The NSA's Invisible Eye
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THE NSA's INVISIBLE EYE
(Original headline: NSA Listens From Army's Yakima Training Center )
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Just a few miles north of town, the National Security Agency is eavesdropping on the world with satellite dishes that pick up satellite and microwave signals from cell phones, e-mails and home phones.
The listening post has a view of Interstate 82 from its location on the Army's gigantic Yakima Training Center, but it may be one of the best kept secrets in the Pacific Northwest.
That could change during the debate over Bush administration surveillance of domestic communications with parties overseas.
"In the entire country, it happens to be in your back yard," said James Bamford, a former network news investigative producer who documented the Yakima installation in his 1982 book about the NSA, "The Puzzle Palace."
"It doesn't make noise, doesn't send smoke," he said. "It's almost invisible. The whole agency is virtually invisible."
Bamford and others keyed into electronic eavesdropping say the Yakima Research Station has played a major role for decades in Echelon, the global surveillance network operated by the NSA and its counterparts in the British Commonwealth -- Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
And it has a sister installation in Sugar Grove, W.Va.
According to Bamford, the low-profile NSA has 58,000 employees in the United States and abroad -- more than the CIA and FBI combined. Its budget, reportedly more than $6 billion, is classified.
Created by a secret executive order signed by President Truman in 1952, the agency spent its early days wiretapping telephones and telegraph lines. By the late 1960s, it had a growing array of listening posts capable of intercepting satellite signals.
Because the Earth is curved, intercepting satellite communications takes teamwork. The result is Echelon and its network of listening posts. The biggest is thought to be at Menwith Hill north of London.
Patrick Radden Keefe, author of "Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping," contends the Yakima site is even more mysterious.
"People don't know a lot about it (Menwith Hill) but at least they know it's there, because you have 1,400 people who live and work there going out into the surrounding communities," he said in a recent telephone interview.
"Of the different listening posts around the country and the world, Yakima was the hardest one for me to get any information about."
Neither Keefe nor Bamford could say how many people work at the Yakima Research Station.
They say it is used mainly for intercepting and relaying communications, not analyzing data or translating foreign languages. They doubt its size is anything close to Menwith Hill but concede they don't know for sure.
"These bases tend to keep a very low profile," Keefe explained. "That's part of the point."
Passers-by can see the satellite dishes from the freeway north of Selah, but that's as close as they're likely to get.
Access is severely restricted, enforced by its location inside a 260,000-acre Army base used primarily for artillery training and target practice.
The base's official Web site does not mention the installation.
"We really don't have any comment about the research station," center spokesman Jim Reddick told the Yakima Herald-Republic last week.
According to Bamford, such installations have the capability to analyze 2 million intercepts an hour, which are then whittled down to one or two reports a day for NSA brass at agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
Supercomputers scan for key words and phrases -- kind of like a Google search, except they can handle billions of instructions per second.
Because of its size and relative isolation, the Yakima provides a quiet electronic background. Keefe says the "frontier-style" isolation may explain the installation's Echelon code name: Cowboy.
At issue in the debate are provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The law established a special court that for 27 years has reviewed warrant applications by the U.S. attorney general for authorization of electronic surveillance aimed at obtaining foreign intelligence information.
The administration, citing wartime powers, contends the law does not apply to pursuit of al-Qaida terrorists living in the U.S. and communicating with handlers overseas.
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