It’s common knowledge that the commercial behemoth AT&T has surreptitiously partnered with the NSA since the Bell companies split up decades ago. How much cooperation they provided however, was not known until Edward Snowden leaked top secret government documents revealing not only extensive cooperation with secret government agencies, but a clever veil of deceit willingly provided by one of America’s most respected corporations.
33 Thomas Street
In 1969, AT&T began construction of a building located at 33 Thomas Street in the lower Manhattan borough of New York City. Standing on the east side of Church Street between Thomas and Worth streets, the building was known as the Long Lines Building (and later discovered to be Titanpointe). It was architected like a typical 1970’s style phone building – bland, discrete, uninviting, and seemingly impenetrable – which in the lap of glamourous Manhattan, stuck out like a sore thumb.
Designed by legendary architect John Carl Warnecke and completed in 1974, it stood 29 stories high (550 feet) with lofty 18-foot tall ceilings on each floor and a brutalist architectural style. It had not a single window, its only contact with the outside world, a set of unusual protruding vents on the 10th and 29th floors that emit an odd hum, barely audible over the hustle and bustle of New York City’s machinery. Being completely unlit, at night it becomes a gargantuan shadow blacking out a huge slice of the city. The label for construction of the job was enigmatic: Project X.
Titanpointe is a flat-sided structured constructed with granite and concrete with at least three stories burrowing under the city. It was built to withstand a nuclear attack with floors designed to carry an astonishing 200-300 pounds per square foot. It is said to hold enough food and water to sustain 1,500 people for two weeks. Designed to be totally self-sufficient, it contains 250,000 gallons of fuel. In an emergency, it can operate without access to city water or electrical systems for weeks at a time.
According to AT&T, the building was made to hold and protect equipment – lots of equipment – powerful computers, cables, and integral communication switchboards including three major 4ESS switches (an electronic switching system for long-distance calls). Upon completion, it was assigned the CLLI code “NYCMNYBW” and the operation turned over to New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T. For decades it stood discretely on 33 Thomas Street, little noticed other than for its unusual architectural style.
In 2016, investigators pouring through leaked Edward Snowden documents made a startling discovery. The Long Lines Building was not just a communications hub but an ultra-secure data center and a monumental listening and data collection post for the NSA. According to the leaked documents, computer systems inside the data center were designed to intercept communications coming in and out of New York City, a critical hub for outgoing communications originating in the Eastern half of the United States. The records showed comms from dozens of notable entities were intercepted including the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and at least 38 different countries.
Details in the leaked documents made it clear that the location was 33 Thomas Street – a building known by only a select few as Titanpointe. In particular, two NSA travel “handbooks” disclosed that it was the only building in the city licensed for satellites on its roof and that it was located only a block from an FBI office (the FBI has offices at 26 Federal Plaza, less than a block away from 33 Thomas Street). Ultimately the location was conclusively determined from a reference to an entity known as “lithium” – a known code name for AT&T. An investigator later noted that a few parking spaces in front of the building were reserved and labelled “AWM”, a rarely-used traffic code reserved for federal vehicles.
The documents showed the importance of keeping the location secret. NSA employees were required to use “cover vehicles” when travelling to the facility (third-party vehicles were acquired from a commercial cover vehicle company who had no knowledge of the renter’s true identity). Agents were instructed to ensure the vehicle bore New York license plates. Agents were told to dress casually in order to blend in, and to give family members only vague explanations of where they were travelling to (e.g. “I will be in X for the day at another company”). They were required to use only personal insurance cards and identification if involved in a wreck or altercation near the building. The handbook pointed out that the rules-of-cover were especially critical if they were transporting equipment to the building, equipment which could only be move under wrap.
What we know about operations at Titanpointe
According to leaked Snowden documents, as part of the top-secret FAIRVIEW program, the NSA surveillance site (Titanpointe) accesses “foreign gateway switches” (i.e. 4ESS switches) in a process it refers to as “RIMROCK access”. It also intercepts satellite communications as part of a program known as SKIDROWE. The Titanpointe building is referred to as the most critical of three core BLARNEY sites.
The top-secret BLARNEY program
BLARNEY was established in 1978. It was not until 2013 that its existence was accidentally exposed to the public. BLARNEY’s purpose was to leverage “commercial partnerships” in order to “gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks”. Thus far, more than 80 such corporate partnerships have been uncovered.
BLARNEY conducts “full take surveillance”. In other words, all content and metadata, both domestic and foreign, is collected in bulk and only filtered later to weed out domestic communications. The Titanpointe location (often referred to as “TP” in government documents) was listed in the leaked Snowden documents as one of three core sites used by BLARNEY. Another site is believed to be located in a AT&T site in San Francisco (Room 641A) and a third in Houston, Texas. According to the documents, the data is collected and forwarded to NSA headquarters in Maryland through a special communications channel built and maintained by AT&T.
The top-secret FAIRVIEW program
As part of the BLARNEY program, FAIRVIEW is a secondary secret operation under which the National Security Agency cooperates with the American telecommunications giant, AT&T, in order to collect phone, internet, and email data from major cable landing stations and switching stations inside the United States. The program was started in 1985, only one year after the Bell breakup. That the key corporate partner for the Fairview program was AT&T was revealed in 2013 by the Washington Post.
The top-secret SKIDROWE program
Titanpointe also intercepts satellite communications as part of a program known as SKIDROWE. SKIDROWE’s purpose is to vacuum up Internet traffic via signal acquisition and real time packet exploitation, deciphering the encrypted data with a classified decryption mechanism known as GallantWave. As with BLARNEY, the data is collected in bulk, filtered, and placed in a system known as XKEYSCORE. XKEYSCORE allows NSA employees to search through he collected Internet information using a sophisticated system known as Genesis. The information available to federal agents includes private Skype calls, email, chats, Internet searches, and anything else that passes through the Internet.
Below is the purported BLARNEY travel site book containing instructions and procedures to use when travelling to clandestine locations – including Titanpointe.