In a town dominated by secrets, the untold story behind the National Radio Quiet Zone

Published: Dec. 13, 2021 at 2:19 PM EST
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SUGAR GROVE, W.Va. (WVVA) - Driving through the twists and turns of the National Radio Quiet Zone, there are plenty of signs for what the U.S. government wants you to see. Towering above the mountains is Green Bank, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

Cell phones and Wi-Fi are restricted in this 13,000 square mile area to limit interference with telescope’s work listening to galaxies light years away. And for many who visit or choose to stay, that ability to disconnect is part of the lure.

“It’s very quiet and peaceful,” explained Robert Crider, who works in Harrisonburg but lives near Sugar Grove.

It was the spark that led journalist Stephen Kurczy to the region starting in 2016 to write his book, ‘The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence.’

“My distaste for this device (cell phone) led me to West Virginia, where there are state and federal laws against using a cell phone and wireless devices in the National Radio Quiet Zone, and at the very heart of it is Green Bank, our country’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory.”

But through his journey, Kurczy learned there is another star on the map in the quiet zone that you wouldn’t find at the Green Bank gift shop. It is located at another site built thirty miles Northeast of the telescope.

“In Green Bank, it’s about the science. In Sugar Grove, it’s about the secret surveillance of all of the texts and emails and phone calls we’re doing every single day.”

Kurczy’s reporting on the construction of the site is backed up by claims in an earlier book ‘But it was Fun: the first forty years of radio astronomy in Green Bank.’ In that book, the authors F.J. Lockman, F.D. Ghigo, and D.S. Balser claimed plans for a 600 foot telescope for the military were put in place long before any discussions of a National Radio Astronomy Observatory. They even suggested Burke’s Garden in Virginia as an initial site for the project. Ultimately, though, Sugar Grove was chosen partly due to its proximity to Washington, D.C.

The book’s authors said the initial plans for Sugar Grove included a telescope much bigger than Green Bank (485 feet) at 600 feet tall. The initial goal was to monitor the Soviets at the start of the Cold War, but that plan was scrapped due to escalating costs. Instead, a smaller scale listening station for the U.S. military was developed that at one point helped the U.S. Navy communicate with ships.

Both sites were built in areas surrounded by mountains, and according to Kurzcy, that was by design. While Green Bank was built in a football shape to listen to galaxies far away, Sugar Grove was built in a bowl to intercept overhead satellite communications.

“The dish, the (original) intent of it, was to point it at the moon and be able to capture soviet signals as they bounced up from the USSR to the moon and land in that dish in Sugar Grove to learn what the Soviets wanted.”

Kurczy said the National Security Agency (NSA) started to take an interest in the Upper base around the 1980s. It is around that same time, work at the Upper base at Sugar Grove began to separate from a lower base operated by the U.S. Navy. The lower base was put up for sale in 2017, but plans to turn the base into a health care campus never materialized.

For years, work at the Upper base went largely under the radar until leaks by a NSA government contractor, Edward Snowden, in 2013, claimed to expose some of the work going on up there.

“The reason we know how much data they’re getting in are through the documents leaked by Edward Snowden about ten years ago when he was a contractor for the NSA. Those documents had very specific information on how much those telescopes are taking in every day.”

Those documents were reported by The Intercept, a non-profit news organization founded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar. Their article claimed that in 2005, the antennas at Sugar Grove were sweeping 1.8 million phone calls, texts, emails, and other communications targeting foreign contacts a day.

WVVA News reached out to the National Security Agency for a comment on the site and offered the agency an opportunity to respond to the Snowden leaks. As far back as WVVA News could research, the agency has never commented on the existence of the site until this report. They offered the following statement through a spokesperson:

“The mission of Sugar Grove Research Station is to support communications research and development for the Department of Defense.”

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