When NSA moves out, its mysteries remain

Surprises: Astronomers who took over an abandoned spy base find remarkable, expensive and often incomprehensible stuff at every turn.

January 05, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TRANSYLVANIA COUNTY, N.C. - Along the long, twisting road through the Pisgah National Forest, the first sign that something is out of the ordinary is a line of giant transformers. Then, around the bend, a barbed-wire fence, guard shack and surveillance cameras protect what looks like nothing more than another hill of trees and dense shrubbery.

It is anything but.

This is the entrance to one of the National Security Agency's former spy stations, a place shrouded in secrets and denials, the source of local lore that seems right out of "X-Files."

What is inside that giant geodesic dome that looks like a golf ball? Where do the tunnels snaking beneath the 202-acre site lead? Why are the rugs welded to the floors of the windowless buildings?

Few people have been beyond these gates, deep inside the Appalachian Mountains, 50 miles southwest of Asheville.

The NSA abandoned the site to the U.S. Forest Service five years ago, leaving behind a deserted minicity in the middle of nowhere. Now, some of the secrets are being revealed.

Last year, with the base boarded up and close to demolition, the property was transferred to a group of astronomers in exchange for a piece of land in western North Carolina. Over the past year, they have begun piecing together the site's past.

"There are things on this site you will never see anywhere else," said site manager Jim Powers. "I've never had someone come here that wasn't blown away."

The astronomers, who formed the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, were attracted by two 85-foot satellites dishes on the site - some of the largest in the country - which could be repositioned to catch deep-space radio signals and allow them to study the life and death of stars.

When the group arrived in January 1999, they expected a basic, albeit large, government facility, but as the weeks passed they realized little about the site was what it appeared.

As they began to install their computers, they found hundreds of miles of top-of-the-line cabling running under every floor. They discovered that the self-contained water and sewer treatment plant could handle tens of thousands of gallons of water at a time and the generator could produce 235 kilowatts of energy - powerful enough to light up a small city.

In a basement room of one of the larger buildings, they found the entrance to a 1,200-foot tunnel system that connects two of the site's main buildings.

Every inch of floor in more than four buildings was covered with two-by-two-foot squares of bleak brown carpet. When the astronomers tried to replace it, they discovered it was welded with tiny metal fibers to the floor. The result, they eventually realized, is that the rugs prevent the buildings from conducting static electricity.

Even the regular lighting looks different, covered by sleek metal grids that prevent the light bulbs from giving off static interference. The few windows are bulletproof.

But what fascinated the astronomers was the still-operable security system that, among other things, sounds an alarm in the main building any time the front perimeter is crossed. The group can watch on monitors as cars approach from miles away.

Inside the site, the agency had taken further measures. One area is in a small, sunken river ravine surrounded by barbed wire and an additional guard post. Steps, with reflective metal paneling to shield the identity of those walking beneath, lead down a small hill and wind their way to two small buildings with conference rooms inside - both of which once emanated "white noise" to prevent electronic eavesdropping.

What Powers and several others in the group find remarkable, though, is not just the expansive network of buildings and security, but the extraordinary cost of all they items they have found - items the agency discarded.

He said the extensive fiber optic cabling that runs for miles under the floors and through the tunnel system is the most expensive on the market.

When a state regulator came out to issue a permit for a massive underground storage tank with a double lining, the astronomers said he told them he wished he had a camera. He wanted to take a picture to show his co-workers because he had never seen a system so sophisticated.

And the agency didn't just install one water tank; it installed two. In a basement room, beneath a system that pressurizes wells, is another system just like it.

"You see this kind of thing everywhere here," Powers said. "They never have just one of something."

Even most of the heavy bolt locks - which every door has - are covered by black boxes locked with padlocks.

Despite the site's stark appearance, there are some human - and humorous - vestiges. A bright happy face is painted on the smallest of the four satellite dishes on the site, something one former employee said was done so that they could "smile back at the Russians."

Inside the tunnels, too, are chalk drawings of animals and warriors resembling those found in caves thousands of years ago.

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