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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.

After astronauts released Magnum in a low earth orbit, about 150 miles high, analysts within the Blue Cube took over. The technicians in Sunnyvale fired the satellite's upper-stage rocket, propelling the spacecraft to a geostationary orbit 22,240 miles above the Equator. Once there, Magnum was put through scores of adjustments to make its orbit circular and move it into its precise "parking slot." This is probably over the Indian Ocean or Indonesia, where its giant 75-foot antennas can point toward the landmass of the Soviet Union and China. Signals collected in its membrane-thin dishes are relayed in code to the super-secret National Security Agency at Ft. Meade near Washington.

4 a.m. U.S. Naval Security Group Activity, Skaggs Island

As the first hints of daylight begin to turn the jet-black sky to a dark blue, the engineers and technicians within the Cube begin heading to lunch. Also opening up their brown bags and dropping quarters into vending machines is another group of high-tech spies enclosed in another windowless building about 50 miles north of Sunnyvale.

Located in a foggy marsh of serpentine sloughs and peat-dirt levees, this gray cement cube is surrounded by what looks like a series of mammoth, concentric wire fences reaching up to eight stories in height. The fence-like structure, nicknamed "the elephant cage," is actually an enormous antenna enclosing the thick, two-story home of the U.S. Naval Security Group Activity, Skaggs Island. A unit of the NSA, its mission is to monitor Soviet naval activity throughout the North Pacific.

After lunch, the several dozen Navy cryptologic technicians, clad in blue denim work uniforms, begin drifting back to their battered typewriters and large gray radio receivers. Once again they slip on their earphones, reach up to large black dials and begin searching through their assigned frequencies for a familiar "fist"--a Soviet Morse-code operator whose individual tap is as good as a signature. While a ship might change its radio call-sign to camouflage its identity and thus its location, an extra slow "dash" or a sloppy "e" on the telegrapher's key can be a dead giveaway. Elsewhere in the operations center automated teleprinters chatter constantly as rolls of paper layered with carbons are turned black with intercepted Soviet teletype messages.

Catching the Soviet naval broadcasts, however, is only half the problem. Frequently, it's even more important to discover the exact location of the vessel that sent the message. This is especially true with submarines, which come out of their deep hiding places only rarely and then just to send a message.

The station's "Classic Bullseye" division will attempt to pinpoint such targets as the new Soviet Typhoon-class submarine, a lethal monolith longer than the Washington Monument is high, which packs a deadly punch of 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once a Soviet sub pops its antenna above the surface and transmits its message, the signal will strike one part of the Skaggs Island "elephant cage" antenna a thousandth of a second before it strikes the other parts. This will indicate the direction of the broadcast, and when they combine, or "triangulate," this information with similar reports from other Navy listening posts surrounding the Pacific, the Bullseye team can fix the exact location of the distant Soviet "boomer."

Information collected by Skaggs Island experts will be transmitted over a secure communications link or delivered by courier to NSA headquarters. There, in A Group, the agency's large Soviet section, the coded Russian messages will be attacked by super-fast computers while the uncoded material will be studied by analysts.

6 a.m. Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc

By 6 in the morning, daylight has migrated westward from the cool flat deserts of Nevada and Arizona to the giant steel monoliths towering above the Pacific coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. At Space Launch Complex 4, a sea of chalk-colored cement slabs and tall red launch platforms, workers in hard hats are once again at work stacking sections of a Titan 34D rocket for the launch of a spy satellite.

Since August, 1960, when the first successful launch and recovery of a prototype reconnaissance satellite took place, Vandenberg has been the principal launch site for most of the nation's spy satellites. The reason is location. To reach a low polar orbit, from which they can observe virtually every place on earth once a day, the birds must be fired to the west. If launched from Cape Canaveral, they would have to travel over populated areas during the critical seconds after liftoff.

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