While the Harper government is preaching government austerity, it is spending almost $1.2 billion on a new Ottawa headquarters for a little-known military spy agency.

It's the most expensive Canadian government building ever constructed.

Under tight security, CBC obtained an exclusive tour of the top secret complex that most Canadians will otherwise never get to see, a development even National Defence apparently thinks is so grandiose that the department dubbed the project “Camelot” in official documents.

When completed next year, the facility in suburban Ottawa will house the roughly 2,000 employees of the Communications Security Establishment Canada, a federal agency that spies mainly on foreigners by hacking into their computers, reading their email and intercepting their phone calls.

CSEC officially estimates the complex will cost $880 million. But sources close to the project say it will be closer to $1.2 billion by the time all the associated costs are tallied.The new CSEC headquarters will have more floor space than the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and its cost would build several big city hospitals.

The developer has also been contracted to maintain the building and provide other services for another roughly $3 billion over the next 30 years.

It is virtually impossible for the media or taxpayers to verify the specifics of how all that money is actually being spent — almost everything to do with the project has been declared a matter of national security and stamped “secret.”

The former head of CSEC makes no apologies for what he calls an “architectural wonder” at public expense.

In a rare and wide-ranging interview exclusively with CBC, former CSEC chief John Adams spoke at length about the agency and its new headquarters, a project he oversaw from its inception until his retirement last year.

“Did it have to be an architectural wonder? No it didn’t,” Adams says.

“But, you know, glass in this [CBC] building is the same price as glass in that [CSEC] building.

“That building is just going to look an awful lot better than this building.…That facility is going to be quite magnificent.”

Atriums and high-tech glass — but no fireplace 

The centrepiece of the complex has been aptly described as a massive glass skyscraper lying on its side.

CSEC officials say it will be filled with mainly common spaces such as soaring atriums, a cafeteria, library and meeting areas.

Inside the new CSEC building (artist's rendering)

An artist's rendering shows the elaborate staircase at the heart of CSEC's new building in east Ottawa. The official cost of the top-secret intelligence headquarters is more than $880 million, making it the most expensive government building in Canada. (Plenary Group Canada)

Contrary to Adams’s contention that glass is glass, a construction executive familiar with the CSEC project says the exterior panes that cover the building are all custom cut and part of a special mounting system, all of which is “far more expensive” than anything on a conventional office building.

Experts say the security features of the CSEC project are a major reason the price tag is so high.

The glass exterior, for instance, like virtually everything else in the new headquarters, comes with special security features to prevent other spies from spying on CSEC.

Every piece of material going into the construction of the building has to be inspected for possible spy bugs; every vehicle entering the site has to be searched.

All of the nearly 5,000 workers involved in the project have been cleared by security.

The former CSEC chief said the new facility would include a grand fireplace in one of the common areas.

Adams said one of the challenges at CSEC is how to get spies hunched over computer terminals “to relax and get together to just chat. So what I wanted was an area that would attract people."

“How do you get them to gather? You have things there that will draw people. Fire draws people. It's got a fireplace. People say that it is ostentatious. It is not ostentatious. A, It is part of the heat; and B, it is gas; and C, people will walk to the fire. And guess what? They are going to meet people that they would not otherwise see." 

Three hours after this story was posted online, two senior officials from CSEC’s public relations department contacted CBC News to say there will be “no fireplaces in the facility.”

This is not the first time the plans for the new spy palace have been changed.

Plans for the facility to include a skating rink and hobby garden were dropped early in the development after their existence was reported in the media.

Those choosing to gather for gossip at the drinking fountain will be treated to filtered water.

'Did they really look at the expenses?'

Gregory Thomas heads the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, a watchdog organization that tracks government waste.

He is not impressed: "Paying for a glass tower and glass atriums and luxury accommodations for government employees, I don't think most Canadians would agree with that."

Inside CSEC's new headquarters (artist's rendering)

Meeting areas will give intelligence workers the chance to meet up and chat at Communications Security Establishment Canada's new headquarters. (Plenary Group Canada)

Thomas points out it is the same Defence Department responsible for CSEC that bought the whole Nortel Networks campus, the biggest industrial complex in the country, for $208 million.

"It is standing vacant now. The question is: Did they really look at the expenses when they set out to buy a $1.2-billion building for 2,000 people?"

Most of the actual work spaces will be located in seven glass towers attached to the outside of the central structure.

But no one is going to be fighting for a corner office. There are none.

Adams says the spy biz is “collaborative work.” And to encourage that, there will be no offices — corner or otherwise — in the entire place: It will be all open concept.

“It is quite a building.”

Powerful data centre

The nerve centre of the agency is a separate concrete bunker the size of a football field, home to what is being touted as the most powerful super-computer in the country, along with its mammoth electrical power generators and cooling systems.

When fully operational, the data centre alone will apparently suck up enough electricity to light much of the nation’s capital.

Adams says a lack of electrical and computing power is the main reason the agency is having to move from its current location in south Ottawa, a cluster of buildings dating back to the 1960s, the main one previously occupied by the CBC.

He says the agency’s existing computers could only run at 60 per cent capacity without overloading the local power grid.

CSEC also needs about three times more computing power than it has, plus a full backup, Adams says. “There are more transactions at CSEC on a daily basis than all of our banks combined.”

The new facility will “maximize one of the most capable workforces in the country with some of the most fantastic equipment in the country.”

When Canada's eavesdropping spooks aren't at their desks, they will be able to enjoy the expansive grounds around the CSEC complex now being fully landscaped with lawns, gardens, trees, nature trails and a couple of duck ponds.

Finally, a large glass walkway will ultimately connect the new CSEC headquarters to its next-door neighbour, Canada’s better-known and more traditional spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS.

By comparison with the current CSEC project, the CSIS headquarters complex houses more spooks at about a quarter of the price.

Thomas of the taxpayers' federation said other public servants will be outraged.

"Federal government employees are coming home telling their families they don't have a job anymore and at the same time we are constructing a billion-dollar house of glass for our spy agency."

No one currently employed by CSEC would agree to be interviewed on the record.

Clarifications

  • This story has been edited from a previous version to alter references to a planned fireplace and to include CSEC's statement that its new headquarters will not include a fireplace.
    Oct 08, 2013 11:20 PM ET