CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ever since the 1990s, we've reported that the U.S. Navy's large satellite dish station at Sugar Grove, Pendleton County, is part of a global snooping network -- a worldwide chain used by the National Security Agency to monitor phone conversations, faxes and e-mails bounced off fixed-orbit space satellites.
In 1998, the Village Voice reported: "More than 20 years ago, then-CIA Director William Colby matter-of-factly told congressional investigators that the NSA monitored every overseas call made from the United States."
Sugar Grove was cited in reports of the European parliament, in "60 Minutes" segments, in National Public Radio interviews, and in books such as "The Puzzle Palace" and "Body of Secrets". A 2006 New York Times report called the Mountain State base "the country's largest eavesdropping bug." Long ago, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., helped fund big Navy dishes for a "highly classified communications project" including to "monitor Russian communications, especially information on missile launchings."
The West Virginia eavesdrop units reportedly began after 1958, when a National Radio Quiet Zone was created around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, Pocahontas County. At first, CIA snoopers allegedly looked for hints of Cold War Soviet espionage, but later switched their search to druglords and Muslim terrorists. Sugar Grove is near AT&T's overseas transmitting unit at Etam, Preston County, and can copy its traffic.
Back then, we joked that e-mail writers should insert "jihad" and "infidels" into their messages, just to drive CIA listeners bonkers.
In 2000, Gazette reporter Rick Steelhammer quoted Gen. Michael Hayden of the NSA as saying that the West Virginia listening post used extreme care and obtained court-issued warrants while gleaning information about U.S. citizens. He said records were kept only "when the life of the person is in danger or they are the target of a foreign power of the agent of a foreign power."
After the historic terror attack in 2001, surveillance was expanded by the Patriot Act, and later by the 2007 Protect America Act.
Now, abruptly, America is in an uproar because a former CIA-NSA contractor leaked to newspapers that U.S. spy agencies keep track of phone calls, e-mails and faxes. Why the sudden surprise, when it has been discussed widely for two decades?
President Obama reassured Americans that nobody actually listens to their individual calls or reads their personal e-mails, but said the NSA merely scans for patterns of contacts that could reveal trouble.
It's obvious that the snooping isn't totally effective, or it would have prevented the 2001 attack, and maybe this year's Boston Marathon bombing. However, CNN reports that several other terrorist plots were broken because of the surveillance.
If global eavesdropping is an outrage, as some now claim, why didn't they object during the past two decades?