Inside a key Hawaii intelligence outpost listening in on the Pacific

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter
NSA’s Capt. Joseph J. Rochefort Building in Hawaii, with double rainbow in the sky. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: NSA.gov)

HONOLULU — A few miles from the historic Dole pineapple plantation in Wahiawa and the wintertime 30-foot swells on the North Shore of Oahu, some small road signs amid coffee farms indicate a military facility nearby. With a couple of additional turns, visitors arrive at one of the United States’ key cryptologic outposts: the National Security Agency Central Security Service Hawaii.

A giant banner featuring the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution against unlawful searches and seizures adorns the wall by the turnstiles at the campus’s Rochefort building, reminding the staff of their commitment to the American public — and the fallout from the center’s most notorious worker, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who in 2013, absconded with a trove of classified documents about government surveillance programs.

While Snowden was concerned about post-9/11 overreach, which he believed had resulted in illegal surveillance, the NSA facility in Hawaii is now at the forefront of what the Trump administration insists is a swing back toward competition between the great powers.

Instead of pouring money into counterterrorism, the national security machine, including NSA, is pivoting back toward China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“We are in a great power competition with China and Russia,” Captain Kurt Mole, commander of the center, said in an interview with Yahoo News at the facility, referring to the National Defense Strategy. “We are always striving to provide an information advantage.”

NSA Hawaii and its employees are focused on upcoming threats and uncertainties in the Pacific region, including issues that range from nuclear development in North Korea to China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea. NSA routinely briefs military and civilian leaders on China, North Korea, Russia, violent extremism and, when called upon by the military, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, Mole said.

Mole’s comments echo the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which says that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

At NSA Hawaii, the workforce is focused on “executing NSA’s signals intelligence and cybersecurity missions” in the Pacific region, Mole explained.

Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor in Hawaii, seen here in Hong Kong after leaving the United States in 2013, revealed details of top-secret NSA surveillance of telecom data. (Photo: The Guardian via Getty Images)

The NSA location in Hawaii is crucial in gathering signals intelligence, because the curvature of the Earth and other factors affect how far certain signals can travel without interruption or disturbance. A station in Europe, for example, could be far less effective at sweeping up clear digital information from the Pacific.

“The benefit of Hawaii’s geographic proximity to Asia extends into cyberspace as well,” said Patrick Wardle, a former NSA hacker who now lives on Maui and who co-founded the cybersecurity company Digita Security. “For example, when performing offensive cyber-operations, the target’s time zone matters.”

It makes more sense to be conducting operations in a time zone close to the targets the United States is interested in, in order to guarantee that a device being targeted is functioning and manned. “Thus, hacking from Hawaii may be preferable, say, over hacking from Washington, D.C.,” Wardle said.

“At a very basic level, having a facility where people are closer physically and timewise to the countries that they’re following in the Asia Pacific, it’s almost hard to understate that,” said Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at the tech company Recorded Future and a former head of the NSA’s East Asia and Pacific cyberthreats office.

Additionally, she said, it’s easier to hire local people with the appropriate abilities, including native language skills.

On the cybersecurity side, Moriuchi explained, locating NSA in Hawaii is also invaluable. Hawaii’s utility grid is disconnected from the mainland United States and totally self-sufficient, which makes its “threat environment even more unique.”

If anyone were to take out Hawaii’s electric grid, she notes, even though it has backup generators, this would also shut off “some of the military response.” “That’s a serious issue that, say, all the bases in Texas don’t have to deal with,” she added.

Hawaii has long been critical for codebreakers and information gatherers. NSA Hawaii’s newest operations center, where the interview took place, is named after Capt. Joseph J. Rochefort, who led a team of codebreakers at Pearl Harbor during World War II. Close to the operations center is the Washington Wong Building, an underground facility NSA employees have dubbed “the tunnel,” built after World War II, where aircraft and munitions were sometimes stored.

U.S. Navy Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, circa 1943 (Photo: U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

The prime customer of NSA Hawaii is the newly renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which directs U.S. military operations in the massive Pacific region, encompassing 36 different nations where 3,000 different languages are spoken. It covers a huge concentration of the world’s major nuclear, military and economic powers, including China, Russia, North and South Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan and the United States.

On Oahu, NSA Hawaii employs about 3,300 personnel, says Mole, 75 percent of whom are active-duty military. Hawaii is also the home of one of the largest concentrations of military and intelligence forces, and it hosts INDO-PACOM, as well as multiple bases for the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard, and one of the world’s largest missile-testing facilities, the Pacific Missile Range Facility.

The relationship between the military and local Hawaiians can sometimes be tense, although it is a vital economic partnership for the state.

“Hawaii is one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet,” Kalama Niheu, an activist from Oahu, wrote to Yahoo News.

Increasing militarization and the focus on great power competition could make Hawaii a target, Kyle Kajihiro, a local activist and graduate student at the University of Hawaii, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “Now the U.S. encirclement of China, Russia, and North Korea with military bases and nuclear weapons and missile defense systems increases the risk to places like Hawai’i, Okinawa and Guam, especially when belligerent rhetoric raises the stakes of human or technological error.” President Trump’s warnings to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, are a case in point.

A false missile alert sent out to residents across Hawaii one January morning in 2018 turned out to be a mistake made by the local emergency management agency, not by the military. However, it took 38 minutes for a new alert to be issued. While local authorities have argued that major changes have been implemented, including requiring a second person to initiate an emergency alert, it’s unclear exactly how a similar situation, real or fake, might play out in the future — and how much coordination there would be between state, local and federal authorities.

A combination photograph shows screenshots from a cell phone displaying an alert for a ballistic missile launch and the subsequent false alarm message in Hawaii on Jan. 13, 2018. (Photo: Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

The NSA, relatively hidden compared to some of the Special Forces drills on public beaches, has tried to address any gaps between the military and the locals through community outreach. On the morning of the false missile alert, local Hawaii residents who sought shelter in “the tunnel” were not allowed inside, but were greeted at the gate with coffee and reassurances.  

There is a “special bond between the military and the state, and our workforce strives to be contributing members of the community,” said Mole.

The service industry in Hawaii is a dominant force in its economy, but there are many other job opportunities, including some at the NSA. Mole told Yahoo News he has worked with local schools to provide information and chances to work in cybersecurity, as well as with the Hawaii Business Roundtable. “We’re out in public,” Mole said. “We’re heavily invested in local school systems … investing a lot in STEM education in K-12 nationwide.”

NSA Hawaii has local connections to multiple campuses of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu Community college and Leeward Community College, as well as local high schools and middle schools, where the agency hosts cybersecurity camps and teaches basic coding techniques.

“We need more cyber pros in the workforce,” Mole said.

Those connections with the local community are key, particularly in cases like the false missile alert — and have led to many internships and subsequent employment for local students.

Mole was on a ship in Japan in 2013, when Snowden took a vacation from his IT job at the NSA facility in Hawaii and traveled to Hong Kong, where he disclosed information on NSA’s global surveillance programs. Mole says the episode did result in some positive changes, as the agency seeks to move on.

The fallout after Snowden’s defection has increased transparency, Mole said, and “improved our ability to protect against insider threats.”

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