In W.Va., mountains of NSA secrecy
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.
A pair of 1,000-foot-diameter circular antenna arrays, called Wullenwebers, initially served as the station's main receiving antennas but were later decommissioned and removed from the base.
In 1992, the Naval Radio Station role at Sugar Grove was merged with one at another Navy installation, and the Naval Security Group took over operation of the base. Because of "increased automation in Naval communications," the Naval Security Group activity at Sugar Grove was phased out in 2005, and the Navy Information Operations Command assumed management of the base.
The base is divided into two sections. A lower base area along W.Va. 21, just north of the community of Sugar Grove, contains Navy housing, administrative offices, dining and recreation facilities. A much smaller operations base is found at a higher elevation, about a mile to the southeast, where an array of parabolic dishes and a multi-level underground building are located.
There is no mention of an NSA role at the base in the official history of NIOC Sugar Grove. The operational purpose of the base, according to a mission statement on its website, is to "perform communications research and development for the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, and various elements of the U.S. government."
It was not until last year, when plans were announced to "disestablish" the Pendleton County Navy base that the NSA's presence there was publicly acknowledged.
According to a notice issued by the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the disestablishment of NIOC Sugar Grove, to take effect in September 2015, "is a result of the determination by the resource sponsor [apparently the NSA] to relocate the command's mission. All military billets will transfer to other NAVIOCOM [Navy Information Operations Command] sites. Operational functions at the [Sugar Grove] site will be absorbed by the National Security Agency."
In October 2012, NIOC Sugar Grove's commanding officer, Cmdr. William Kramer, told business and community leaders in Pendleton County that the NSA had conducted an "enterprise assessment" of the base, with an eye toward "reducing the footprint" of the Navy's role there. Kramer said the NSA eventually would "transition the Navy presence out altogether," according to an article in the Elkins Inter-Mountain.
Last May, Sen. Joe Manchin and members of Sen. Jay Rockefeller's staff toured the Sugar Grove base and pledged to do all they could to find a new military mission for the facility.
"The NSA has been using a lot of new technology since 9/11 that allows them to do the same mission more efficiently, using fewer stations," Aid said. "I think what they're planning to do at Sugar Grove reflects that. It's also closely tied to a decision Congress made prior to sequestration that calls for the national intelligence budget to be reduced in 5-percent increments."
Aid said it could be possible for the NSA to close the lower Navy base and continue operating the upper, operational facility remotely. "You could keep the satellite dishes up and running with a small maintenance crew" and feed the downloaded data to the NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., he said.
"The Canadians are remotely operating four stations" that were previously individually staffed, he said, saving $60 million to $70 million annually.
Author James Bamford, who has written four books about the NSA, starting with "The Puzzle Palace" in 1982, has described the Navy-NSA operation at Sugar Grove as "the country's largest eavesdropping bug."
In a 2005 New York Times piece, Bamford said the assortment of parabolic dish antennas at the West Virginia base, located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, "silently sweep in millions of private telephone calls and email messages an hour."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.