Fortress of secrecy rising in downtown Newark

Construction site of FBI's N.J. headquarters tower under surveillance

August 04, 2002|By Mitchel Maddux | Mitchel Maddux,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - There is a North Jersey office construction project that has been under surveillance by a team of FBI agents, 24 hours a day, since work began last fall.

Every worker walking into the fenced-off parcel, from laborers and plasterboard installers to electricians and carpenters, has already been investigated by the FBI, which scrutinized their personal history for any troubling associations.

"You can't get on the site without a security clearance," said Bill Evanina, an FBI special agent.

The federal agents have a very good reason for the intense scrutiny. The 12-story edifice rising on the west bank of the Passaic River in downtown Newark is the FBI's own New Jersey headquarters.

Fear of spies

And the chief reason for all of the security precautions is a fear of foreign spies - international espionage, right here in northern New Jersey.

"Their goal is to put in listening devices," said a U.S. intelligence expert. "Our goal is to protect against that."

Louie F. Allen, the FBI special agent in charge for New Jersey, said that's why his agents watch the building site non-stop.

"We're part of the intelligence community, and we handle a lot of top-secret and sensitive investigations," Allen said "We have agents there, so the building will be electronically clean."

The FBI is better-known for its role in investigating bank robberies and other federal crimes, but teams of FBI agents are assigned to the clandestine duty of finding foreign spies operating on American soil.

In New Jersey, these spies most likely spend their time trying to monitor activities of key defense installations, such as the U.S. Army's Picatinny Arsenal, where top-secret weapons are developed, and the Army's high-tech communications center at Fort Monmouth.

Equally attractive for foreign spies are the research and technological developments in the state's pharmaceutical, chemical, and telecommunications industries, intelligence experts said. Spies for foreign governments commonly try to steal proprietary information that can help their nations develop competing products and strengthen their economies, experts said.

FBI officials declined to discuss any aspect of foreign spying in New Jersey, and they would not name the foreign countries that maintain the most secret agents in the United States.

But there's plenty of evidence that the FBI's fears are well founded. Nearly 50 Russian diplomats in New York and Washington were expelled last year, after they were suspected of spying. And last month, an Iraqi diplomat posted to the United Nations in Manhattan was also asked to return home.

Russia and China maintain consular offices in Manhattan. Both nations are believed to have many spies working undercover in the United States, experts said.

If foreign intelligence agencies could install bugs in the FBI's new Newark office tower, they could monitor what agents have discovered about the foreign penetration of New Jersey by intelligence agents.

Concrete checks

The team of FBI agents manning the round-the-clock watch on the Newark building often inspects concrete before it dries, one official said. Construction materials are also examined for bugs.

Call that a lesson learned during the mid-1980s, when construction of a new U.S. Embassy in Moscow was halted upon the discovery of tens of thousands of tiny electronic bugs embedded in the concrete of the building's new walls.

Occasional sweeps of the Newark building are made by FBI electronic countermeasures specialists using bug-detection devices, experts said.

"You always go looking for the power sources and the antenna," said one expert.

Allen said he did not believe that FBI agents had discovered any bugs in the tower.

As a precaution, intelligence units in FBI offices in the United States and CIA units abroad often change their office spaces to disrupt possible efforts to monitor their conversations, experts said.

To be sure, the CIA overseas and the FBI at home do their best to bug the offices of foreign governments abroad or embassies in Washington, intelligence experts said.

"It's just a big cat-and-mouse game," the expert said.

Listening device technology is so highly advanced now that bugs can be placed into all sorts of items found in an office, experts said.

"You can disguise them in lamps, any items in your desk, in a desktop computer, a [fire suppression] sprinkler head, anything you have in your office you could have a listening device in it," said Bill Fischer, the president of Electronic Countermeasures Inc., a Canadian firm that specializes in helping corporate clients detect "bugs" and protect internal company information.

"You've heard of the phrase, `know your enemy' - that's Step 1," he said about why foreign spies would eavesdrop on the FBI. "You find out the questions they're asking; that way you know what they know - and that way you also know what they don't know."

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