Tuesday, June 11, 2013

From The Big Ear To The Universal Ear

In 1958 a radio silence zone was created in eastern West Virginia around the Green Bank radio telescope.  During the next few years it was thought there might be a way of monitoring of Soviet military/intel communications by catching them bouncing off the moon.  A project was initiated to do just that, the "Big  Ear," with a site selected at Sugar Grove, West VA, about 30 miles from Green Bank and within its radio silence zone, which would make it easier to pick up the signals.  For a variety of reasons this project was discontinued in 1962, but the materials and equipment were in place at Sugar Grove, just over the Shenandoah Mountain range from the central Shenandoah Valley, and became attractive to other customers for other communications purposes.

So it was that the Sugar Grove Naval Station opened in 1969, although with minimal publicity, under the oversight of the Naval Informations Operations Command (NAVIOCOM).  To the few who became aware of this station in the area it was let out that it was involved in long wave communications with submarines, which apparently was a function that it did.  Over time, a variety of obvious pieces of equipment appeared there that could carry out such activities, eventually three large dishes (each much smaller than the originally planned Big Ear), as well as some large circular arrays, all of this readily visible from nearby mountaintops, particularly Reddish Knob on the Shenandoah range, a high point where a James Madison University, Norlyn Bodkin, would find a previously unknown species of plant left over from the ice age, along with a parking lot, where students and many locals would regularly repair for picnics and wild parties, with all those very visible communications devices down below providing fodder for all kinds of amusing speculations.

And then in 1982 James Bamford published a book about an agency whose existence had previously been officially classified, although its existence had surfaced briefly during the 1975 Church committee on abuses by US intelligence agencies.  One upshot of those hearings related to this agency whose existence was still classified was a 1978 act establishing a secret court to determine when this agency (and any others) could listen to telephone calls by US citizens.  The agency was the National Security Agency (NSA), whose initials had long been claimed jokingly to stand for "Never Say Anything," 

Among the more important secrets revealed about the NSA in Bamford's book was about the Sugar Grove Naval Station.  Not only did it communicate with submarines, it also was the top listening post for the NSA on the US East Coast, able to listen to all long distance telephone calls, the technology of that time being that such calls were transmitted by shortwaves, with local calls sticking to cables.  While all such calls could be listened to, at that time only ones using key words and with foreigners were supposedly listened to, but the potential was clear for what could be done, particularly in connection with the NSA being the regular first customer for whatever was the latest Cray supercomputer to roll out of the barns in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which could be programmed to direct such mass targeting of long distance telephone calls.

Well, time and technology have moved on.  The importance of Sugar Grove began to decline in the 1990s as long distance calls increasingly were transmitted via fiber optic cables rather than shortwave transmissions, hence not readily picked up by the ears at Sugar Grove (not to mention that some attention got focused on the even more secret spy satellite operater NRO, whose existence had continued to be classified until then: how widely are they watching people?), although reportedly there was quite a bit of construction there during 2000-04.  I do not know how NSA sweeps up those calls now, but obviously they have the tech, and the computer tech has only massively increased. 

Last year in Wired magazine, Bamford reported that NSA was building a massive new data center in Utah, able to "intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks," as quoted in an article by the superknowledgeable Walter Pincus in today's Washington Post.  Not many paid much attention, any more than many had paid attention in 2006 when USA Today, of all sources, according to Pincus, had reported that NSA "has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth."  However, this did trigger some reaction with President Bush defending the program in terms reminiscent of those now defending PRISM, with NSA's ability to do this expanded with the 2008 FISA.

As for Sugar Grove, ironically the announcement of the end came just before Edward Snowden publicly revealed PRISM and related activities by the NSA, amounting to a Universal Ear picking up all telephone calls, not to mention a whole lot emails and other communications.  On April 23 of this year, NAVIOCOM sent an order moving the naval command at Sugar Grove to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.  I have no idea what, if anything, will still happen at Sugar Grove, but I suspect that those dishes and circular arrays will still be around for some time for the picnickers and partiers from around where I live in the central Shenandoah Valley to look at and speculate about while they do their things on top of Reddish Knob.

Barkley Rosser

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