Documentary film points to NYC Long Lines Building as spy hub

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. The article and film say that Titanpointe was one of the facilities used to collect communications — with permission granted by judges — from international entities that have at least some operations in New York, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and 38 countries.
According to the article and film, N.S.A. employees and contractors who traveled to Titanpointe were given detailed instructions about how to rent cars anonymously through the F.B.I., how to dress (not surprisingly, they were not to wear badges that said “N.S.A.”) and even what to do if they got into a car accident (don’t make a fuss, make a call; everything would be taken care of). Equipment in the building monitored international long-distance phone calls, faxes, videoconferencing, voice calls made over the internet.
Much of the documentation for the article and film draws on material provided by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the agency who released information in 2013 about the N.S.A.’s collaboration with telecommunication companies in vast surveillance programs. Laura Poitras, who collaborated with Henrik Moltke on the documentary film, was a member of a group of journalists awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on Mr. Snowden’s revelations.
The new article and film say that N.S.A. memos from 2013 refer to Titanpointe by its code name and activities that take place there but do not mention its address. Mr. Moltke said a number of details in the Snowden material pointed to 33 Thomas Street, including references to a known code name for AT&T; the building’s location about a block from F.B.I. offices at 26 Federal Plaza; and a reference to satellite intercepts for a program called Skidrowe. The building has satellite dishes on the roof and is the only site in New York City where AT&T has a Federal Communications Commission license for such stations, according to Mr. Moltke, who wrote the article with Ryan Gallagher.
The New York Times and Pro Publica reported in August 2015, that AT&T had had a close relationship with the N.S.A. for decades and had been lauded by the agency for its “extreme willingness to help.”
However, neither the materials from Mr. Snowden nor the new reports state with certainty that the N.S.A. was using AT&T space or equipment. As it happens, while AT&T Inc. owns the land at 33 Thomas, it has only about 87 percent of the floor space; the balance is owned by Verizon.
Asked about the Intercept report, Fletcher Cook, an AT&T spokesman, did not directly respond but said the company provided information when legally required or in specific emergency cases. “We do not allow any government agency to connect directly to or otherwise control our network to obtain our customers’ information,” he said. A Verizon spokesman took questions about his company’s space but did not provide answers. The N.S.A. did not reply to a request for comment.
For all the powerful machinery available to government surveillance programs, they are subject to some court jurisdiction. That is not the case for commercial surveillance: Every aspect of daily life is tracked by smartphone apps, social media and websites. Whatever spying may go on at 33 Thomas Street would at least still be subject to legal oversight. The building really may be a monument to quaint ideas about privacy.

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