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 rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.