For nearly 80 years, the Yakima Training Center has been where U.S. troops and their allies went for combat training.
At half the size of Rhode Island, the center provides space for soldiers to train with artillery and armored vehicles in a variety of situations. It even stood in for the battlefields of Europe when Audie Murphy filmed “To Hell and Back,” based on his war memoir.
But starting in the 1970s, the base was also home to cloak-and-dagger activities for decades.
The Yakima Research Center, until recently, was intercepting satellite communications, gaining access to email, telephone calls and other communications. The center was operated by the National Security Agency, and its large satellite dishes were visible from Interstate 82 — if you knew where to look.
The NSA, which gained infamy after Edward Snowden released documents showing the agency was spying on Americans, was created in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. The intelligence-gathering agency first collected information by wiretapping telephone and telegraph lines.
By the 1960s, satellites became another portal for relaying phone calls, television signals and other information around the globe, and the NSA began establishing listening posts to intercept satellite communications. The stations were part of Echelon, a top-secret operation that utilized outposts around the world to monitor satellite communications.
Echelon was a joint operation of the NSA and its counterparts in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Part of that operation was in Yakima.
In the 1970s, U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson announced that the government was planning to locate a “communications base” at the training center.
The center offered a couple of benefits for a satellite receiving station. It was in an area with little radio interference. Plus, it could be located well inside a military installation, away from prying eyes.
Its location in the Pacific Norhtwest allowed the station’s array of large satellite dishes to target communications in the northern Pacific and east Asia.
The base was operational in 1974, receiving a congratulatory message and a wood carving of the “Imperial Parabolic Lion of Judah” from Stonehouse, a satellite listening post in what is now Eritrea, that opened in 1965. “Stonehouse, the oldest of the (NSA)’s ‘big dish’ facilities, sends greetings to NSA Yakima, the youngest. May the Imperial Parabolic Lion of Judah bring good luck to your future.” A document among those released by Snowden suggests that the wood carving was still at the installation in the early 2000s.
While the base’s existence was public knowledge, its purpose was still kept mostly under wraps. It was not mentioned on the training center’s website, and any questions about it to garrison staff were transferred to the NSA.
In a 2002 interview with Newhouse News Service, author James Bamford, who wrote about Echelon in 1982, said the Yakima facility was receiving 2 million communications intercepts an hour.
“It doesn’t make noise, doesn’t send smoke,” Bamford said in a 2006 interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic. “It’s almost invisible. The whole agency is virtually invisible.”
In 2013, the government announced that the center was closing, and its operations were transferred to the Aerospace Data Facility at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. There was speculation that the installation had become obsolete as technology improved.
The site has been turned over to the training center.
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Audie Murphy's name.