sinks, showers as well as for coolant for computer systems. Even if all the water went toward cooling, notes the paper, “We would not know, for example, the water efficiency of the cooling equipment or the temperatures generated inside the facility.”

In an earlier interview with The Washington Post’s Niraj Chokshi, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle explained why the newspaper wants these documents:

First and foremost, we’re the second most arid state in the country, and, at one point, it was projected by the Army Corps of Engineers that the UDC would use 1.7 million gallons of water per day. Bluffdale City Council minutes [from 2010] indicate that was downgraded to about 1.2 million gallons a day, but then we’ve also heard that even though it was supposed to be operational in the fall, it’s not using nearly that much water. However much it’s using, there’s still a public interest in tracking that water usage.

The other issue is Bluffdale made a deal with the NSA, gave them a discounted rate on the water and used that to help finance about $3 million of infrastructure to deliver water to that area of Bluffdale. So we think taxpayers have multiple interests here in tracking that water usage and how much revenue Bluffdale’s receiving from the NSA.

The Tribune reports that Bluffdale hasn’t said whether will appeal the panel’s decision to a state court.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | March 19