'Mechanic to the Spies' has NSA for neighbor

March 30, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

Clifford Roop is used to needling from his friends.

"What do you hear?" they ask.

"Nothing," he always replies.

"If there's ever a nuclear war," they joke, "you'll be the first to go."

The 40-year-old Severna Park resident and service station owner could go by another name: Mechanic to the Spies.

His Colony 7 Shell station is within a few yards of the top-secret National Security Agency, the government's eavesdropper. NSA collects information from satellites and sensitive listening posts all over the world before processing it within shouting distance of Pump No. 2.

Just behind Mr. Roop's four-bay station looms an eerie collection of antennas, microwave dishes, huge golf-ball-like devices and boxy buildings with glassy exteriors. It's all part of the sprawling, shadowy complex sometimes jokingly labeled "No Such Agency."

Actually the Colony 7 Shell probably is the only commercial service station in the country within the borders of an intelligence agency. Maybe it should be renamed Colony 007 Shell. Like its neighbor, it's always vigilant: open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

NSA scooped up the gas station property -- along with a doughnut shop -- seven years ago, part of an estimated 256-acre deal costing $7.7 million, according to state and county records.

The aim was to control the future of the neighboring commercial area and use the land that skirts northward along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway for expansion, said Lester Purcell, an official with the Linthicum field office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which handled the real estate transaction.

The parcel was bought for "certain special projects," Mr. Purcell

said. "What they have in mind for that is between them and the rest of the government."

Three years after that purchase, in July 1990, NSA had the Corps of Engineers buy an additional nine acres, including the Colony 7 Motor Inn site, for $5 million, records show.

"Our client, who is just behind that parcel of property, thought it would not be in their interests to have a commercial property" nearby, Mr. Purcell said. The motel has been turned into the NSA Cryptologic Museum.

But though the motel is gone and the doughnut shop followed suit -- after a brief life as a Greek restaurant -- Mr. Roop keeps pumping gas at the station he's owned for nine years. He has the only business in sight.

The station has a lease with the former owner -- Baltimore Washington Parkway Associates in Laurel -- which continues with the government. Mr. Roop pays his monthly rent to Shell, which in turn pays the U.S. Treasury.

Before Mr. Roop begins to talk, a station employee comes up from behind, warning him not to talk in a guttural stage whisper: "They'll . . . kill . . . you."

"I guess they like what we're doing -- we're still here," said Mr. Roop, before gesturing toward the high fence. "That's where most of my money comes from, over there. They've been great neighbors."

But there's not the idle chatter and good-natured banter found at other stations.

"They say they work for DOD [Department of Defense]. They don't talk about their work at all," said Mr. Roop, recalling that some even have been skittish about giving their work telephone numbers when they drop off their cars for repairs.

Mr. Roop's shuttle van carries the top-secret customers inside the gates of "The Puzzle Palace." But employees must first flash their ID cards. "As long as I have the right person in the car, we can get in," he said.

Among the part-time employees at Colony 7 Shell have been NSA civilian and military workers, as well as children of NSA workers. But Mr. Roop hears and knows little about what goes on inside the fence.

"I've learned," he said. "Don't ask."

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