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  NSA abandons wondrous stuff
Surprises: Astronomers who took over an abandoned spy base find remarkable, expensive and often incomprehensible stuff at every turn.
By Laura Sullivan
Sun National Staff

Originally published Jan 5 2001

"There are things on this site you will never see anywhere else."

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.

Aside from the rustling of deer and the wild turkeys that run rampant across the hundreds of vacant parking spaces, everything about the place is now eerily quiet.

Paperwork in the guard shack is held in place by a stapler though no one has been inside the small building in years. Security cameras still work and alarms all still sound, though no one is listening.

When the agency withdrew in 1995, some of the 300 workers, especially those who grew up locally and got hired on as groundskeepers and mechanics, returned to the nearby towns, though many say they are still forbidden to talk about their work.

Most of the others - the security officers, military personnel and cryptologists - left the area for their next Department of Defense post.

The site dates back to the early 1960s, when a scaled-down version was carved out to support the space program. It was operated at first by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and scientists used the early satellite dishes to track the flights into outer space and kept the door open for school groups and visitors who wanted to learn more about space missions.

But suddenly in 1981, the NSA took over from NASA. Local hikers and hunters who stumbled onto some of the agency's acreage would be suddenly surrounded by armed guards who appeared as if from nowhere to escort them out of the woods. Vans with darkened windows shuttled past the local coffee shops, fueling rumors.

The agency's presence was hard on the local employees as well.

Don Powell began working on the site in 1967 as a car mechanic and spent the next three decades learning the mechanics of every inch of the satellite dishes for the Defense Department. He also learned to avoid questions about his work and to lie to his neighbors.

For 15 years people would approach him and the few other local workers, asking what was out there, what they did and, of course, what is that golf ball?

"The kids would always ask, what's in [that] giant dome?"

He would tell them it was "filled with chocolate pudding," he said. "I couldn't even tell my wife. I couldn't tell anyone."

The 1995 closure appears to have caught the agency by surprise. It had recently cleared several more areas and laid the foundations for additional smaller satellite dishes that were never built. One newly built satellite dish, which one insider says was never turned on, was dismantled and shipped to England.

The Forest Service tried unsuccessfully to engineer a land trade for three years, hampered by a site that posed many problems for the few interested parties - from the remote location to the expense of removing satellite dishes embedded 80 feet into the ground.

The agency was about to return with a bulldozer when the astronomers group, headed by benefactor J. Donald Cline, a scientist and former computer executive, offered to buy and trade 375 acres along the French Broad River in North Carolina for the spy station.

What made the site, shielded from interference in a natural bowl-shaped terrain, so perfect for the NSA made the site perfect for the astronomers as well. They plan to use the satellite dishes to read the characteristics of elements given off by dying stars.

"This area is free of light pollution," Powers said, as he stood in the middle of a vast, empty parking lot. "It's also clean in terms of electromagnetic interference like cell phone towers or things that create electromagnetic noise.

"And we can be sure there won't be any in the future because the Forest Service owns everything around here. ... It's easy to see why they liked this place."

Recently, in one of a dozen large empty rooms in one of four mostly empty office buildings where the group decided to set up shop, four scientists stood around a portable panel of monitors and computers, watching the results of a test appear on a screen.

"It's stardust," said the site's technical director, astronomer Charles Osborne. "This stuff is just floating around out there. It's the building blocks of life."

In order to use the satellite dishes, they had to spend months trying to slow them down. Both of the 85-foot dishes swing on two axes, an extravagance the astronomers suspect allowed the agency to swing the face around swiftly to catch up with satellites orbiting Earth. The astronomers need the dishes to move no faster than the speed of Earth itself.

But there is much on the site that the astronomers don't know what to do with, such as the paper-shredding building up on one hill, the large helicopter pad on top of another, and down in a valley of well-manicured grass, that giant golf ball, similar to those seen at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

Close up from the outside, the ball is a circle of triangles, no two identical, that feel like Gore-Tex to the touch. When one triangle at the bottom is pushed, several triangles around it gyrate, letting off a low grumbling sound of bending metal echoing throughout the ball.

Inside, past a small door less than 4 feet tall, the ball glows white, lighted by the sunlight outside reflecting and bouncing inside from one triangle to another.

In its center is a 40-foot satellite dish, cleaner and smoother than any of the others. It looks new, though it has been there for years. There are unusual numbered patterns on the dish's white panels, laid out like a cheat sheet to a jigsaw puzzle. The astronomers believe that the triangles vary in size as a clever way to minimize the effect of interference that comes from patterns.

Enclosing the dish under such a surface, they speculate, would protect it from the weather, and prevent anyone else from seeing it or reading the direction it is pointed.

For the astronomers, though, this curious dish is somewhat irrelevant. They need dishes with large faces, like the two bigger ones, to read the radio signals of stars millions of light-years from Earth.

From far above on the perfectly level, perfectly painted helicopter pad with a view of miles of mountains and green trees, Powers laughed at the differences between the previous owners and the astronomers, a group short on staff and scraping for funding. He studied the golf ball.

"You'll go a long way before you find anything like that around anywhere else," he said. " ... But nothing about this place is what it seems."


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