YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THEY ALSO SERVE WHO WATCH AND LISTEN : California Is Home to More U.S. Operational Intelligence Activities Than Any Other State: A Look Behind Those Closed Doors

October 11, 1987|JAMES BAMFORD | James Bamford writes frequently on intelligence issues. His book on the National Security Agency, "The Puzzle Palace," became a best seller and received the Investigative Reporters and Editors book award. In addition, Bamford, who holds a law degree, has served as a consultant on intelligence matters to U.S. and British television networks, has testified on intelligence and secrecy policy before committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives and has served in the U.S. Naval Security Group, a military adjunct of the NSA, during the Vietnam War.

C\o7 alifornia is now home for more operational intelligence activities than any other state and all but a few foreign countries. It is where all U.S. spy planes are built and nearly all have their home bases. Most of America's spy satellites are designed, constructed, launched and controlled from here, and it is here that the intelligence community listens for Soviet submarines and eavesdrops on Soviet communications. This is also the gateway for many of America's international communications, which are promptly intercepted by the highly secret National Security Agency from a listening post in Washington state.

This composite look at 24 hours in California's world of high-tech espionage is based entirely on unclassified sources: declassified government documents, transcripts of congressional hearings, and published books and news accounts.

Although details concerning the location and operations of intelligence facilities may be unfamiliar to most Americans, such information is accessible to the Soviet Union. The Soviets' aggressive technical intelligence-collection program includes high-resolution photographic satellites that pass over the United States very frequently; antenna-covered trawlers that eavesdrop on defense communications from several dozen miles offshore; roof-top antennas at their embassy in Washington, their U.N. Mission in New York and their consulate in San Francisco; and their giant listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, which monitors much of the international satellite communication entering the United States.

The Soviets have also been aided, especially in recent years, by a long list of American turncoats. The Walker family spy ring passed on to the Soviets many of the Navy's most valuable secrets concerning how the United States keeps track of the Soviet submarine force; Ronald Pelton revealed many details concerning how the National Security Agency eavesdrops on Soviet communications, and Christopher Boyce turned over highly secret details of U.S. spy satellites.\f7

Midnight: U.S. Air Force Satellite Control Facility, Sunnyvale

A dark California night slides quietly into an early California morning. But in a massive, heavily guarded building in Sunnyvale, near San Francisco, workers are attuned to a different sense of time. Inside the baby-blue walls of the "Blue Cube," a giant, windowless structure surrounded by half a dozen large, dish-shaped antennas, sunrise was when the first rays of light broke low across the barren tundra of Russia's vast Siberia, about 14 hours earlier. And for the hundreds of security specialists following U.S. spy satellites, the day's cycle won't end until the sun sets on East Germany 12 hours hence.

For more than two decades, the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, as the Blue Cube is officially known, has been the nerve center that monitors and controls all U.S. military satellites. Reconnaissance satellites guided from mission-control centers within the Cube provide hours of live, close-up coverage of the most sensitive areas of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. Other secret satellites, known as "ferrets," eavesdrop on Soviet telephone conversations, monitor radar transmissions and spy on missile tests.

At consoles containing up to 20 IBM computer screens, technicians follow the orbits of more than 40 operational satellites, the most secret of which have always been the reconnaissance spacecraft.

America's orbital eye, the KH-11, is a massive 15-ton spacecraft that stands taller than a six-story building. It circles the earth every 90 minutes, and like all previous photo-intelligence satellites in the Keyhole (KH) program, it travels in a north-south, or polar, orbit. This means that twice a day, once in darkness and once in light, the satellite flies over Soviet missile bases, Chinese naval ports and virtually every other place on earth. From an altitude that dips to 170 miles, the satellite transmits what amount to live, video-like pictures of its targets.

In a crisis, officers in the Blue Cube could transmit a signal through one of seven worldwide tracking stations to activate small thruster rockets on the satellite. The rockets would maneuver the spacecraft into an orbit over the target, and other signals would turn the cameras on and off. In an hour, according to one official familiar with the system, a photo could be delivered to the White House.

Also controlled from the Cube are the "ferrets" or SIGINT (for signals intelligence) satellites, which intercept vast amounts of Soviet and Chinese communications and electronic signals as well as foreign and international telecommunications. One such satellite, an enormous 30,000-pound bird code-named Magnum, was secretly carried into space by the shuttle Discovery on Jan. 24, 1985.

Los Angeles Times Articles