Information Security News
mailing list archives
San Angelo, Texas: Home of Spies
From: William Knowles <wk () c4i org>
Date: Tue, 26 Jun 2001 03:01:33 -0500 (CDT)
By Bill Lamb
2:00 a.m. June 25, 2001 PDT
SAN ANGELO, Texas -- As president of the chamber of commerce, it is
Michael Dalby's job to be this city's biggest civic booster, always
available to talk glowingly about the tax base, jobs, home prices and
good corporate citizenship.
But his repertoire of good news and optimism contains a little
something extra: "We understand the security business."
Thanks to neighboring Goodfellow Air Force Base, this isolated West
Texas city of 87,000 may harbor more spies, ex-spies and future spies
per capita than any place in America, save Washington, D.C.
Since the late 1950s, the relatively obscure base, 90 miles of
two-lane highway south of Abilene, has trained thousands of men and
women in the increasingly high-tech art of signals intelligence, known
in military jargon as SIGINT.
The stock and trade of the super-secret National Security Agency,
SIGINT is one of the most closely held, least discussed aspects of
U.S. intelligence efforts.
In San Angelo, however, it's a secret that really isn't, although it
may be spoken of in euphemisms or simply referred to in vague terms.
Publicly, the base's new armed forces firefighter training program
grabs most of the spotlight simply because it is a mission that can be
"From what (a new resident) reads, he thinks all they do at Goodfellow
is train firefighters," said retired Air Force Col. Charles E. Powell,
Goodfellow's commanding officer from 1980-1984. "As you well know,
that's far from the truth."
Smoke rising from Goodfellow's firefighter training grounds may
attract the public's attention, but the work inside windowless brick
buildings keeps the NSA's worldwide front lines manned and takes place
without acknowledgment. Even passersby -- civilian and military alike
-- who photograph nearby flight exhibits are warned not to shoot
buildings in the background.
But these simple rules belie the level of security that surrounds
Goodfellow's mission. In many respects, the public's perception of how
secret something can be is wholly inadequate for describing how
carefully the details and technologies of SIGINT operations are
With an average base contingent of 3,000, and military retirees living
in the area numbering in the hundreds, San Angelo residents can never
know if a new acquaintance is or was one of America's high-tech spies.
Glenn Miller would be one of those unassuming strangers with stories
to tell, but don't count on hearing any.
He joined the Air Force in the early 1970s with plans to become an air
traffic controller. Those plans changed when he scored well on
language aptitude tests and was made an offer he didn't want to
refuse. After 37 weeks of Russian language training, he arrived for
his first tour at Goodfellow, as a student, in 1972.
"San Angelo was one of those places (the students) either liked or
hated. And I think the people who hated it were the single guys,"
Miller said. "They used to roll the streets up at 9 o'clock around
Twenty-three years of active duty led him to additional language
studies, multiple tours in Europe -- including a two-year stint at the
U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a tour at NSA headquarters in Maryland and two
additional tours at Goodfellow as both an instructor and supervisor.
Following his second tour at Goodfellow, the Pennsylvania native
decided San Angelo was a good place to call home. He and his wife
Janet retired to the city in 1994, and he is now a county veterans
"It was friendly. Low cost of living. And totally different from
Pennsylvania. And we didn't want to go back there," he said. "We liked
it. We just liked it."
It's not an uncommon story, according to Dalby, who cited two of the
more well known Goodfellow retirees: a former base commander who
served as mayor and another veteran who established a highly
successful chain of convenience stores in the area.
"(Retirees) are serving on different boards and committees here in the
community, and that makes for maybe a better understanding of the
base's mission than perhaps other communities would have," said Dalby.
While a growing number of European governments question and fear the
scope of American SIGINT missions, and privacy advocates protest the
presence of American intelligence personnel at overseas collection
sites, Goodfellow Air Force Base remains mostly unknown to the public
and largely ignored. But the scope and importance of worldwide events
aren't ignored in West Texas.
"As a community, we tend to take a little more interest in those kinds
of stories," said Dalby.
The only serious threats to Goodfellow have been home grown: A series
of proposed base closings during the past two decades left civic
leaders scrambling to save the facility. In 1992, thousands of San
Angelo residents lined the streets to greet members of a base closure
committee in town for a public hearing. At stake was not only the
base's financial impact -- Goodfellow is estimated to pump more than
$250 million annually into the local economy -- but civic pride.
"Now, that's legendary throughout the Air Force," Dalby said of the
outpouring of support.
"That wasn't orchestrated by the chamber or the Kiwanis Club or the
Rotarians," Powell said. "It was spontaneous. We even saw school
children beside the highway whose teachers had brought the class out.
They had crudely printed signs that said, 'We Love Goodfellow.'"
Whether the turnout influenced the decision is debatable, but the
committee instead chose to shut down Lowry Air Force Base near Denver.
In the end, survival meant growth, since Goodfellow absorbed many of
the intelligence missions previously given out to other bases that are
now closed. Now, according to Powell and others, it would be difficult
to spend a career in Air Force intelligence without some association
with Goodfellow and San Angelo.
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence
without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
C4I.org - Computer Security, & Intelligence - http://www.c4i.org
ISN is hosted by SecurityFocus.com
To unsubscribe email isn-unsubscribe () SecurityFocus com
- San Angelo, Texas: Home of Spies William Knowles (Jun 26)