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San Angelo, Texas: Home of Spies

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."

No doubt.

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 talked about.

"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 guarded.

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 here."

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 service officer.

"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.

Copyright © 2001 Wired Digital Inc., a Lycos Network site. All rights reserved.

 

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