MOST DRIVERS WHO head up to Alta Ski Area from Salt Lake City pay no mind to the nondescript turnoff from Utah State Route 210 that veers out to the left about five miles before the slopes. Some motorists may catch a glimpse of the black gate and the “No Trespassing” signs or see a plain white cargo van peeling off the main road and feel a twinge of curiosity. What passing motorists wouldn’t see, at the end of a winding lane, is a bunker-like concrete structure about the size of a two-story house, surrounded by a system of motion sensors and hidden cameras. Behind the structure’s loading door, a tunnel stretches some 200 feet into the solid granite mountain, leading to a series of vaults that constitute one of the most secure private storage facilities in the world.
Designed to protect against floods, earthquakes, fires, and even a nearby nuclear blast, Perpetual Storage opened in 1968 to house some of the most precious objects in America. But by the late 1970s, physical assets were already slightly passé. While Perpetual was happy to secure rare artifacts, what kept paying the salaries of its armed guards was the business of storing corporate microfilm and computer records. Patrick Lynch, Perpetual’s co-owner, told The Washington Post in 1979 that the master file for one customer was worth $15 million (equivalent to $60 million today).
So when George MacArthur Posey III approached Perpetual in 1978, he wasn’t interested in the vault’s fine art or bullion. He was after information. Posey was looking for certain records belonging to General Electric, and he wasn’t furtive about his intentions. At the time, GE was developing an advanced turbofan engine that would power the US Air Force’s brand-new F-16 fighter plane. As if he were talking to a librarian, Posey asked Lynch for access to the Perpetual vault in order to photograph GE’s records. As Lynch recalled the interaction, Posey explained that he had photographed records concerning the F-16 in the past and had “sold those records to other countries.”
Perpetual’s clients spell out very clearly “who can do what with their records,” Lynch told WIRED in a recent phone interview. And GE’s authorization forms made no mention of Posey. After turning Posey down flatly, Lynch reported the interloper to the FBI—something Perpetual hasn’t done since. The FBI’s Los Angeles office noted that Posey tried something similar the next summer, attempting (unsuccessfully) to obtain information about the US Navy’s supersonic F-5 fighter from an engineer at its manufacturer, Northrop.
Posey, however, considered himself not only an entrepreneur but a patriot. His small family business, Newport Aeronautical Sales, based in Southern California and previously owned and operated by Posey’s stepfather, sold unclassified technical information to companies that wanted to bid on Pentagon contracts to repair military aircraft or manufacture spare parts. Those would-be contractors were all too happy to outsource the tedious work of obtaining technical manuals, parts lists, and specs. By helping them, as Posey saw it, he was also helping the US military find the lowest bidder for its contracts.
As it turned out, there was an easier way to obtain valuable technical data than going through the executives of storage vaults, and Posey would make a hugely profitable business of it for the next several decades. It involved a high-minded, fast-evolving, and relatively new law called the Freedom of Information Act, and it would bring the Posey family business millions of dollars in easy money. But it would also turn them into key combatants in the US government’s long, concerted battle to keep information from the public. Along the way, Posey would become embroiled in global politics, earn a spell in prison, and watch his own son appear in federal court on charges of conspiracy and theft of government property for actions related to the operations of Newport Aeronautical.