NORAD to limit tours of military bunker at Cheyenne Mountain

Concerns about security, increase in terrorism spurring new policy

January 31, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Most people will no longer be allowed inside Cheyenne Mountain, the massive granite bunker that is home to NORAD and other military operations.

Citing increased concerns about terrorism, commanders from U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command have announced an end to a 33-year tradition of public tours inside the mountain.

The military will honor reservations scheduled through April 2. After that, tours will be limited to a building outside the mountain and will include a video presentation on the mountain's elaborate interior.

Groups, such as civic leaders or Rotarians, will continue to get tours inside the mountain as long as Space Command officials can verify whom they are letting in. But access will not be guaranteed.

"We have to have confidence that we know who [the visitors] are," said Navy Cmdr. Dave Knox, a Space Command spokesman. "If someone just calls in and asks for a tour, we have no way to confirm who they are, and we cannot let them in the mountain."

The mountain is the hub for NORAD and Space Command, which are responsible for monitoring all activity in space and warning of an aircraft or missile attack on North America.

About 20,000 people, about half of them members of organized groups, tour the inside of the mountain annually.

Recent security inspections found that allowing tourists into the mountain without background checks constitutes a "significant security risk."

The only way to reduce this risk would be to do a background check on all visitors not affiliated with a specific group, which would be too expensive and an invasion of privacy, Knox said.

Officials are still considering how they will verify that groups they allow inside the mountain include just members of those groups. Knox said they probably will ask for membership lists to confirm identities.

No specific threats have been made against Cheyenne Mountain, Knox said. The tour changes come because of increased terrorist activity worldwide.

The last potential threat to the mountain came in April 1997, when officials learned a group was planning to harm the mountain. Knox declined to give specifics, and nothing ever came of the threat. Public tours were halted for about a week at that time.

Tours were suspended for nine months during the Persian Gulf war, resuming in April 1991.

Besides protecting the mountain's mission and the roughly 1,400 people who work there, the changes will also protect the public. Knox said a terrorist action would probably do most harm to other people on the tour.

Building the complex within Cheyenne Mountain took five years, 500 tons of explosives and $142 million. The complex became fully operational in 1966.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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