"What can one say when a good thing comes to an end? Just that it was good while it lasted."
Lines from a plaintive autobiography or sappy romance novel? Nope: These poignant words, culled from an official government document, are part of a loving farewell to a local spy base.
According to a once highly classified 1996 National Security Agency report, the "good thing" was the Rosman Research Station, which eavesdropped on enemy communications for nearly 15 years.
So secret are the NSA’s ways that it’s often dubbed "No Such Agency." But while most of what transpired at this idyllic hideaway in the Pisgah National Forest remains shrouded in a thick security blanket, declassified documents have revealed that it ranked among the agency's most prized possessions.
“A prime nuclear target”
Western North Carolina’s misty mountains have harbored many secrets, but few as closely guarded as the story of the Rosman Research Station, a remote hotbed of international espionage from 1981 to 1995 (see “Land of the Sky Spies,” June 9, 2004 Xpress).
Shielded by surveillance systems and multiple layers of security, this mysterious outpost occupied a mostly forested, 355 acre tract just north of the tiny town of Rosman, near Brevard. In such a setting, it inevitably became a topic of both local and international speculation.
The Defense Department claimed to run the facility but wouldn't say much about it. "It's a vital part of the overall security of this country," a Pentagon spokesperson told The Transylvania Times in 1986, declining further comment. (Whatever was going on at the base, the newspaper speculated, its presence meant that "Transylvania County may well be a prime nuclear target for the Soviet Union.")
Things weren’t always so hush-hush at the Rosman station, established by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1963 to help propel the nation's space program. NASA touted the millions of dollars’ worth of radio telescopes, radomes and other high-tech equipment at the site, which it used to track and communicate with spacecraft circling the Earth and hurtling to the moon and back.
But by 1980, with other facilities in place that could serve it better, the space agency shut down the operation. A year later, under Defense Department cover, the NSA's high-tech spies moved in. These super snoops were (and still are) tasked with making and breaking codes as well as transmitting and capturing secret international communications.
According to investigative news reports and occasional academic studies over the years, the NSA used Rosman Research Station to train its electronic ears on Soviet satellite communications and other Cold War targets. The agency was always tight-lipped about its WNC base, but a small batch of declassified documents now provides at least a teasing glimpse of what went on there.
Ironically, it was one of the NSA's own sworn-to-secrecy employees — a man named Eugene Meador — who filed the Freedom of Information Act request that prompted the release of these papers. Previous FOIA requests about the base had been deemed too broad to fulfill, other NSA documents suggest, but Meador’s was nice and tight.
In November of 2006, he asked for "2-5 official documents associating the NSA and the Rosman, N.C. site. Something official that would confirm that the agency was the actual owner/tenant of the site and that SIGINT [signals intelligence] was performed at that location."
It took the NSA nearly a year to comply with the request. (Other documents indicate an internal debate about whether the operation still "requires protection," noting that, at some unspecified point, the agency's presence at Rosman had ceased to be a secret.)
Eventually, Meador got most of what he asked for, as a few highly classified documents were released to him. And though whole paragraphs were whited out, the declassified material confirmed the gist of the NSA's role in Rosman while conveying a sense of just how tricky it was for the agency to maintain its veil of secrecy while shutting down the operation.
The release of the documents went mostly unnoticed: Despite news-database and Web searches, Xpress has found no reference to them except on GovernmentAttic, a website run by a group of volunteers who maintain an extensive online archive dedicated to promoting transparency in government operations. And there these materials have languished until now. The group says it’s had no contact with Meador and that it obtained the Rosman-related records through its own subsequent FOIA request.
The documents — the first official acknowledgement that the NSA was even present in Rosman — offer tantalizing but incomplete clues concerning what the agency was up to there.
An August 1996 report by the agency's Center for Cryptologic History, for example, was titled "Rosman Tracks on to the End" and stamped TOP SECRET UMBRA.
"The site recently closed its doors," the report said, adding that "The work at Rosman, even the number of employees, was a closely guarded secret." Those employees included "contractors from [defense firms] Bendix, Raytheon and Allied Signal Inc., along with National Security Agency civilians."
In a still-cryptic passage, the NSA noted that "In spite of adversity, significant notoriety came to [Rosman Research Station].” But what kind of adversity? And why the notoriety? There's no telling: The next two paragraphs are still classified.
A disposal problem
The NSA's "good thing" at Rosman ended shortly after the Cold War. "Budget cuts and the removal of the station's primary function forced the Agency to cease operations," the 1996 report explained.
Of course, closing a spy base required a lot more than simply turning off the lights on the way out. Rosman Research Station had grown to the "the size of a small industrial park," the NSA noted, making it a pretty big secret to sweep under the rug.
An unclassified but little-noticed environmental assessment, produced by the Defense Department in January 1995, sized up the base's secret infrastructure, hinting at the maze of both above- and below-ground gear that would have to find a home as the NSA moved out. On the surface were a battery of electronic ears and eyes, more than 30 buildings, a wastewater-treatment plant, a firing range and a helipad. Below ground, there were tunnels stretching hundreds of feet and roughly 50,000 gallons of fuel in several storage tanks.
"Before the site's last mission was shut down in November 1994, word of the closure was revealed by the local press," prompting various organizations to ask for the base's leftovers, according to an April 1995 NSA newsletter stamped FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY. "For example, one group investigated the possible use of the site, intact with all of the equipment, to use as an uplink to the information super-highway; another saw possibilities for turning it into a tech school for computer/communication skills; and Transylvania County asked for the fire truck."
"This closure was the first [post-Cold War-era shutdown] involving an 'NSA-owned' facility," the document noted. That presented some new challenges, which were met, in part, by discreetly distributing much of the base's equipment. In this, the NSA followed guidelines established by the Defense Department, which had more experience in decommissioning bases.
"Most of the other operational and administrative equipment was excessed to other SIGINT facilities," though some less strategic but still useful resources did benefit the immediate civilian community, the NSA noted. "The local school systems received some of the old personal computers and the fire truck did end up in the local fire house."
In a final gesture, the agency left behind a hearty helping of its former secrets — but only after rendering them indecipherable. The station "made a very significant effort to recycle waste paper," the report stated. "So far, over 7,500 pounds of shredded paper have been donated to Transylvania County for recycling as opposed to clogging the local landfill."
Into the light
Today, the former cloak-and-dagger outpost is out in the open, having narrowly dodged destruction. As the NSA mothballed the base, it "planned for the worst case scenario where the Agency might be required to demolish the infrastructure and restore the property to pristine forest," one of the declassified documents reveals.
After a few years in limbo under U.S. Forest Service oversight, the site was acquired by Greensboro businessman and science aficionado Donald Cline in 1999; he gave it new life as the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.
The nonprofit center has since become a jewel in the crown of North Carolina science education, hosting thousands of students from kindergarten to postgraduate level. In partnership with assorted universities and top astronomers worldwide, PARI has become home to an ever-expanding roster of decidedly public studies and experiments.
The dozen or so staffers rely on hundreds of volunteer “Friends of PARI” to keep all the programs running. Each Wednesday, the group's docents lead free walking tours.
"We've turned this into an astronomy lab that almost anyone can make use of, in one way or another," retired engineer John Boehme boasted during a recent tour.
"I'll take you anywhere you want to go," he offered — escorting us through underground tunnels and other places that would formerly have required a high-level security clearance.
And though the NSA's stint in Rosman doesn't figure in the picture much anymore, it can still prove a touchy topic.
The history page on PARI's website, for example, details NASA's groundbreaking work but makes no mention of the subsequent tenant, merely repeating the government's cover story: "In 1981, the Rosman Reseach Station was transferred to the Department of Defense and used for satellite data collection. … In 1995, the facility was closed and DOD operations were consolidated elsewhere."
Dave Clavier, PARI's vice president of administration and development, says the institute isn't trying to hide the site’s covert history — it's just that the staff aren't privy to the details.
"When the NSA was here, the site was 'dark,' so I literally don't know what they were doing," he explains. "Most of the people who were here had security clearances. I've been here six years, and I can't get anybody to tell me what was really going on. We know they were here, but that's about it."
Meanwhile, the legacy of the NSA's operations continues to skew some perceptions of PARI, Clavier notes. "There are still quite a few people who, because of what was here during that time, are confused and think that they can't come here or aren't allowed to. It's not atypical for people who come by for tours to ask if it's OK for them to take pictures here. We say, 'Of course: You can take pictures of anything you want.'
"If you were trying to create some interesting mountain folklore," he adds with a chuckle, "I don't think you could do anything better than go out in the middle of the national forest, put all this gear here, and then tell people that it doesn't exist and you can't come in." To learn more about PARI, visit www.pari.edu.
— Asheville-based writer Jon Elliston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.