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TAO's area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage.

Their task was clear from the beginning -- to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic.

Recruiting the Geeks To do this, the NSA needed a new kind of employee.

There are now TAO units in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; at the NSA's outpost at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver, Colorado; at its headquarters in Fort Meade; and, of course, in San Antonio. According to a document dating from 2010 that lists the "Lead TAO Liaisons" domestically and abroad as well as names, email addresses and the number for their "Secure Phone," a liaison office is located near Frankfurt -- the European Security Operations Center (ESOC) at the so-called "Dagger Complex" at a US military compound in the Griesheim suburb of Darmstadt.

But it is the growth of the unit's Texas branch that has been uniquely impressive, the top secret documents reviewed by SPIEGEL show.

The TAO workers authorized to access the special, secure floor on which the unit is located are for the most part considerably younger than the average NSA staff member.

Their job is breaking into, manipulating and exploiting computer networks, making them hackers and civil servants in one. Indeed, it is from these very circles that the NSA recruits new hires for its Tailored Access Operations unit.

No matter how many times they pressed the buttons, the doors didn't budge.