THE NATIONAL GUARDS
© 1987 OMNI MAGAZINE MAY 1987
(Reprinted with permission and license to ParaNet Information Service and its affiliates.)
By Donald Goldberg
The mountains bend as the fjord and the sea beyond stretch out before the viewer's eyes. First over the water, then a sharp left turn, then a bank to the right between the peaks, and the secret naval base unfolds upon the screen.
The scene is of a Soviet military installation on the Kola Peninsula in the icy Barents Sea, a place usually off-limits to the gaze of the Western world. It was captured by a small French satellite called SPOT Image, orbiting at an altitude of 517 miles above the hidden Russian outpost. On each of several passes -- made over a two-week period last fall -- the satellite's high- resolution lens took its pictures at a different angle; the images were then blended into a three-dimensional, computer- generated video. Buildings, docks, vessels, and details of the Artic landscape are all clearly visible.
Half a world away and thousands of feet under the sea, sparkling-clear images are being made of the ocean floor. Using the latest bathymetric technology and state-of-the-art systems known as Seam Beam and Hydrochart, researchers are for the first time assembling detailed underwater maps of the continental shelves and the depths of the world's oceans. These scenes of the sea are as sophisticated as the photographs taken from the satellite.
From the three-dimensional images taken far above the earth to the charts of the bottom of the oceans, these photographic systems have three things in common: They both rely on the latest technology to create accurate pictures never dreamed of even 25 years ago; they are being made widely available by commerical, nongovernmental enterprises; and the Pentagon is trying desperately to keep them from the general public.
In 1985 the Navy classified the underwater charts, making them available only to approved researchers whose needs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Under a 1984 law the military has been given a say in what cameras can be licensed to be used on American satellites; and officials have already announced they plan to limit the quality and resolution of photos made available. The National Security Agency (NSA) -- the secret arm of the Pentagon in charge of gathering electronic intelligence as well as protecting sensitive U.S. communications -- has defeated a move to keep it away from civilian and commercial computers and databases.
That attitude has outraged those concerned with the military's increasing efforts to keep information not only from the public but from industry experts, scientists, and even other government officials as well. "That's like classifying a road map for fear of invasion," says Paul Wolff, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of the attempted restrictions.
These attempts to keep unclassified data out of the hands of scientists, researchers, the news media, and the public at large are a part of an alarming trend that has seen the military take an ever-increasing role in controlling the flow of information and communications through American society, a role traditionally
-- and almost exclusively -- left to civilians. Under the approving gaze of the Reagan administration, Department of Defense (DoD) officials have quietly implemented a number of policies, decisions, and orders that give the military unprecedented control over both the content and public use of data and communications. For example:
- The Pentagon has created a new category of "sensitive" but unclassified information that allows it to keep from public access huge quantities of data that were once widely accessible.
- Defense Department officials have attempted to rewrite key laws that spell out when the president can and cannot appropriate private communications facilities.
- The Pentagon has installed a system that enables it to seize control of the nation's entire communications network -- the phone system, data transmissions, and satellite transmissions of all kinds -- in the event of what it deems a "national emergency."
As yet there is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes such a state. Usually such an emergency is restricted to times of natural disaster, war, or when national security is specifically threatened. Now the military has attempted to redefine emergency.
The point man in the Pentagon's onslaught on communications is Assistant Defense Secretary Donald C. Latham, a former NSA deputy chief. Latham now heads up an interagency committee in charge of writing and implementing many of the policies that have put the military in charge of the flow of civilian information and communication. He is also the architect of National Security Decision Directive 145 (NSDD 145), signed by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1984, which sets out the national policy on telecommunications and computer-systems security.
First NSDD 145 set up a steering group of top-level administration officials. Their job is to recommend ways to protect information that is unclassified but has been designated sensitive. Such information is held not only by government agencies but by private companies as well. And last October the steering group issued a memorandum that defined sensitive information and gave federal agencies broad new powers to keep it from the public.
According to Latham, this new category includes such data as all medical records on government databases -- from the files of the National Cancer Institute to information on every veteran who has ever applied for medical aid from the Veterans Administration
-- and all the information on corporate and personal taxpayers in the Internal Revenue Service's computers. Even agricultural statistics, he argues, can be used by a foreign power against the United States.
In his oversize yet Spartan Pentagon office, Latham cuts anything but an intimidating figure. Articulate and friendly, he could pass for a network anchorman or a television game show host. When asked how the government's new definition of sensitive information will be used, he defends the necessity for it and tries to put to rest concerns about a new restrictiveness. "The debate that somehow the DoD and NSA are going to monitor or get into private databases isn't the case at all," Latham insists. "The definition is just a guideline, just an advisory. It does not give the DoD the right to go into private records."
Yet the Defense Department invoked the NSDD 145 guidelines when it told the information industry it intends to restrict the sale of data that are now unclassified and publicly available from privately owned computer systems. The excuse if offered was that these data often include technical information that might be valuable to a foreign adversary like the Soviet Union.
Mead Data Central -- which runs some of the nation's largest computer databases, such as Lexis and Nexis, and has nearly 200,000 users -- says it has already been approached by a team of agents from the Air Force and officials from the CIA and the FBI who asked for the names of subscribers and inquired what Mead officials might do if information restrictions were imposed. In response to government pressure, Mead Data Central in effect censured itself. It purged all unclassified government-supplied technical data from its system and completely dropped the National Technical Information System from its database rather than risk a confrontation.
Representative Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat who chairs the House Government Operations Committee, is an outspoken critic of the NSA's role in restricting civilian information. He notes that in 1985 the NSA -- under the authority granted by NSDD 145
-- investigated a computer program that was widely used in both local and federal elections in 1984. The computer system was used to count more than one third of all votes cast in the United States. While probing the system's vulnerability to outside manipulation, the NSA obtained a detailed knowledge of that computer program. "In my view," Brooks says, "this is an unprecedented and ill-advised expansion of the military's influence in our society."
There are other NSA critics. "The computer systems used by counties to collect and process votes have nothing to do with national security, and I'm really concerned about the NSA's involvement," says Democratic congressman Dan Glickman of Kansas, chairman of the House science and technology subcommittee concerned with computer security.
Also, under NSDD 145 the Pentagon has issued an order, virtually unknown to all but a few industry executives, that affects commercial communications satellites. The policy was made official by Defense Secretary Weinberger in June of 1985 and requires that all commercial satellite operators that carry such unclassified government data traffic as routine Pentagon supply information and payroll data (and that compete for lucrative government contracts) install costly protective systems on all satellites launched after 1990. The policy does not directly affect the data over satellite channels, but it does make the NSA privy to vital information about the essential signals needed to operate a satellite. With this information it could take control of any satellite it chooses.
Latham insists this, too, is a voluntary policy and that only companies that wish to install protection will have their systems evaluated by the NSA. He also says industry officials are wholly behind the move, and argues that the protective systems are necessary. With just a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment, a disgruntled employee could interfere with a satellite's control signals and disable or even wipe out a hundred-million-dollar satellite carrying government information. At best, his comments are misleading. First, the policy is not voluntary. The NSA can cut off lucrative government contracts to companies that do not comply with the plan. The Pentagon alone spent more than a billion dollars leasing commercial satellite channels last year; that's a powerful incentive for business to cooperate.
Second, the industry's support is anything but total. According to the minutes of one closed-door meeting between NSA officials -- along with representatives of other federal agencies
-- and executives from AT&T, Comsat, GTE Sprint, and MCI, the executives neither supported the move nor believed it was necessary. The NSA defended the policy by arguing that a satellite could be held for ransom if the command and control links weren't protected. But experts at the meeting were skeptical.
"Why is the threat limited to accessing the satellite rather than destroying it with lasers or high-powered signals?" one industry executive wanted to know.
Most of the officials present objected to the high cost of protecting the satellites. According to a 1983 study made at the request of the Pentagon, the protection demanded by the NSA could add as much as $3 million to the price of a satellite and $1 million more to annual operating costs. Costs like these, they argue, could cripple a company competing against less expensive communications networks.
Americans get much of their information through forms of electronic communications, from the telephone, television and radio, and information printed in many newspapers. Banks send important financial data, businesses their spreadsheets, and stockbrokers their investment portfolios, all over the same channels, from satellite signals to computer hookups carried on long distance telephone lines. To make sure that the federal government helped to promote and protect the efficient use of this advancing technology, Congress passed the massive Communications Act of of 1934. It outlined the role and laws of the communications structure in the United States.
The powers of the president are set out in Section 606 of that law; basically it states that he has the authority to take control of any communications facilities that he believes "essential to the national defense." In the language of the trade this is known as a 606 emergency. There have been a number of attempts in recent years by Defense Department officials to redefine what qualifies as a 606 emergency and make it easier for the military to take over national communications.
In 1981 the Senate considered amendments to the 1934 act that would allow the president, on Defense Department recommendation, to require any communications company to provide services, facilities, or equipment "to promote the national defense and security or the emergency preparedness of the nation," even in peacetime and without a declared state of emergency. The general language had been drafted by Defense Department officials. (The bill failed to pass the House for unrelated reasons.)
"I think it is quite clear that they have snuck in there some powers that are dangerous for us as a company and for the public at large," said MCI vice president Kenneth Cox before the Senate vote.
Since President Reagan took office, the Pentagon has stepped up its efforts to rewrite the definition of national emergency and give the military expanded powers in the United States. "The declaration of 'emergency' has always been vague," says one former administration official who left the government in 1982 after ten years in top policy posts. "Different presidents have invoked it differently. This administration would declare a convenient 'emergency.'" In other words, what is a nuisance to one administration might qualify as a burgeoning crisis to another. For example, the Reagan administration might decide that a series of protests on or near military bases constituted a national emergency.
Should the Pentagon ever be given the green light, its base for taking over the nation's communications system would be a nondescript yellow brick building within the maze of high rises, government buildings, and apartment complexes that make up the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia. Headquartered in a dusty and aging structure surrounded by a barbed-wire fence is an obscure branch of the military known as the Defense Communications Agency (DCA). It does not have the spit and polish of the National Security Agency or the dozens of other government facilities that make up the nation's capital. But its lack of shine belies its critical mission: to make sure all of America's far-flung military units can communicate with one another. It is in certain ways the nerve center of our nation's defense system.
On the second floor of the DCA's four-story headquarters is a new addition called the National Coordinating Center (NCC). Operated by the Pentagon, it is virtually unknown outside of a handful of industry and government officials. The NCC is staffed around the clock by representatives of a dozen of the nation's largest commercial communications companies -- the so-called "common carriers" -- including AT&T, MCI, GTE, Comsat, and ITT. Also on hand are officials from the State Department, the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and a number of other federal agencies. During a 606 emergency the Pentagon can order the companies that make up the National Coordinating Center to turn over their satellite, fiberoptic, and land-line facilities to the government.
On a long corridor in the front of the building is a series of offices, each outfitted with a private phone, a telex machine, and a combination safe. It's known as "logo row" because each office is occupied by an employee from one of the companies that staff the NCC and because their corporate logos hand on the wall outside. Each employee is on permanent standby, ready to activate his company's system should the Pentagon require it. The National Coordinating Center's mission is as grand as its title is obscure: to make available to the Defense Department all the facilities of the civilian communications network in this country -- the phone lines, the long-distance satellite hookups, the data transmission lines -- in times of national emergency. If war breaks out and communications to a key military base are cut, the Pentagon wants to make sure that an alternate link can be set up as fast as possible. Company employees assigned to the center are on call 24 hours a day; they wear beepers outside the office, and when on vacation they must be replaced by qualified colleagues.
The center formally opened on New Year's Day, 1984, the same day Ma Bell's monopoly over the telephone network of the entire United States was finally broken. The timing was no coincidence. Pentagon officials had argued for years along with AT&T against the divestiture of Ma Bell, on grounds of national security. Defense Secretary Weinberger personally urged the attorney general to block the lawsuit that resulted in the breakup, as had his predecessor, Harold Brown. The reason was that rather than construct its own communications network, the Pentagon had come to rely extensively on the phone company. After the breakup the dependence continued. The Pentagon still used commercial companies to carry more than 90 percent of its communications within the continental United States.
The 1984 divestiture put an end to AT&T's monopoly over the nation's telephone service and increased the Pentagon's obsession with having its own nerve center. Now the brass had to contend with several competing companies to acquire phone lines, and communications was more than a matter of running a line from one telephone to another. Satellites, microwave towers, fiberoptics, and other technological breakthroughs never dreamed of by Alexander Graham Bell were in extensive use, and not just for phone conversations. Digital data streams for computers flowed on the same networks.
These facts were not lost on the Defense Department or the White House. According to documents obtained by Omni, beginning on December 14, 1982, a number of secret meetings were held between high-level administration officials and executives of the commercial communications companies whose employees would later staff the National Coordinating Center. The meetings, which continued over the next three years, were held at the White House, the State Department, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs.
The industry officials attending constituted the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee -- called NSTAC (pronounced N-stack) -- set up by President Reagan to address those same problems that worried the Pentagon. It was at these secret meetings, according to the minutes, that the idea of a communications watch center for national emergencies -- the NCC
-- was born. Along with it came a whole set of plans that would allow the military to take over commercial communications "assets" -- everything from ground stations and satellite dishes to fiberoptic cables -- across the country.
At a 1983 Federal Communications Commission meeting, a ranking Defense Department official offered the following explanation for the founding of the National Coordinating Center: "We are looking at trying to make communications endurable for a protracted conflict." The phrase protracted conflict is a military euphemism for nuclear war.
But could the NCC survive even the first volley in such a conflict?
Not likely. It's located within a mile of the Pentagon, itself an obvious early target of a Soviet nuclear barrage (or a conventional strike, for that matter). And the Kremlin undoubtedly knows its location and importance, and presumably has included it on its priority target list. In sum, according to one Pentagon official, "The NCC itself is not viewed as a survivable facility."
Furthermore, the NCC's "Implementation Plan," obtained by Omni, lists four phases of emergencies and how the center should respond to each. The first, Phase 0, is Peacetime, for which there would be little to do outside of a handful of routine tasks and exercises. Phase 1 is Pre Attack, in which alternate NCC sites are alerted. Phase 2 is Post Attack, in which other NCC locations are instructed to take over the center's functions. Phase 3 is known as Last Ditch, and in this phase whatever facility survives becomes the de facto NCC.
So far there is no alternate National Coordinating Center to which NCC officials could retreat to survive an attack. According to NCC deputy director William Belford, no physical sites have yet been chosen for a substitute NCC, and even whether the NCC itself will survive a nuclear attack is still under study.
Of what use is a communications center that is not expected to outlast even the first shots of a war and has no backup?
The answer appears to be that because of the Pentagon's concerns about the AT&T divestiture and the disruptive effects it might have on national security, the NCC was to serve as the military's peacetime communications center.
The center is a powerful and unprecedented tool to assume control over the nation's vast communications and information network. For years the Pentagon has been studying how to take over the common carriers' facilities. That research was prepared by NSTAC at the DoD's request and is contained in a series of internal Pentagon documents obtained by Omni. Collectively this series is known as the Satellite Survivability Report. Completed in 1984, it is the only detailed analysis to date of the vulnerabilities of the commercial satellite network. It was begun as a way of examining how to protect the network of communications facilities from attack and how to keep it intact for the DoD.
A major part of the report also contains an analysis of how to make commercial satellites "interoperable" with Defense Department systems. While the report notes that current technical differences such as varying frequencies make it difficult for the Pentagon to use commercial satellites, it recommends ways to resolve those problems. Much of the report is a veritable blueprint for the government on how to take over satellites in orbit above the United States. This information, plus NSDD 145's demand that satellite operators tell the NSA how their satellites are controlled, guarantees the military ample knowledge about operating commercial satellites.
The Pentagon now has an unprecedented access to the civilian communications network: commercial databases, computer networks, electronic links, telephone lines. All it needs is the legal authority to use them. Then it could totally dominate the flow of all information in the United States. As one high-ranking White House communications official put it: "Whoever controls communications, controls the country." His remark was made after our State Department could not communicate directly with our embassy in Manila during the anti-Marcos revolution last year. To get through, the State Department had to relay all its messages through the Philippine government.
Government officials have offered all kinds of scenarios to justify the National Coordinating Center, the Satellite Survivability Report, new domains of authority for the Pentagon and the NSA, and the creation of top-level government steering groups to think of even more policies for the military. Most can be reduced to the rationale that inspired NSDD 145: that our enemies (presumably the Soviets) have to be prevented from getting too much information from unclassified sources. And the only way to do that is to step in and take control of those sources.
Remarkably, the communications industry as a whole has not been concerned about the overall scope of the Pentagon's threat to its freedom of operation. Most protests have been to individual government actions. For example, a media coalition that includes the Radio-Television Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Turner Broadcasting System has been lobbying that before the government can restrict the use of satellites, it must demonstrate why such restrictions protect against a "threat to distinct and compelling national security and foreign policy interests." But the whole policy of restrictiveness has not been examined. That may change sometime this year, when the Office of Technology Assessment issues a report on how the Pentagon's policy will affect communications in the United States. In the meantime the military keeps trying to encroach on national communications.
While it may seem unlikely that the Pentagon will ever get total control of our information and communications systems, the truth is that it can happen all too easily. The official mechanisms are already in place; and few barriers remain to guarantee that what we hear, see, and read will come to us courtesy of our being members of a free and open society and not courtesy of the Pentagon.