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Japanese island of Okinawa, 300 miles east of the Chinese mainland.
Constructed near the town of Sobe, Torii Station was home to intercept
operators who were attached to the 51st Special Operations Command.
Traffic and cryptanalysts worked nearby at the Joint Sobe Processing
Center. Among the targets was high-level Chinese army and diplomatic
traffic. "Security was hermetic on that post," said David Parks, an Army


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intercept operator who was stationed there in the mid-1960s. "Once you
left the building never a word passed between you and your comrades
about anything that may have happened at work. At work everything was
compartmentalized. ... If there was a need for an individual to visit a part
of the building that they were not cleared for then an escort would have
to be arranged."
Nearby was an expansive antenna farm consisting of three square
miles of rhombic antennas, and up a hill was a giant circular elephant-
cage antenna. The eavesdropping was done at the windowless operations
compound where, says Parks, "you would hear the music played twenty-
four hours a day, seven days a week, to mask any stray radio signal that
might escape." Just inside the entrance and off a long hallway were the
Morse intercept rooms manned by the various services”each one
targeting their Chinese counterpart.
Sitting in front of a pair of R-390 receivers, the intercept operators
would have one tuned to a target, known as the "control." When the
control stopped to listen for a response, the intercept operator would
search for this other station”called the out-station”with the other
receiver. Likewise, each earphone would be connected to separate
receivers. To make life difficult, sometimes there were as many as ten
out-stations.
Some targets would be assigned, while at other times the intercept
operator would twist knobs searching for new targets. Prize targets
included coded Chinese messages”streams of numbers in groups of
four. Once these were located, the intercept operator would type them
out on six-ply carbon paper. A room supervisor would eavesdrop on the
eavesdroppers to make sure they were not just copying the loud, easy
signals, known as ducks. "If the room supervisor thought you were just
padding your time by copying ducks," said Parks, "he would call you on
the intercom and say something like, 'Get off of that duck, Parks, and
back on the knobs.' "
At the time, the sounds of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, ripping
apart Chinese society, echoed through the listeners' earphones. "It was
reflected in the stuff we copied every day," said one intercept operator.
"For instance, they sent quotations of Chairman Mao back and forth as a
kind of one-upsmanship. They would get on the net and they would all
have their Little Red Books. And they would send a page and a paragraph
number and a quote within that to another operator and then everybody
would jump back and say, Well, here, read this one and I'm a better
commie than you are." Like the Red Guards, the intercept operators had
a copy of Mao's Little Red Book close at hand.
"They're humans too," said the intercept operator, "and that
humanness comes through. You learn these people as you work the job



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because it is the same people day in and day out and you learn their
quirks and their tempers and everything about them. You know their
'fist' and the sound of their transmitter. You can tell if they've changed a
tube in that transmitter after a while.
"They knew full well that we were copying them," said Parks, "and
tried to throw us off of the scent all the time. They had their bag of tricks
and we had ours. A typical search would have me incrementally turning
the knob and listening to each and every Morse station I came across.
The airwaves were full of signals of all types, voice transmissions, Morse,
teletype, beacons, fax transmitters sending photo images for the
newspapers and wire services. There was indeed a seeming 3-D
soundscape to the radio medium. We used such terms as 'up' or 'down'
and 'under' in describing where a target might be in relation to a signal.
There were known islands of sound imbedded at fixed points in the
soundscape. It was not unusual for one op to say to another, 'Your out-
station (target) is underneath that RCA teletype at 3.5 megs [megahertz].
I would know just where he meant."
Among the most difficult traffic to copy were coded diplomatic
communications. "Diplomatic traffic was the top of the heap," said Parks.
"The analysts wanted that copied as clean as possible; if you couldn't do
that, you were off the job." Parks once intercepted an unknown embassy
employee "who was transmitting, in English, a blow-by-blow description
of the embassy being invaded and the door to his code room being
chopped down by a rioting crowd. Frantic little guy, lost his mind and
maybe his life. I've always wondered what happened to him. I also
wonder if the 'riot' had a purpose other than frustration. On my end I
was sweating bullets as there was brass standing two deep around my
intercept position urging me to get it all. Every page of six-ply that came
off my mill was immediately ripped off and handed around. The embassy
op finally went 'nil more heard.' "
Air Force intercept operators also worked on Okinawa, eavesdropping
on Chinese air communications. One of their most important tasks was
to listen closely as American signals intelligence planes flew
eavesdropping missions near the coast of mainland China, occasionally
penetrating the country. Twice daily, missions would be launched from
either Taipei, at the north end of the island, or Tainan, at the southern
end. One of the Mandarin Chinese intercept operators who followed those
flights from Torii Station was Robert Wheatley. "Along the way, our
ground stations would listen in on the Chicom [Chinese Communist]
fighter squadrons as they'd scramble and rise up to meet the recon
planes," he said. "It was almost like a game of cat and mouse to the pilots
involved. When our planes would come over a given fighter squadron's
sphere of coverage, the MiGs would scramble and follow along below
until the next squadron up the coast would scramble and take over the


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chase. But the ceiling of the Russian-made MiG 21 was far below that of
our reconnaissance planes, and generally speaking, the MiGs were no
real threat to them."
But occasionally one of the MiGs would get lucky. Wheatley recalls
once receiving a Flash message from a listening post in Taiwan. "It
detailed the shootdown of one of our airborne reconnaissance platforms
by a Chinese MiG-21 over the China mainland," he said. "The MiG pilot
had made a 'zoom climb' to the highest altitude he could make. At the
moment he topped out, he released his air-to-air rockets. The linguist
listening in on the fighter pilot reported what he'd heard him say.
Translation: 'Climbing to twenty thousand [meters] . . . Rockets fired! I
fixed his ass! I fixed his ass!' The meaning of that was dismayingly clear.
The 'game' had become deadly serious! The account of what had
happened was instantly passed to us on Okinawa via encrypted Teletype
transmission. We were instructed to listen for any references to the
shootdown by any of the Chinese ground stations that we listened in on."
As word of the shootdown got around, said Wheatley, "the mood in the
radio ops room took on the air of a funeral. I would liken it to the
moment that America learned of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Some of those on board that plane were guys with whom we'd attended
language school. And all were fellow airmen”brothers”whether we knew
them or not. Were it not for the luck of the draw, any one of us could
have been aboard that flight. Everyone in the room was stunned, silent,
and ashen-faced. We never did find out if there were any survivors
among the crew of the aircraft. I suspect not. But we never heard any
more on the matter, for we did not have the 'need to know.' "
Picking just the right spot for the secret bases was as much a matter
of intuition as of science. In trying to "locate intercept stations," said
former NSA research chief Dr. Howard Campaigne, "it's well to know
which would be the best places. They were often surprises. Intercept
stations were not effective when they thought they would be, and vice
versa." Sometimes the best place to listen to a target was on the exact
opposite point on earth”the antipodal spot. "One of the things we
worked at was antipodal reception," said Campaigne. "When a radio
station sends out waves, the ionosphere keeps [them] in like a
whispering gallery and [they're] concentrated at the antipodes and we
were able to demonstrate such reception. Unfortunately, the earth is so
clustered that the end of every diameter has got water in at least one half
of the places. So there aren't very many places that are any good."
One spot where "hearability" was near perfect was the rugged,
windswept desert of Eritrea in East Africa. Reputed to be the hottest
place on earth, it is a land of geographic extremes, where gray mountains
suddenly rise like fortress walls from broad rocky grasslands, and oceans
of sparsely vegetated lowlands marry vast seas of sand. On April 30,


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1943, in the middle of World War II, U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Clay
Littleton landed there while searching for a good location for a radio
station in North Africa. Tests showed that Eritrea, just north of the
equator and with an altitude of 7,600 feet, was practically an audio
funnel, and an intercept station was quickly set up, as was a large relay
facility. Operational spaces, containing ten-inch-thick bombproof
concrete walls, were built underground, near the capital of Asmara.
In the early 1960s a conga line of trucks, straining against the heat
and blowing sand, hauled 6,000 tons of heavy steel to the secret base. By
then Eritrea had become federated with Ethiopia. Planned for Kagnew
Station, whose name comes from the Ethiopian word meaning to bring
order out of chaos, was a pair of massive satellite dishes to capture
Soviet signals bouncing off the moon, and others relayed from earth-
orbiting satellites. One was to be a dish 85 feet in diameter and the other
was to be possibly the largest movable object ever built”a massive bowl
150 feet wide sitting on top of a rotating pedestal capable of tracking the
arc of the moon. When built, it would rise from the desert like a great
chalice, an offering to the gods.
A few years earlier, Kagnew Station had been the scene of perhaps
NSA's first and only strike. Arthur Adolphsen arrived at the listening post
straight from snowbound Germany in January 1957 wearing a hot Ike
jacket. A year later he and the other intercept operators moved into a
new operations building. The move, however, brought with it numerous
new regulations and restrictions on personal activity throughout the
base. "The Operations Center . . . went on strike some time after we
moved on the new base [December 1957]," said Adolphsen. "It lasted for
about four days; no one could hear any signals.
"After three or four days of not much traffic being sent to Washington
a planeload of NSA people showed up and wanted to know what was
going on. We had a meeting of all operations personnel in the gym and
they asked us what we wanted, and there were many that were brave
enough to stand up and let them know. It was brought on by the post
command removing stripes and privileges for very minor infractions.
They would not let us have autos and motorbikes, restricted everyone to
base, and so forth. To my knowledge no personnel got punished, but the
entire post command, right down to the chaplain, got replaced."
By 1967 Ethiopia was attempting to turn Eritrea from a largely
independent partner in federation into simply another province, and a
rebel movement developed within Eritrea to fight the Ethiopian
government. The tension was felt acutely at NSA, which feared that an
Eritrean coup might jeopardize its listening post. The agency therefore
sought to eavesdrop both on the Ethiopian government and on the
rebels. However, it had long been a rule at NSA that the agency would
not eavesdrop on the host country from within the host country. And


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because a number of Ethiopians worked close to some of the operations
at Kagnew Station, it was felt that any attempt to eavesdrop from within
would quickly leak out. In such an event the entire mission could be
forced out of the country. So NSA turned to its British counterpart, the
GCHQ, to do the listening.
At the time the closest GCHQ listening post was in the British colony
of Aden (now part of Yemen) across the Red Sea. The British were having
problems of their own. With only a few months to go before they pulled
out of the colony, a civil war had developed over which local political
faction would take over control of the new nation. Ordinarily NSA would
have done the eavesdropping from the U.S. embassy in Aden but it was
feared that the U.S. embassy might be forced out, especially if the new
government was Marxist, as it turned out to be. The British, however,
would be allowed to remain, if only to clear up administrative issues.
Thus it was decided to eavesdrop on the Ethiopian government from the
British High Commission office in Aden, which on independence would
become an embassy.
After a crash course at Bletchley Park, three GCHQ intercept
operators were sent to Aden for the operation. The listening post was set
up in a secure room in the building, the operators hidden under the
cover of communications specialists, and the antennas disguised as
flagpoles. "The priority tasks from the NSA were of course the Ethiopian
military, from which a coup could be expected," said Jock Kane, one of
the intercept operators. Tensions in Ethiopia continued to mount and it
was finally decided to pull out of the country entirely. The enormous
antennas were dismantled and the intercept operators sent back to NSA
a decade later, in 1977.
The wide oceans also needed to be covered in order to eavesdrop on
Russian ships, and submarines as they came up briefly to transmit their
rapid "burst" messages. Sitting almost in the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean, between Africa and Brazil, is a speck of rock named Ascension
Island. Formed by successive volcanic eruptions, the lonely dot rises
steeply from the blue-black waves like a massive aircraft carrier
anchored to the seabed. Dense vegetation is interspersed with harsh
fields of volcanic rock that locals call "hell with the fires turned off."
Nevertheless, the British island is ideally suited to eavesdrop on millions
of square miles of ocean. Thus, the Central Signals Organization, the
overseas branch of GCHQ, found it an ideal location for a major high-
frequency and satellite listening post.
In the northern Pacific, it would have been difficult to find a more
isolated spot for a listening post than Midway Island, a coral atoll about
halfway between California and Japan. Lost in the great ocean, Midway
consists of two islands: Sand Island, which is three miles square and has
a landing strip, and Eastern Island, a speck of sand less than a mile


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square, where the listening post was built. "I looked and looked and
could only see the white crests of the waves below us on the Pacific
Ocean," said Phillip Yasson, a Navy intercept operator, of his first flight
to the island. "As the plane got lower and lower in altitude, I had this
feeling of landing on the water because that was the only thing visible."
The men assigned to the listening post were quartered in an old movie
theater that had been bombed during World War II. "You could stand in
the middle of the island," said Yasson, "make a 360-degree turn, and still
see the ocean except for where the buildings blocked the view."
In the operations building, the intercept operators eavesdropped on
Soviet ships and submarines and attempted to pinpoint them with a
high-frequency direction finder. Midway was too small for a giant
elephant-cage antenna, so instead they used vertical wires. Nevertheless,
reception was very good. "Surrounded by water, it was a good choice,"
said Yasson. "There were plenty of signals." During the midnight shift,
one of the intercept operators would divide his time between
eavesdropping on the Russians and washing the clothes for the others on
the watch. The principal hobby of the eighteen people on the island was
collecting the colorful glass orbs that occasionally washed up”floats
from old Japanese fishing nets. Swimming was hazardous because of
sharks. For company the intercept operators had gooney birds”lots of
gooney birds. One survey put their numbers at more than two hundred
thousand. The stately black and white birds”black-footed albatrosses”
with seven-foot wingspreads glide gracefully to earth but then frequently
have trouble with their landing gear, tumbling headfirst into the sand.
The vast Indian Ocean, which stretches from the coastline of East

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