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Natsios Young Architects

13 May 2002

Aerial photos and maps:
Other photos:

Jason Vest and Wayne Madsen write of the Special Collection Service (SCS):

According to a former high-ranking intelligence official, SCS was formed in the late 1970s after competition between the NSA's embassy-based eavesdroppers and the CIA's globe-trotting bugging specialists from its Division D had become counterproductive. While sources differ on how SCS works— some claim its agents never leave their secret embassy warrens where they perform close-quarters electronic eavesdropping, while others say agents operate embassy-based equipment in addition to performing riskier "black-bag" jobs, or break-ins, for purposes of bugging— "there's a lot of pride taken in what SCS has accomplished," the former official says.

Intriguingly, the only on-the-record account of the Special Collection Service has been provided not by an American but by a Canadian. Mike Frost, formerly of the Communications Security Establishment— Canada's NSA equivalent— served as deputy director of CSE's SCS counterpart and was trained by the SCS. In a 1994 memoir, Frost describes the complexities of mounting "special collection" operations— finding ways to transport sophisticated eavesdropping equipment in diplomatic pouches without arousing suspicion, surreptitiously assembling a device without arousing suspicion in his embassy, technically troubleshooting under less than ideal conditions— and also devotes considerable space to describing visits to SCS's old College Park headquarters.

"It is not the usual sanitorium-clean atmosphere you would expect to find in a top-secret installation," writes Frost. "Wires everywhere, jerry-rigged gizmos everywhere, computers all over the place, some people buzzing around in three-piece suits, and others in jeans and t-shirts. [It was] the ultimate testing and engineering centre for any espionage equipment." Perhaps one of its most extraordinary areas was its "live room," a 30-foot-square area where NSA and CIA devices were put through dry runs, and where engineers simulated the electronic environment of cities where eavesdroppers are deployed. Several years ago, according to sources, SCS relocated to a new, 300-acre, three-building complex disguised as a corporate campus and shielded by a dense forest outside Beltsville, Maryland. Curious visitors to the site will find themselves stopped at a gate by a Department of Defense police officer who, if one lingers, will threaten arrest.

John Pike/FAS writes of the Special Collection Service and State Department Beltsville Communications Annex:

Special Collection Service

Since the Special Collection Service is an unacknowledge agency, it has no acknowledged facilities. However, we have identified several of their unacknowledged facilities here in the United States. In addition, SCS has collection stations in US embassies in a number of countries around the world. This facility guide provides both ground level views of these facilities, as well as overhead imagery of these facilities and their surroundings. This is a pretty massive real estate operation, and we apologize in advance that we are still working on collecting the set, so not all view are available for all facilities.

State Department
Beltsville Communications Annex

This facility presents a bit of a puzzle. It is located right next door to the joint CIA/NSA "CSSG" Special Collection Service facility on Springfield Road, although there does not appear to be an obvious direct physical connection between the two. While the Beltsville Communication Annex is listed in the State Department telephone directory as State Annex SA-26, there is no indication on the sign at the site of this affiliation, which is contrary to typical State Department practice. It is also reported that SCS personnel use Consular Service and Diplomatic Telecommunications Service cover when forward deployed, so it would stand to reason that they might operate from a "State Department" facility when in the United States in order to maintain the plausibility of their cover. Of course, the robustness of their cover would be even further enhanced if the facility actually was a State Department facility. So in this case we are left with a Scottish "not proven" verdict.


State Department Beltsville Communications Annex

CIA/NSA Special Collection Service

Beltsville Communications Annex

Note triangular antenna below the building (which appears horizontal due to angle of the photo) and the blue bulbular tower at upper right of the clearing -- there appearst to be a similar bulbular tower adjacent to the SCS facility just visible, and foreshortened, at the right treeline.

Special Collection Service

Entrance to Beltsville Communications Annex from Odell Road.

Entrance to SCS from Springfield Road.

Beltsville Communictions Annex outside fence. Triangular antenna at right.

It appears the photographer was on the property at the upper right of the aerial photo (but the blue bulbular tower should be visible at the left -- perhaps not yet erected at the time of this photo). There's a trail connecting the two facilities just visible amongst the trees, and could have been used by the imaginative photographer to approach Beltsville from SCS hidden from the view of the guards.

SCS with the guard station at lower left.