Double lives: Elite eavesdroppers work undercover abroad, drawing closer to their targets

ESPIONAGE FROM THE FRONT LINES

No Such Agency

December 08, 1995|By Tom Bowman and Scott Shane | Tom Bowman and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

After U.S. consulate employee Gary C. Durell was killed by terrorist bullets this spring in Pakistan, Amer-ican officials met his flag-draped coffin at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and mourned the loss of the 44-year-old father of two from Severn.

They praised him for serving his country. But they carefully sidestepped the nature of his work.

Mr. Durell was a spy for the Special Collection Service, an elite eavesdropping unit culled from the ranks of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency. In Karachi, Pakistan, SCS operatives picked up secrets on drug trafficking, terrorist networks and nuclear arms from a windowless room deep inside the U.S. consulate.

Even within the closed intelligence community, SCS has been a secret within a secret since it was created in the late 1970s. The directorship of the special service is switched every four years between the two spy agencies, most of whose employees know little about it.

Interviews with SCS veterans and other NSA employees, together with condolence letters and documents provided by Mr. Durell's family, offer a unique glimpse into this ultrasecret organization.

Mr. Durell and other SCS operatives officially resign from intelligence work to pose as diplomats, corporate employees or government workers in U.S. embassies and consulates overseas.

In Karachi, Mr. Durell was listed as a "State Department communications officer." He was targeted with two other U.S. consulate workers as they drove along a busy street in a commuter van.

The more volatile the country, the more likely SCS will be there listening; Mr. Durell's [See NSA, 20a] death underscored the danger to these undercover operatives.

As foreigners use stronger encryption and more sophisticated efforts to shield their communications, such hands-off techniques as spy satellites often can be ineffective. American eavesdroppers must draw closer to their prey.

Before heading overseas, Mr. Durell and his SCS colleagues prepared at a training site in Maryland, disguised as a high-tech company and hidden by thick woods. It does not appear on zoning maps. At the end of a long driveway is a guardhouse. A uniformed guard will say only that it's a Department of Defense facility.

From this massive two-building complex, Mr. Durell left for covert assignments in distant countries: Djibouti in East Africa, Thailand, India and finally Pakistan.

At what is cryptically called the "Maryland field site" in unclassified NSA documents, the undercover eavesdroppers learn to use sophisticated listening equipment, some the size of a briefcase and others stacked like a living-room stereo set. They are trained to work from locked rooms inside diplomatic facilities to glean political and military secrets from the ether.

Those who join SCS are told to be on guard when they head down a wooded road toward the Maryland field site.

"They tell people, 'Always be aware,' " says one NSA employee. "If someone's following, go around a loop, take the tag number and notify security."

NSA has often been derided in the spy world as a haven for desk-bound technicians who rarely venture far from their ranch homes in the quiet subdivisions around NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. But there are hundreds of people working for SCS whose lives mirror the characters in spy novels.

When they leave the Maryland field site, they have cover stories, foreign currency and business cards - complete with the phone number of a fictitious boss who will vouch for them. To avoid asking directions or otherwise calling attention to themselves, they have studied photograph albums detailing the landmarks and intersections in their new neighborhoods. Most have been formally appointed to the U.S. Foreign Service, bearing a certificate signed by the secretary of state and the president.

They must also memorize how they purportedly traveled to State Department headquarters, where they supposedly worked in Washington. What bus did they take? What Metro stop was

closest? Nothing is left to chance.

More than an attache

Gary Durell was a perfect SCS recruit. Not only did he have a military background with postings overseas, but he was unassuming and discreet. Even his hobbies were the solitary pursuits of hunting and fishing.

A native of Alliance, Ohio, he learned his craft in the Air Force, serving as a military eavesdropper at U.S. bases in Texas and Italy. Joining NSA in 1977, he spent the next eight years at the Chicksands Royal Air Force Base, an NSA listening post in the English countryside north of London. In 1987, Mr. Durell left one spy world for another, and joined SCS.

For more than five years, he worked under State Department cover in Bangkok, Thailand; Bombay, India; and Djibouti, a small country above the horn of Africa. His clandestine reports were sent by satellite link to a vast complex of antennas adjoining the Maryland field site.

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