1 March 2006. Thanks to A for pointing.
This is a transcript of a radio show broadcast (recording) on Feburary 20, 2006 by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. A video of the show is to be broadcast on March 30, 2006.
Sugar Grove Naval Station eyeball: http://www.eyeball-series.org/sugar-eyeball.htm
Source: http://wvpubcast.org/radio/newsroom/bigears-radio.pdf (1.5MB)
By Dan Heyman 2-16-06
We've heard a lot of spy terms the last couple months. Eavesdropping, wiretapping, domestic surveillance or...
President Bush: "Terrorist surveillance program."
That was President Bush last month at Kansas State University, defending his surveillance program that's been under attack.
In December, the New York Times revealed that he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans to look for evidence of terrorist activity without a warrant.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez told the Senate Judiciary Committee that all the attention is playing into the hands of terrorists.
"Our enemy is listening. And I cannot help but wonder if they aren't shaking their heads in amazement at the thought than anyone would imperil such a sensitive program by leaking its existence in the first place, and smiling at the prospect that we might now disclose even more, or perhaps even unilaterally disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror."
But concerns have been voiced by Republican and Democratic members of Congress, including Senator Jay Rockefeller, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And on Friday, Senator Robert Byrd called for an investigation of the Administration's domestic surveillance program. (begin music)
There are only two listening stations that pick up this kind of data. One is in Yakima, Washington. [Yakima Research Station.]
The other is in Pendleton County, West Virginia.
Chances are you won't see any signs of the facility if you go through the tiny community of Sugar Grove. But its reach extends throughout the world.
"The whole reason for being there is that Etam, West Virginia, is just up the road and that's the main downlink for commercial and international satellites. And this is like a bug. It's there catching the same signals coming in."
And new equipment at the site suggests the base is eavesdropping on communications in the U.S.
"If you're just collecting signals from a domestic satellite, you just a need a little dish. And they have a lot of those little dishes there, which is kind of interesting because smaller dishes are what you use for domestic intelligence."
Tonight, "Big Ears in the Mountains" - a look at the role a secluded base in West Virginia plays in the NSA's surveillance of communications here, and abroad.
Narration: The CIA is the highest profile intelligence agency in the world. But the CIA is not the largest, and does not provide most of America's intelligence information. That designation belongs to the National Security Agency.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (NSA size) 03:35:28 -3:35:45
"It's between two and three times the size of the CIA. It's by far the most important intelligence agency in the United States. It supplies 80, between 70 and 80 percent of the intelligence for the United States."
When it comes to the NSA it's been said that those who know, don't say; and those who say, don't know. Journalist and author James Bamford is the exception to that rule.
Bamford's first book - "The Puzzle Palace," in 1982 - is widely credited as the first major work about the NSA. And the most extensive book about the agency was released in 2001 - Bamford's "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency."
"The Puzzle Palace" was the first to disclose the significance of Sugar Grove. In that book Bamford described the Sugar Grove of the 1970's. Back then, he says it had a few large satellite dishes aimed mostly at international phone calls and Russian submarine communications.
A lot has changed at Sugar Grove.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Small Dishes) 03:00:50 -03:01 :04
"(Maybe) more of the smaller dishes, which is kind of interesting, because smaller dishes are what you use for domestic intelligence."
Nat sound One
We visited Bamford last May at his Washington DC home office. While we were there Bamford looked at video of Sugar Grove that Public Broadcasting shot for a television piece. It was the first time he'd seen images of Sugar Grove since he last visited the site after 9-11.
The NSA's Sugar Grove facility is a few miles north of the community it's named for.
The base is hidden by thick woods and narrow ridges. Security is intense, but hardly visible.
The Sugar Grove dishes are also hard to spot.
We shot our video from a ridgeline about ten miles away, near the Virginia border.
Nat Sound Two
Bamford is looking for the huge antennas called elephant cages, designed to listen in on Russian submarines. He says they have been removed since he last visited the site. In their place are five smaller dishes, of the type used to pick up U.S. Communications.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Small Dishes) 03:01 :04 -03:01 :23
"I'm not saying necessarily that that's what it is, but you need the big ones to get the satellites over the Atlantic, which are for the international calls. But if you're just collecting signals from a domestic satellite, you just need a little dish, and they had a lot of those little dishes there. "
To understand why those small dishes are significant, it's important to back up about 60 miles to Etam in Preston County. There is an AT&T downlink station in Etam. It's estimated that half of U.S. commercial, international satellite communication goes through here.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Etam) 03:02:21 -03:02:40
"The whole reason for it being there is Etam West Virginia is just up the road, and that's the main downlink for the com sats satellites, commercial international satellites. And this is like a bug; it's there catching the same signals coming in."
But the downlink station at Etam did not exist when the Sugar Grove base was being built in the late 1950s. So how did it get here?
In part, because of the Greenbank radio observatory in neighboring Pocahontas County.
In 1958, the Federal Communications Commission and the West Virginia Legislature established a radio quiet zone -a square a hundred miles across -to protect the sensitive work at the Greenbank observatory. Soon after, the Navy decided the quiet zone was also a good place to put a six hundred foot diameter to capture secret Russian radio signals reflected off the moon.
In 1959 Huntington TV station WSAZ broadcast a half-hour interview with Robert Page, the research director of the national navel research laboratory in Washington DC. The topic was Sugar Grove, which was under construction.
Page said the topography of Pendleton County also made Sugar Grove the ideal location ideal. He lied about the base's mission -he said it was going to be another radio observatory. And he said people would be allowed to see the big dish.
Page -Sugar Grove Film Tape (Public viewing) 00:16:18 -00:16:32
"After the station is completed, there will have to be some provision made for the general public, so they can view the instillation, which I predict will be one of the seven wonders of the world."
Page did make one oblique reference to its moon-bounce mission, when talking about security.
Page -Sugar Grove Film Tape (Moon-bounce) 00:25:33 -00:26:05
"This is a military instillation, it is a navy instillation. And it will be used by the navy for research in communications. It will probably be used in that function for most of the time that the moon is visible, because it will be used to communicate to the moon in this new method of communication which came out of this project, called communications by moon relay."
Ken Hechler was a Freshman Congressman from West Virginia in 1959. He helped arrange this interview and took part in it. He now admits that at the time he had little clue about the military's intentions for Sugar Grove.
Hechler- Hechler tape (No idea) 00:02:53 -00:03:16 "We were not informed actually, what the specific role of Sugar Grove was by the Navy at that time, because it was a super secret operation. And even though I was a member of the space committee I had no idea that there was anything very different at Sugar Grove than was actually going on at Greenbank. "
The technology for listening to Russian communications reflected off the moon proved unworkable. The site was almost abandoned, but under pressure from Senator Robert Byrd, the Pentagon shifted Sugar Grove's focus to listening in on communications satellites.
In the 1960's Sugar Grove became one of the NSA's most important cold war facilities.
But Bamford says it's taken a more domestic purpose since the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (small dishes) 03:50:14 -03:50:53
"Again, Sugar Grove's main purpose originally was to intercept the communications satellites basically over the Atlantic. But especially after September eleventh and the reduction in the laws protecting U. S. communications, the Patriot act and so forth, and with the United States becoming a target itself internally, there's been a tendency to focus on internal communications, domestic U. S. communications."
We spoke to Bamford in May of 2005, seven months before the New York Times reveled the NSA's expanded domestic surveillance. But even then he said those new dishes suggest a new mission at Sugar Grove.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (small dishes, more domestic surveillance) 03:50:54 -03:51:02 II 03:51 :48-03:51 :54
"It looked like a lot of those smaller dishes there, that's what they were designed for, to eavesdrop on domestic communications satellites." II "And again the footprint from a domestic satellite is the entire United States, so you can put it anywhere."
Lots of international phone calls still pass though the communications satellite system Sugar Grove taps into. But so do enormous quantities of e-mail, faxes, text messages, and Internet traffic, both foreign and domestic.
Pat Logan is a professor of computer science at Marshall University. She says Sugar Grove is essentially a huge communications vacuum cleaner that can pick up almost anything.
Pat Logan -Pat Logan Tape 1 (What they pick up) 00:08:44 -00:09:09
"(ah) That would probably be anything coming from voice, analog and digital, it would include fax, it would include e-mail, potentially including some internet communications, probably anything else that was on any wire that went within that footprint of surveillance. "
Logan says that even includes communications not commonly associated with satellite technology.
Pat Logan -Pat Logan Tape 1 (On a hop) 00:13:19 -00:13:54
"Also you have to understand, the satellite is often just a single hop. That something may use a hard-wired, I tell my students it's a land-based system and at some point hop to satellite then hop back onto land based. It's the same thing as the conversion of the telephone system -there's an analog for a certain distance then it hops to digital. Then it hopes back to analog. So the satellites may just represent a stop point along a multiple pathway means to get there."
Sugar Grove is one of about ten such listening facilities operated by the U.S. and its allies. Bamford studied a larger station in England. Based on that, he estimates a facility like Sugar Grove probably receives well over a million communications an hour.
In the case of Sugar Grove, it's a staff of 300 largely navy personnel that does the actual monitoring. The sailors transmit a portion of that data to NSA civilian analysts in Maryland. Bamford says to be most useful, communications must be evaluated by human beings. And he says the NSA only has a few of these civilian analysts Wh'D can do that work. He says that's a serious limitation.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (# analysts) 03:17:40 -03:18:06
"And eventually you have to narrow it down to a very small amount. Because you're only, you're limited by the number of analysts you have, that can actually speak that language and can actually sift through it. Even though you're starting out with this much, you've got to get it down to where, you know, three dozen people can actually analyze it, other wise, it's pretty useless. "
Bamford says it's impossible for the NSA to monitor every e-mail and phone call. And since the number of messages Sugar Grove downloads is staggering, that makes the process of deciding what to examine especially important. Bamford says NSA staff first determine if they know who is communicating. Then, they look at where the message is coming from or going to.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Initial filtering by area code/then by phone number) 03:16:27 -03:16:49 II 03:15:47 -03:15:58
"Members of AI Qaida, the U. S. has gotten phone numbers through informants and through capturing computers and so forth. So they will know a number of key phone numbers so that that's the first level is taking those out. And then there is this vast amount of communications that you don't know whether it's good or bad." II "You don't necessarily want the information going to the area code for Liechtenstein. But you definitely want information going to the area code for Afghanistan or Iran."
After this initial filtering there is still a flood of data to sort through. Logan says the software that a listening station like Sugar Grove uses is similar to that of Google search engines. These are programs that look for key words or phrases in the tower of babble that is the Internet.
Pat Logan -Pat Logan Tape 2 (Similar to Google) 00:05:23 -00:05:58
"If you keep in mind that it's going to be similar technology, if you were awestruck by how Google can correctly find you resources for background research on a story such as this, that's very similar in terms of operation to what surveillance software must do, in terms of being able to take the vast amount of data that has been pulled from minute by minute transmission, and to sift through and to create some piece of information that can be useful."
The NSA has excelled at this for a long time. For decades it was arguably the most sophisticated user of computer technology anywhere.
But its job is getting tougher, thanks to the Internet, cell phones and other communications technology. Now, the raw amount of data zipping around the globe at light speed is exploding.
Pat Logan -Pat Logan Tape 2 (Grows like Google) 00:04:25 -00:04:54
"The increased sophistication of search engines in fact is probably paralleling what happens at the NSA in terms of what they are doing with the application of software development to the problems ot; of surveillance and information gathering. That is Google and other search engines become better able to crawl all of the webspace of the world and to extract more data. That is the same thing that is happening with surveillance applications."
But it's not just the amount of data that's changed. The types of messages the NSA filters at Sugar Grove has changed as well. Bamford says in some ways The Soviet Union was easier to keep tabs on than the terrorist organizations targeted today.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Cold war to GWOT) 03:26:52 -03:27:28
"Back in the 80's when they were focused on the cold war it was mostly analog telephones there were some computers, not a lot of computers and some faxes. In the 90's there was this explosion of communications, modes of communications. Everybody has a PC and everybody is communicating via the Internet. With e-mails and so forth. Cell phones, everyone has a cell phone, especially in a lot of these countries that are target countries people are using cell phones all the time."
In fact in his most recent book, "A Pretext for War," Bamford quotes an NSA member on the issue. She said the U.S. intelligence system is both drowning in a flood of data and at the same time dying of thirst.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (drowning and dying of thirst) 03:18:45 -03:19:30
"Where you have this enormous volume of communications, and you're only looking for these one or two from these couple of terrorists here or there. Or members of hostile governments that we're after. And you've got to sort through this enormous amount of communications. So in a sense that you're drowning in all of this data, this communications. And in sense you're also going deaf at the same time because the amount that you're trying to hear is so faint. And so remote and so difficult to find. These few little phone calls that will give you an idea what may happen next in the war on terrorism. So you're faced at the same time with too much information and too little information."
He says the real limitation is personnel. There's a shortage of analysts and linguists. He says terrorists make this problem more evident by the types of places they establish themselves.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (Failed state linguists) 03:34:09 -03:34:55
"There is a tendency to go to places that have a vacuum in terms of a government. There are a number of places in Africa like that, such as Congo right now, which is going, for years has been going through chaos. So somebody at NSA has to think that maybe five years from now AI Qaida will set up a major organizational structure in a country like Congo, which has no real government in charge. Well, if that happens they are going to have to have a lot of people, who speak Lingala, because that's the language spoken in the Congo. And right now there's probably nobody, or one or two people who speak Lingala at NSA."
Another issue that will continue to challenge the agency is balancing the war on terror with civil liberties. In the mid-1970's the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the CIA and FBI routinely violated the privacy of Americans. Congress also uncovered similar problems at the NSA. The committee discovered that the NSA had been illegally monitoring possibly millions of cables and phone calls. Set of reforms came out of those investigations in 1978. They required the NSA to get special secret warrants to monitor possible spies, but with restrictions.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 (minimization) 03:59:01 -03:59:47
"I'm a legally a target of that communications because they've gotten a warrant for me. But if you call me up and you being a U. S. citizen, you're going to be on that conversation as well, but they don't have a court order to listen to your communications. So you being a U. S. citizen they would have to under this minimization procedure, just put down James Bamford spoke to a U. S. person, That's the term they use. He said this and the U. S. person said that, and this was the conversation. That was called minimization procedures and it was designed to protect you because no one has ever gotten a show cause why you should be eavesdropped on."
But there is a loophole. High-level government officials can get the full record, including the protected party's name, justby asking for it. The LA Times reported in April 2005 that top officials in the State Department used the minimization loophole thousands of times. Bamford says this has become much more common since 9-11.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 2 II 3 (Lots of names since 9-1//abuse of loophole) 03:57:28 -03:57:36 II 04:49:41 -04:49:49
"Since September 11 th and this war on terrorism it's become very common for NSA to give that out, give that information out. " II "That had always been a loophole, I knew that was a loophole there before September eleventh, but it had never been exploited as a loophole by government agencies."
He says now it looks like the exception to the minimization rule is being abused.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 3 04:51 :05 -04:51 :27
"The statistics I have are that there were at least 3500 requests, but the 3500 requests involve more than ten thousand names. So you're talking about 10000 people in the United States, that the government is reading their communications without any warrant, without ever going to a court."
And this does not include the expanded surveillance under a 2002 presidential order. According to the way that was described by the New York Times, it allowed the agency to totally bypass the minimization rule, without even using the loophole. The Times says in the last three years the NSA has monitored thousands of people in the U.S. without any court supervision, and possibly without even the paper trail left by minimization.
This context makes those small dishes at Sugar Grove more important. As you might expect, the NSA gives few specifics about Sugar Grove's mission, and has declined to comment for this story in spite of repeated requests.
But in recent years, NSA officials have made efforts to improve public communications, and an agencywide plan from 2000 declassified this spring suggests the small dishes might be part of the NSA's vision of its role in the future.
That declassified plan, called Transition 2001 says the NSA wants to keep a strong permanent presence on the global telecommunications infrastructure "where protected American communications and targeted adversary communications will co-exist." It also says the agency must "live on the network," and should rethink how it handles 4th amendment privacy protections.
But some people contend that given today's technology, our communications are vulnerable with or without facilities like Sugar Grove.
Attorney Dave Barnette with the Charleston law firm Jackson and Kelly specializes in communications law. He says he recommends that his clients always assume their messages are public.
Barnette -Barnette Tape (Control lost) 00:14:41 -00:15:15
"Once you have placed something out into the sea of electronic commerce, you have lost control of it. And because we are placing communications out into the internet world, into the ether world, because we are sending out signals which are receivable by satellites, because we are sending out things that basically we lose control over in the form of radiation, you can't then assume that there aren't people who would spend the time and money and resources to try and intercept those communications. "
He cites recent news stories as examples.
Barnette -Barnette Tape (examples) 00:15:26 -00:15:57
"Recently there was a California cell phone provider, Cingular, which has a parlicular type of telephone which allows you to store pictures on. We've seen the situation with Paris Hilton and the Limp Bizket lead singer, where they've had their cell phones hacked, they've had their lists of telephone numbers and pictures taken off their cell phones. And again we're not talking about something that requires a tremendous degree of technological skill to do this. We're talking about someone who is willing to break the law, and has basic computer knowledge and has a lot of time on their hands. "
Barnette says people should fear each other more than the government. He says authorities are just not that interested ir! looking at garden-variety secrets amid the huge wash of data moving through the air.
Barnette -Barnette Tape (Uncle Sam not interested) 00:19:03- 00:19:23
"If we're not engaging in inappropriate acts, in the context of being a terrorist or something like that, there really is no reason why the government would have interest in our own internal communications. It's just simply, they have enough to worry about, kind of situation. Rather than trying to track whether Bob and Jane are having an affair in Charleston, West Virginia."
But such "Trust the Government" arguments are not much comfort to Bamford. He says if the NSA decides to use the dishes at Sugar Grove to target someone, for whatever reason, there would be no place to hide. And he says since 9-11 the political climate has not been good for civil liberties.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 3 (No place to hide) 04:32:13 -04:32:34
"So you have this problem with this agency that has that capability, and if there is enough fear mongering that goes on in the country, which is what's been going on, no question, you'll get people that will say it's OK -let the NSA do whatever it wants to. And I think that's a very dangerous situation. "
In general, communications lawyer Barnette says most of the changes made since 9-11 should make Americans feel more secure.
Barnette -Barnette tape (Safeguards in law, patriot act good) 00:13:41 -00:14:10 "I think that since 9-11 probably the concern that some civil libertarians have is that once you have the ability to share information, it may be a sort of a creeping desire on the part of those with the ability to gather more information and pass that information along. I frankly don't think that that should be a significant concern to the ordinary person. There is simply no reason why the government is interested in the fact that you mayor may not be doing something that you shouldn't be doing, or don't want the public at large to know about."
But not everyone is reassured. Since we spoke to him last spring, Bamford has joined a lawsuit against the NSA over its domestic spying. He spoke to NPR's Michelle Norris on All Things Considered after the lawsuit was filed:
Norris "Do you believe the NSA listened to some of you phone calls or monitored your e-mails?"
Bamford "I think it's possible, the problem is nobody knows, because the one fire wall that previously existed between the NSA and the American public and me, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has been removed. There are key aspects that would indicate that maybe in their vacuum cleaner approach to eavesdropping, that our communications were picked up, or even targeted for all we know, since now that the court is being gone around that they could be eavesdropping on us very well in the United States and there is no check and balance."
He says the agency seems to be reverting to the abuses it committed before 1978, drifting into more and more illegal surveillance of innocent people.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 3 (Fear mongering and capability to abuse liberties) 04:53:13 -04:53:51
"If they have that capability there one day or another, maybe not today, or maybe not tomorrow, but the next day they are going to use that technique. So the idea is to keep it from them in the first place. I mean there have to be some, there has to be some level beyond which the government becomes the kind of government we were fighting against in the old days against communism. Where we were complaining because there was never any privacy in the Soviet Union, they could do anything they want, the KGB this and the KGB that. I mean what good is it if we end up becoming just like that?"
He sees an especially troubling technique showing up in the NSA's toolbox. It's what is known as data-mining - sifting through electronic databases to look for patterns and connections. Private firms like Lexus-Nexus and Choice Point operate and maintain most of these databases, so Bamford says they're not restricted to the rules that are supposed to keep government agencies in check.
Bamford -Sugar Grove Tape 3 (Data mining) 04:45:08 -04:45:39
"Because you bought a book at Barnes and Nobel one day about micro-biology. And another day bought a book about problems in the Middle East. And another day bought a book dealing with construction of armaments or something like that. All of a sudden you're a terrorism suspect and you may be eavesdropped on, surveilled or arrested or whatever."
Ultimately, Bamford says the political climate will determine how the NSA utilizes facilities like Sugar Grove.
Bamford -Sugar Grove tape 3 (Director's warning) 04:33:43 -04:34:14 II 04:34:36 -04:34:44
"Directors of NSA almost never testify in public before Congress. You can count on one hand the fingers the numbers of times this has happened. Well, one of the times he testified recently after September the 11th hearings, he basically made a plea. He said to the people in Congress, you've got to make that decision where you draw the line, how close you want to draw it. We can't make that decision; you've got to make that decision." II "It's a very useful agency, I'm very much in favor of NSA, it's a great agency. But it can be abused. It was abused in the past and it could be abused in the future."