New Georgia training center in Augusta to counter cyber threats

A rendering of the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The $60 million facility, part of Augusta University’s downtown riverfront campus, will merge private and public sector cyber security research and help train future generations of information security workers.

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A rendering of the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The $60 million facility, part of Augusta University’s downtown riverfront campus, will merge private and public sector cyber security research and help train future generations of information security workers.

AUGUSTA —- In December, as the legislative session was about to kick into high gear, two well-connected Georgia business leaders approached Gov. Nathan Deal’s office with an ambitious idea for the state to build a high-tech training center to assist the NSA and U.S. Army Cyber Command, which just weeks earlier had broken ground on its future headquarters at Fort Gordon.

It would need to be built quickly to stringent national security specifications to handle classified intelligence. But such a center could bolster the state’s claim as a vital center in the nation’s sprawling intelligence network.

On Monday, just six months later, Gov. Nathan Deal and leaders in Augusta held a ceremonial groundbreaking to mark construction of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, a $60 million compound that will feature research and classroom space for Augusta University and the state’s technical colleges, as well as office space for established and startup companies.

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Gov. Nathan Deal, center, and Augusta dignitaries turn some ceremonial dirt for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The event occurred Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

Gov. Nathan Deal, center, and Augusta dignitaries turn some ceremonial dirt for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The event occurred Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

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Gov. Nathan Deal, center, and Augusta dignitaries turn some ceremonial dirt for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The event occurred Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

About 28,000 civilians in Georgia work in cyber security. About 13,000, including military personnel, work in cyber security in the Augusta area, Deal said Monday.

“This is an arena where job growth will continue to expand,” Deal said.

Weeks after the December meeting, the cyber training center was one of the tent poles of Deal's State of the State address in January. But at that first meeting, the high-promise concept also came with a staggering price tag and no funding source. And his office was already putting the finishing touches on its spending plan for the next fiscal year, Deal said.

But Deal said the pitch by Augusta businessmen Jim Hull and William McKnight was too important to pass up. Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, and chief financial officer, Teresa MacCartney, found room in the spending plan — without debt — that the governor’s office sent to state lawmakers.

“Because we budgeted your money wisely, we had accumulated enough money that we could say, ‘You know we don’t have to go for a bond issue to construct this facility. We can do it with cash,’” Deal said.

That’s how the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, a now $60 million educational complex in downtown Augusta, went from concept to construction in mind-boggling pace. It will become the state’s centerpiece for cyber security research and development, merging public and private sector security research efforts

The center also will serve the workforce development needs of the Army Cyber Command and the NSA, as well as the security needs of industry and state agencies.

Former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who was present Monday, and Sen. Johnny Isakson are owed gratitude, Deal said, for their work to facilitate the Cyber Command’s move to Fort Gordon.

But the project will bear the names of Hull and McKnight, in recognition, Deal said, of being the “planters of the seed” for a training ground that will ripple through the state’s economy. Hull is vice chairman of the University System Board of Regents, while McKnight is a director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

caption arrowCaption
A rendering of the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The $60 million facility, part of Augusta University’s downtown riverfront campus, will merge private and public sector cyber security research and help train future generations of information security workers.

A rendering of the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The $60 million facility, part of Augusta University’s downtown riverfront campus, will merge private and public sector cyber security research and help train future generations of information security workers.

caption arrowCaption
A rendering of the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. The $60 million facility, part of Augusta University’s downtown riverfront campus, will merge private and public sector cyber security research and help train future generations of information security workers.

The more than 160,000-square foot building, at Augusta University’s future downtown riverfront campus, will also feature research facilities and will be cleared for top secret work. It will include a “cyber range” where new cyberwarfare capabilities can be created and tested.

Deal said the nation has never needed a training facility like this more than today, citing a range of threats.

Deal cited a McKinsey & Co. study that found cyber attacks will cost the global economy $3 trillion by 2020, and Georgia's digital infrastructure faces millions of attempts at incursions every month.

“The attack is ever present and it is something we all need to be aware of,” Deal said.

Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University, said about 20,000 square feet of space will be reserved for the private sector. Training at the site will range from industry-standard certifications in information security to university programs from bachelor’s degrees up to doctorates.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation also will have a cyber security facility on site.

Keel said the 17-acre site has space for two to three more buildings of similar size, and predicted Monday’s groundbreaking marks just the first phase of what’s to come.

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A sign marks the construction site for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. Gov. Nathan Deal and local leaders broke ground on the campus Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

A sign marks the construction site for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. Gov. Nathan Deal and local leaders broke ground on the campus Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
A sign marks the construction site for the future Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta. Gov. Nathan Deal and local leaders broke ground on the campus Monday, June 19, 2017, at the Augusta University downtown riverfront campus. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/strubey@ajc.com

Augusta’s intelligence roots started with the Signal Corps training center that opened at Fort Gordon after World War II. The NSA started operating in the Augusta area in the 1990s with a relatively small outpost at the fort.

Today, Fort Gordon is home to a major NSA command, the NSA/CSS Georgia Cryptologic Center.

Thousands of code breakers, cyber security researchers, intelligence analysts, IT experts and other specialists — military members and private contract employees — work in the intelligence community at Fort Gordon, and more are on their way.

In November, Army broke ground on its new Cyber Command, which will open its first phase in 2018.

“In this domain, cyber space, public-private partnerships are absolutely critical,” said Major General John Morrison, commander of the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon.

Augusta's clandestine community got some unwelcome time in the spotlight in recent weeks with the arrest of federal intelligence contractor Reality Winner, who was accused of leaking to the media a classified NSA report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Winner, who has pleaded not guilty, could face 10 years in prison if convicted.

In recent weeks, the few Augusta leaders who would discuss the situation described Winner as a rogue actor and not representative of the thousands of contractors and military personnel who serve their country with distinction.

Local leaders were happy to talk Monday about something more positive for the burgeoning industry.

Walter Sprouse, executive director of the Augusta Economic Development Authority said the region is preparing for a flood of jobs and investment to come from the Cyber Command’s move from the Washington, D.C., area to Augusta.

“The cyber security check book is currently in Maryland, but it soon will be moving to Augusta, and the companies that are tied to it are going to be coming to Augusta,” he said.

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