The National Security Agency won’t say why it’s closing its listening station at the Yakima Training Center, but an NSA expert believes the facility’s mission is simply outdated.
The satellite communications intercepted and interpreted at the facility — including emails, phone calls, faxes and computer data searches — are no longer the primary means by which data is exchanged internationally, said James Bamford, whose 1982 book “The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America’s Most Secret Agency” is considered a benchmark in advancing the public’s understanding of the NSA.
“NSA’s not just shutting down Yakima,” he said. “They’re kind of shutting down that technique.”
The Yakima facility, believed to be part of the Echelon international satellite-communications project, is not alone. A similar listening station in Sugar Grove, W. Va., is also slated to close. Both have fallen victim to changing technology, Bamford said. As he wrote in his 2008 book “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America,” the bulk of communications entering the United States now come from fiber-optic cables on the floors of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The NSA has, he wrote, developed partnerships with telecommunications companies that allow the agency to access those communications, shifting the focus away from the kind of satellite listening done at the Yakima facility.
“It’s kind of a legacy system, this whole idea, the Echelon,” Bamford said. “Communications have changed a great deal since they built it.”
The facility, formally the Yakima Research Station, has operated since the 1970s. It is estimated to employ between 80 and 100 government workers, but details about its purpose, staffing and operation are scarce. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines responded to email inquiries for this story saying several times she would call the Herald-Republic but did not. The newspaper’s most recent email inquiry went unanswered.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, was informed of the closure last summer, according to Hastings’ spokesman Neal Kirby. He had little comment, except to say Hastings had been made aware of the development with the understanding that it was part of a streamlining effort.
Bamford believes that is the case, as well.
“They probably don’t need two huge listening posts on either side (of the country),” he said. “You’re talking about 1990s technology.”
Neither Hastings nor U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Washington Democrats, have publicly addressed the pending closure. Calls and emails to Murray and Cantwell seeking comment for this story over the past few weeks have not elicited comment.
It is a different story in West Virginia, where U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, both Democrats, have actively worked to keep the 330-person Sugar Grove facility open. They met last fall with NSA and Navy officials, according to an Oct. 4, 2012, news release from Rockefeller’s office.
“I realize the tight budgets that everyone faces right now, but the dedicated West Virginians who work at Sugar Grove have been helping to keep our country safe for decades. I will continue to fight for them,” Rockefeller says in the release.
Those efforts are based not only on concern about jobs but also national security, the senators said.
“I’ve seen the work at Sugar Grove, and there is no question that this facility provides essential resources for our military and national security, along with the community,” Manchin said in the release.
Those efforts have not altered the NSA plans to close the facility, according to Rockefeller’s media office, which said nothing has changed on the issue since that news release last October.
The relative lack of political outcry from legislators representing Yakima, Bamford said, could be because there are no political or jobs-related motivations for fighting the closure. The loss of 80 jobs in a Yakima facility most locals know little or nothing about is different than the loss of 330 at Sugar Grove, which is in Pendleton County, W. Va., where Bamford said “a little town survives basically on that base.”
The timeline for the Yakima facility’s closure has not been announced. But a U.S. Naval Operations notice dated Jan. 25 announced the “disestablishment of Navy Information Operations Detachment” at the Yakima Training Center effective Aug. 1. It’s unclear whether that refers to the NSA facility, but there are links between the Navy Information Operations Center and the NSA. The Sugar Grove facility, for instance, is an NIOC facility.
As for the personnel at the Yakima facility, it’s unclear what awaits them.
“It’s the government,” Bamford said. “People get shifted all the time depending on the needs of the service.”
The NSA is building a new mega-facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that he believes will function as the prime collection, storage and clearinghouse station for world communication. And it’s possible some Yakima workers could end up there.
“People useful in Yakima will be the same kind of people who will be useful in Bluffdale,” Bamford said.
Some jobs could also be shipped to Colorado, where Bamford said the NSA is expanding its operations at the Buckley Air Force Base. Kirby, Hastings spokesman, said it is possible that some of the Yakima facility’s functions could be moved to Colorado but that Hastings has no specific information on that.