CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- References to a National Security Agency communications-intercept operation at the Navy Information Operations Command base at Sugar Grove, Pendleton County, are included among documents leaked to the news media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
According to a Dec. 10 article in The Washington Post based on the documents Snowden leaked, the NSA collects international cellphone location information and other data from at least 10 "signals-intelligence activity designators," or SIGADs, at stations around the world.
"Three of the SIGADs are believed to be in the United States," according to the Post, including one code-named Timberline, "which is at Sugar Grove research station in West Virginia."
In all, the NSA collects nearly 5 billion cellphone records a day worldwide and uses a sophisticated array of algorithms, or data-sorting tools, to sift through irrelevant information and focus on tracking the movements of targeted individuals, according to the Post.
A Dec. 20 New York Times article, also based on documents leaked by Snowden, dealt with the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters. The two spy agencies, according to the Times, are targeting not only suspected terrorists, but also allied leaders, international aid group officials and European business executives for surveillance.
"While few if any American citizens appear to be named in [Snowden's] documents, they make clear that some of the intercepted communications either began or ended in the United States
and that NSA facilities carried out interceptions around the world in collaboration with their British partners," according to the Times story. "Some of the interceptions appear to have been made at the Sugar Grove, W.Va., listening post run by the NSA and code-named Timberline, and some are explicitly tied to NSA target lists."
A map appearing on a slide that was among NSA documents released by Snowden indicates that the Timberline operation at Sugar Grove, which began in 1984, is part of a global network of "FORNSAT," or foreign satellite interception stations.
"Sugar Grove is part of a network of 12 other stations operated by the NSA and its British partners around the world," said Matthew Aid, author of "The Secret Sentry," a history of the NSA, and "Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror," in a telephone interview.
"Timberline at Sugar Grove is paired with a similar station in Bude, England, codenamed Carboy," said Aid, a former NSA employee and now a commentator on intelligence matters for The New York Times, the National Journal, CBS News and National Public Radio. "Timberline and Carboy intercept high-priority communications traffic moving through communications satellites parked over the Atlantic. Together, these two stations covered much of a region that was of interest to us during the Cold War."
"Timberline is probably still performing its mission" at Sugar Grove, Aid said. "While a lot of attention has been focused lately on [the NSA] tapping into undersea communications cable, a lot of developing nations continue to rely on satellites, rather than fiber-optic cable, to communicate."
The 117-acre Navy base at Sugar Grove, wedged between the South Fork of the Potomac River and Shenandoah Mountain in the George Washington National Forest, was established in 1955 as the site for a 600-foot parabolic antenna to be used for communications research, according to the official base history.
A 60-foot antenna was built on the site in 1956 to test the feasibility of the 600-foot dish. Work began on the huge antenna in 1958, but was halted in 1962, when advances in technology rendered the planned use for the 600-foot dish obsolete.
Then-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., urged the Navy to find a new use for the base and, in 1963, the Navy began work on a new $11 million receiver to handle all Navy radio traffic coming into the Washington, D.C., area. A 150-foot parabolic antenna was completed at the base in 1968. Naval Radio Station Sugar Grove was formally commissioned in 1969.