The Baltimore Sun June 14, 2000, Wednesday

Cracking a Carroll enigma;

Tower: Four stories under houses and horse pastures, a secretive agency tracks codes to high-tech secure phones.

BYLINE: Brenda J. Buote

   Evan Frankenberger, 15, thinks he knows what goes on in the four-story building buried below the 368-foot microwave tower a few blocks from his home.

Evan, a fan of spy movies, suspects the building is an outpost for government agents. He doesn't believe the AT&T sign at the bottom of the drive - no one has seen a telephone truck there in years.

"What kind of telephone company needs an underground building that big?" Evan wonders.

Just what goes on in the concrete building remains a puzzle in Finksburg, a bedroom community of family farms and modest homes northwest of Baltimore.

Whispered rumors have been circulating for years, enhanced by the silence of employees who spend their days 35 feet below ground.

"I tried to call them once, but no one would answer the phone," says Evan. "I thought they were testing aliens there."

The truth has nothing to do with extra-terrestrials.

From the windowless office, the fiercely secret National Security Agency tracks thousands of keys that unlock high-tech telephones at the Pentagon, the White House, State Department and other government agencies, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which monitors NSA.

Each key is programmed with a unique electronic code, similar to the numeric password you use to withdraw money at an automated teller machine.

Designated AT&T employees holding security clearances reprogram the keys from Finksburg, using the red-and-white tower to transmit new passwords to Washington.

Every time the keys are used - by, for example, President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno or Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright - the phones create an electronic soup that scrambles spoken words so even a supercomputer can't make sense of them.

The process takes less than 10 seconds.

"This technology has saved thousands, if not millions, of lives," said NSA spokesman Patrick Wheadon. "Today, we can talk without fear of our enemies finding out what we're doing.

"It took a very long time to get to the point where we could pick up a phone and know that it could be used securely."

The Finksburg tower is so important to national security that NSA will neither confirm nor deny its existence. AT&T refuses to comment.

"It's four stories down and one up," said Cliff Keffer, a retired mechanic who has lived across the street from the tower since 1969.

"I took a tour of the building years ago, before they started doing top-secret government work. AT&T used to give tours every year."

Aging files in Carroll County's zoning office make no mention of the NSA. There's not a single sketch of the underground building. The fading documents don't even say how tall the tower is.

And many neighbors refuse to talk about the center, for fear they will be targeted by other three-letter agencies - FBI, CIA or IRS.

Those who dare to speak refuse to be named. The clerk at the Jiffy Mart on the corner says the center is connected to the White House - by a tunnel.

The receptionist at the real estate company across the street believes the building houses underground bunkers.

And a neighbor thinks the tower exists to make sure long-distance service survives a nuclear attack.

The employees of AT&T never say anything.

Despite the secrecy, the center's role is detailed on the Internet. The Federation of American Scientists, an intelligence watchdog group in Washington, has posted several pages and photos of the tower on its Web site.

The curious will learn more online than they will at the center. Interlopers are discouraged.

A security camera monitors the door, a 6-foot- tall barbed-wire fence surrounds the tower and a sign warns of possible imprisonment for tampering with the defense equipment.

Piles of dirt and construction debris - that's about all visitors see. There's an $8 million expansion under way, where construction workers must wear security badges.

Even county building inspectors are escorted to and from the site.

The addition to the underground communications hub at Suffolk Road and Route 140, the state highway linking Carroll and Baltimore counties, will allow the NSA to consolidate all of its secure communications systems in Finksburg.

Those systems can be used to send a secure fax, transfer a sensitive computer file or hold a private video conference. A secure telephone can even be paired with a cellular radio to create a portable device small enough to hide in a briefcase.

"Military operations are a lot like a sports event. You have offensive and defensive strategies," Wheadon said. "This technology is a vital part of our defense.

"Certainly, it's not as exciting as breaking a Japanese code, but depending on the operation, it can be the most important part of our game plan."

Known in the intelligence community as a STU-III, each secure telephone unit costs about $2,000.

American Telephone & Telegraph, General Electric and Motorola developed the technology in 1986. Today, nearly 300,000 secure phones are in use. Military officials, diplomats and spies all rely on the gadgets.

"Anybody in the intelligence community who calls other people to discuss classified information would have one of these phones," said Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence expert with the National Security Archive in Washington.

" They're not a status symbol. If an analyst at CIA needs to call someone about photos of Iraq, they'll talk over a secure line."

Encryption equipment wasn't always so easy to use.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill almost daily. The two men were provided with state-of-the-art encryption systems, but rarely used them.

Each system weighed 55 tons. It was so big it couldn't be housed in England's war Cabinet. Officials had to install it in the basement of a nearby department store on Oxford Street, the equivalent of New York's Fifth Avenue.

But the Allied leaders refused to use the equipment because the voice quality was extremely poor.

Seven years after the war ended, the NSA was established by presidential directive to provide signal intelligence and secure communication systems.

Today, the institution eavesdrops on the globe from a sprawling campus at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, while protecting the nation's most sensitive telephone conversations from its outpost in Carroll County.

Why Finksburg?

Although more than 34,000 motorists pass by the tower every day, it is the perfect place to hide from prying eyes - and ears.

"Spies sitting in a van across the street may try to monitor what NSA is doing. A great way to shield the facility is to put it in the basement," said John Pike, an intelligence watcher at the Federation of American Scientists.

"It's like something you'd see in a movie," says Evan, the inquisitive teen-ager. "Unbelievable."

Copyright 2000 The Baltimore Sun Company