Radomes in the Desert, Radomes on the Moor
The Invisible Architecture of Echelon
You cannot help but note the juxtaposition. Here, away from the world, amid rolling pastures, on a tract of land where the air is redolent of cow dung, lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet. England’s North Yorkshire moors are, after all, cow country. Leaving the elegant Victorian spa town of Harrogate, my taxi winds west through eight miles of verdant countryside. Just outside the city, the traffic thins, and what cars we pass seem to go much slower than they need to—a deliberate, agrarian pace. Fields are set off by a network of hedges beneath a panoramic, cloudless sky. Sheep congregate here and there, and dozens of cows lounge by crumbling stone walls, some gazing as we whiz by, others chewing their cuds, oblivious.
I have been warned, seen photos—I know what to expect. But as the first dome hovers into sight, I catch my breath. The bucolic road winds and rises and falls, and as we dip and rise again and crest a hill the tip of a great white sphere, shimmering in the summer heat, becomes visible in the distance. One giant dimpled dome, a great Kevlar golf ball. Then suddenly four domes, and then eight, as others float into view above the hill. A dip in the road and they’re obscured again and then again in sight.
As the taxi rounds the perimeter fence, the base becomes visible in flashes through a row of trees. The white globes are called radomes, and each houses a satellite dish antenna, protecting it from the elements and masking its orientation—the dome itself is just a kind of skin. I count twenty-eight of these domes in all, ghostly white against the green of the countryside. They look otherworldly.
And in a sense, they are. The dishes are hidden inside the radomes because their supersensitive antennae are trained on a corresponding set of satellites hovering more than twenty thousand miles above. Some of those are communications satellites that transmit secure messages to other intelligence installations around the world. Some are spy satellites, which take photographs, intercept communications, and use Global Positioning Systems to pinpoint the locations of various individuals or vehicles around the planet. And some of the satellites are regular commercial communications satellites, the kind that transmit your telephone calls and Internet traffic across the oceans. The first two varieties of satellite were built specifically to correspond with the base. This third kind, however, was not. These satellites are managed by a company called Intelsat, and the signals they relay are private, civilian communications. But the base collects these signals, too, soundlessly and ceaselessly intercepting great flows of private communications every minute of every hour. The sign at the gate reads: RAF Menwith Hill.
I approach the sandbagged entrance, smile at the grave British military policemen who stand guard, and peer inside. RAF stands for Royal Air Force, but the name is a deliberate misnomer. The base was built in the 1950s on land purchased by the British Crown, but in 1966 the site was taken over by the American National Security Agency. Thus while the station is nominally an RAF base, it is actually home to more than twelve hundred Americans. These people live in housing within the perimeter of the fence, send their children to primary and secondary school within the fence, use their own grocery store, post office, sports center, pub, and bowling alley, all within the fence. The bowling alley, in a questionable piece of nomenclature for a base that is instrumental to America’s nuclear program, is called the Strike Zone. There are houses and a chapel and a playground and a full-sized track and baseball diamond. The whole base covers 560 acres. Beneath a curling ribbon of razor wire, armed men with dogs patrol the fence.
While we are accustomed, in this age of American power projection, to the idea of full-time military personnel living in this type of enclave abroad, I was surprised to learn that the majority of the employees at Menwith Hill are in fact civilians: engineers, technicians, mathematicians, linguists, and analysts. The NSA has always employed large numbers of civilian contractors: professionals, generally with technical expertise, who satisfy the rigorous background tests and security clearances to work at the forefront of the most secret field in American intelligence. These people come from aerospace and technology firms that do regular contract work for the government. They move their belongings and their families to the base, drawn by the allowances made for them: free housing, free shipping of their furniture and cars, and most of all, a tax-free salary. They work in three eight-hour shifts, so that the great interception machine does not shut down. They work Christmas and New Year’s Day, and through the routine protests outside the gates of the base on the Fourth of July. There are linguists trained in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, and the gamut of European languages. With another four hundred or so personnel from the British Ministry of Defence, this single quietly humming spy station, which the vast majority of British and American civilians have never heard of, has a staff as large as all of Britain’s storied domestic-intelligence service, MI5.
At the Black Bull Inn, a local pub, the night before my visit to the base, a couple of teenagers drinking pints of bitter and eating chicken curry–flavored potato chips at the bar joked about the carloads of beautiful young American women, “the Menwith Hill girls,” whom they occasionally see. The women drive American cars with the steering wheel on the left and head out to pubs in surrounding villages or into Harrogate or York on the weekends, before returning to disappear behind the fence. If the social life of these women has the quality of an apparition to the locals, their professional life is even more obscure. One of the boys at the bar, reed thin with dark hair and an eyebrow ring, said he had worked at “the Hill” for a while, in the cafeteria, but that the base was segregated into the Upper Hill and the Lower Hill, that there was a strict division between the living areas and the working areas, and that his security clearance, which in and of itself had required a battery of forms, questions, checks, and tests, was inadequate to let him get anywhere near the real activity on the base. He said that as far as he could tell, much of the work happens in the untold stretches of the Hill that are underground. “But from what I hear,” he said, raising a conspiratorial brow and eyeing my notebook to make sure I was getting this, “it’s an alien-testing zone.” His mates cackled at this, and all the louder when they saw me dutifully scribbling it down.
I stand at the entrance and, craning my neck, gaze through the fence. The guards are toting machine guns and look at me with idle curiosity. A digital screen by a cluster of low buildings flashes messages to cars driving into the base. Raike and Massage Tuesday Night . . . Geico Insurance Every Thursday . . . Karaoke Thursday Night . . . Drinking and Driving Wrecks Lives.
“Pardon me, sir,” one of the guards clears his throat. He nods to indicate something behind me.
A blue sedan is idling, waiting to get past. I move aside. The driver is a young woman in a sweatshirt, her hair pulled back. We make eye contact for a second. She’s about my age—a Menwith Hill girl! The guards wave her through, and she’s gone.
Inside the fence, in one-story, windowless buildings and in high-tech underground basements, the Menwith Hill girls join their colleagues in the clandestine interception of billions of communications per day. It has been claimed that all telecommunications traffic in and out of Europe that passes through Britain is intercepted by the base.
This is the inscrutable face of American intelligence in the twenty-first century. When the Iron Curtain fell, it ruptured the fixed geography of Europe and the world, unleashing a slow tectonic shift that continues to alter the geopolitical landscape to this day. The end of the cold war also changed the nature of intelligence activities for the United States and its allies. The decentralization of the threat that had been posed by the Soviets, combined with a reduced defense budget, a new sense of optimism, and a diminished American tolerance for military casualties, led to a pronounced reduction in the number of human spies on the ground. Gone are the trench-coated cold warriors of John le Carré novels, the CIA spies who were at the vanguard of cold war intelligence, sent to infiltrate the opposition or work out of embassies, recruit moles and double agents, and risk their lives in the process. Human intelligence, or Humint, was already in a steady decline by the end of the cold war, and it continued to dwindle as an American priority through the 1990s. In 1998, Porter Goss, the Florida congressman and former CIA case officer who was the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee and in September 2004 was appointed director of the CIA, declared simply, “It is fair to say that the cupboard is nearly bare in the area of human intelligence.”
But while American politicians were unwilling to sacrifice the lives of spies in countries that no longer played a decisive role against the Soviets or those of soldiers in places such as Mogadishu or Sarajevo, they were more than willing to invest in new technologies to fight wars and gather intelligence, as it were, by remote control. In a succession of conflicts, the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations made it clear that the United States, wherever possible, would prefer to use gadgets instead of humans. In the words of former CIA operative Robert Baer, “The theory was that satellites, the Internet, electronic intercepts, even academic publications would tell us all we needed to know about what went on beyond our borders.”
Arguably, this trend was nothing new. Since the 1970s there had been a growing sense that as technology advanced, it might displace the agent on the ground. Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter’s director of central intelligence, met with Carter twice per week to give him tutorials on the various kinds of intelligence collection the United States was engaged in. Turner felt that he and the president shared a “technical bent” and observed that they both had come to regard the “traditional human spy” as basically outmoded.
But what was an inkling for these men became a conviction for subsequent administrations, as a combination of gadgetry and money appeared to provide a way around sending agents on risky assignments. In the July/August 2001 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, just weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, a former CIA officer named Reuel Marc Gerecht published an article deploring a total absence of effective on-the-ground human intelligence in the Middle East. He concluded, “Unless one of Bin Laden’s foot soldiers walks through the door of a U.S. consulate or embassy, the odds that a CIA counterterrorist officer will ever see one are extremely poor.”
Since the founding, more than a half century ago, of the NSA, there has been a prevailing understanding that while the world of intelligence matters was very secret and not something that should be discussed with anyone not in the know, the world of signals intelligence was the most secret of all. You can detect this hierarchy of secrecy even in prevalent jokes about the agencies. The old saw about the NSA, which was created not by Congress but by President Harry Truman in a secret executive order on October 24, 1952, was that NSA stood for “No such agency” or “Never say anything.” This mantra must have been enthusiastically adopted from the start, because for the first two decades of its existence the NSA was not acknowledged by the federal government and did not appear in any annual federal intelligence budgets, its allocations buried in other, inconspicuous-looking items. This despite the fact that at the time the agency employed more than ten thousand people. By contrast, the joke about the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, which does human intelligence, was that OSS stood for, “Oh so social.” This may explain why most Americans can tell you quite a bit about the CIA today, while a surprising number have never heard of the NSA. Few could tell you what it does or where it is located. It is rarely discussed in newspapers, and despite all the talk of chatter on the nightly news, the acronym NSA rarely impinges on the consciousness of the average American.
The NSA operates out of a massive edifice of reflective black glass, its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. Even the architecture of the “Puzzle Palace,” as it is sometimes known, repels efforts to figure out what is going on inside. It is literally a black box. We do know that the agency employs more mathematicians than any other organization in the world and that the campus at Fort Meade is the densest concentration of computer power on the planet. Just one of the agency’s Cray supercomputers can handle sixty-four billion individual instructions per second.
The NSA’s work is divided into two functions: communications security and signals intelligence. The former involves creating secure communications and cryptography for America’s political leaders and military. The latter responsibility involves listening in. Part of the reason it is hard to gather information on the NSA is that the agency is not a user of its own intelligence. There are no gun-toting NSA agents who go out into the field and act on the intelligence the agency has gathered. The Puzzle Palace only provides intelligence to other agencies and to politicians and generals. In that sense, it is passive. It just sits and listens.
The reason for all of this secrecy is obvious: eavesdropping works only if the person you are monitoring does not know he or she is being monitored. When the press reported in 1998 that American intelligence was intercepting the satellite-telephone conversations of Osama Bin Laden, he promptly stopped using that phone. The lesson is clear: when your quarry knows you can break his code, he will devise a new one. Worse yet is the whole string of possibilities for deliberate deception. After spikes in terrorist chatter set off a series of alarms about impending terrorist strikes in various places around the world in 2003, some observers of the intelligence community speculated that Al Qaeda was deliberately throwing out red herrings on frequencies they knew were being monitored by the NSA. ...