From a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan, the building at 33 Thomas Street, known as the Long Lines Building, looks like nothing less than a monument to the prize of privacy.
With not a window in its walls from the ground up to its height of 550 feet, 33 Thomas looms over Church Street with an architectural blank face. Nothing about it resembles a place of human habitation, and in fact it was built for machines: An AT&T subsidiary commissioned the tower to house long-distance phone lines. Completed in 1974, it was fortified to withstand a nuclear attack on New York, and the architect made plans to include enough food, water and generator fuel to sustain 1,500 people for two weeks during a catastrophic loss of power to the city.
Now, an investigative article in The Intercept and an accompanying 10-minute documentary film, “Project X,” opening on Friday at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, say the building appears to have served another purpose: as a listening post code-named Titanpointe by the National Security Agency.
They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.
The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”
It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.
Inside the building are at least three “4ESS switches,” which are used to route calls across different phone networks.
“Of the first two, one handled domestic long-distance traffic and the other was an international gateway,” Thomas Saunders, a former AT&T engineer who retired in 2004, told The Intercept.
The Snowden documents also describe TITANPOINTE as having access to “foreign gateway switches,” as well.
In addition to monitoring phone calls, The Intercept reports that the facility also intercepts satellite communications as part of a surveillance program dubbed SKIDROWE.
Many New Yorkers have probably spotted the numerous satellite dishes on the roof of the Long Lines Building, which are believed to be used by the NSA.
After a series of surveillance operations targeting anti-Vietnam War activists, “domestic terrorists” and “foreign radical” suspects — including Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali — led to tighter controls on intelligence gathering, the NSA implemented a new program called BLARNEY, which was first exposed by Snowden in 2013.
IMAGE: Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times