High-profile leaks by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden are once again serving as a reminder of Hawaii’s prominence as a strategic outlet for U.S. intelligence operations.
Snowden worked for Booz Allen Hamilton at NSA field offices in Hawaii for less than three months, and has since fled to Hong Kong, after sharing information about the U.S. government’s clandestine internet and phone surveillance operations with The Guardian newspaper.
The whistleblower’s actions have raised serious questions about the scope of government power and they have reopened a long-standing debate about the necessary balance between protecting the country from possible terroristic threats and protecting our civil liberties.
The leaks from the contractor who worked out of the local NSA office also reiterated the importance of Hawaii to U.S. national security efforts — particularly as they relate to the Asia-Pacific region — while at the same time reminding residents here that in their midst is a base of one of the most secretive and controversial agencies in the country.
“Some believe all we have here are fancy beaches and hotels,” said Carlos Juarez, a political science professor at Hawaii Pacific University who specializes in military affairs. “But we have a big defense community. It’s large, it’s been large for a long time and it’s been growing.”
Hawaii is home to the U.S. Pacific Command, one of six Armed Forces command centers, and it is comprised of more than 330,000 military and civilian personnel working for the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. Pacific Command makes up about one-fifth of the U.S.’s total military and civilian personnel.
Pacific Command covers about half the globe from the west coast of the U.S. to the western border of India. “PACOM” is responsible for a region that includes sensitive terrain, including China and North Korea, two nations that Juarez described as political “powder kegs.”
“It just underscores how Hawaii remains a critical location for national security,” Juarez said. “And the NSA is a part of that.”
The modern NSA is not necessarily the type of agency Ian Flemming would have had in mind if he were creating an American version of James Bond.
The agency’s surveillance and data-gathering techniques are highly technical, meaning the work is probably better suited to computer analysts and engineers than cloak-and-dagger covert spies.
Snowden told The Guardian he was an “infrastructure analyst” for Booz Allen Hamilton while living on Oahu, and that he had held similarly technical positions in the intelligence community, such as a systems engineer and telecommunications information systems officer. The company confirmed Snowden’s work as part of a team in Hawaii and called the allegations “shocking” in a press release.
The NSA’s role in Hawaii expanded with the construction of the Hawaii Regional Security Operations Center. The $318-million, 250,000-square-foot facility was built on 70 acres at the Naval and Telecommunications Area Master Station Pacific headquarters in Wahiawa.
At a groundbreaking ceremony in September 2007, the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye said the new facility would improve intelligence gathering for the country, with a focus on gathering and analyzing intelligence from social and political hotbeds such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
“Without the intelligence gathered by facilities like this, our policy makers are literally hand-tied,” the late Senator said, according to an article posted on the Navy’s website. “This facility is an important element in the progress of our nation.”
While politicians and military commanders speak in generalities about the importance of its top secret operations, little is known about what actually goes on inside these facilities.
But it is clear that intelligence gathered on the islands, whether related to surveillance of cellphones and internet searches or ballistic missile defense, is deemed to be crucial to U.S. security.
“There are a lot of things that go on here, and there are a lot of classified things that go on here,” said ” said Ralph Cossa, an international security expert on East Asia.
Cossa, who is also president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic & International Studies in Honolulu, says Hawaii’s intelligence community previously received unwanted attention in recent months over another high-profile breach of national security.
Hawaii-based defense contractor Benjamin Bishop was arrested in May for allegedly funneling nuclear secrets to his Chinese girlfriend.
Bishop worked at Pacific Command in cyber defense and, like Snowden, held top secret security clearance. He had access to highly classified information, including details of the U.S.’s early warning radar system in the Pacific Rim and its efforts to defend against missiles from North Korea.
Cossa said it’s probably just happenstance that both Snowden and Bishop were working in Hawaii, and that it shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of how intel is conducted on the islands. He also said the fact that both are defense contractors shouldn’t set off any immediate alarm bells.
“Regardless of how careful you are in your selection and screening, every now and then you’re going to run into someone who is going to do something stupid or do something illegal,” said Cossa, who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 30 years and become a special assistant to the commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Command.
“At the end of the day you can’t be 100 percent secure. Some contractors are going to do things wrong, some military are going to do things wrong, some politicians are going to do things wrong.”
“To me this is really the unfortunate, terrible coincidence that they both just happen to be in Hawaii,” he said.