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Caves a Cornerstone of U.S. Security Effort
Underground, Workers Screen Applicants for War-on-Terror Jobs

Listen Listen to Pam Fessler's report on her tour of the underground offices of Iron Mountain.

photo gallery View a photo gallery of the Iron Mountain National Underground Storage facility.

Main gate to Iron Mountain facility

The gates to the Iron Mountain facility are guarded 24 hours a day.
Photo: Pam Fessler, NPR News

photo gallery view the photo gallery

Feb. 26, 2002 -- Deep in a mountain an hour north of Pittsburgh, in the caverns and corridors of a former limestone mine, U.S. government employees and contractors are working overtime at what could be the most unique office space in America.

At the Iron Mountain/National Underground Storage facility, workers are racing to complete background checks on thousands of new employees needed for the war on terrorism, including airport screeners, border guards and federal air marshals. NPR's Pam Fessler got a rare look inside the secure facility; for All Things Considered, Fessler reports.

Except for the guards at the gate, there's little evidence the facility exists -- which is precisely the point. But past the gates, there are the usual signs of a normal workplace. A vendor sells donuts and coffee, and park benches are set up for smokers. But as Fessler discovered, the Iron Mountain facility is anything but normal. The facility's general manager, Tom Roth, says security is "on par with any military base," and one of the most secure such sites in the world.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management cubicles

Familiar cubicles at U.S. Office of Personnel Management deep inside Iron Mountain often face the limestone walls of the former mine.
Photo: Pam Fessler, NPR News

That's because there are some real American treasures here -- the original recordings of Elvis Presley, films by Walt Disney, the photo of a young John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin. The former mine is not a federal facility, but the government started leasing space here during the Cold War, to protect personnel files from the unthinkable.

The government also uses the mine as a central workplace for the 800 people who help conduct the background checks needed for all government workers.

The screeners use a number of methods to verify an applicant's claims. There are 180,000 cases pending, and each case has its own file. The extent of the checks depends on the applicant's background and the kind of job they're seeking.

Since Sept. 11, says Kathy Dillaman of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government has been hiring at a breakneck pace. "The Department of Agriculture needs the food and drug testers... (and) the borders are certainly being beefed up," she told Fessler.

Cafeteria at Iron Mountain

All the comforts of other modern office spaces -- with a twist. In this Iron Mountain cafeteria, bare rock walls remind workers that their offices are hundreds of feet below ground.
Photo: Pam Fessler, NPR News

It's not just one agency that needs more employees: "What we're seeing is it's coming up across the board," Dillaman says.

In the parts of the cave complex where OPM staffers work, a lot has been done to make workspace as normal as possible. Some of the walls are still exposed rock, but there are plenty of familiar office cubicles decorated with American flags and family photos. Even so, the facility does have its own culture. Groundhog Day is a major event, and everyone keeps a flashlight in their desks -- just in case.

Iron Mountain office worker Delores Guittierez is still getting adjusted to the environs. "Every time we ask for supplies, I ask for a skylight," she jokes. "I haven't gotten one yet, but I'm still holding out hope."

Other Resources

• The underground facility is operated by Iron Mountain/National Underground Storage, Inc.

• The U.S. Office of Personnel Management.