The Ultimate High Ground

by Steve Rowell

Views of America’s infrastructure of omniscience, on Earth and above.

"The Ultimate High Ground" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

At the Millennium, the dream of territorial empire seems dead, buried practically and morally. But imperializing global discourses resist, recast in terms of an altered spatiality of globalization, as connection and communication, networks of infinite individual points linked across invisible channels over a frictionless surface, generating and transforming a virtual globe.

—Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination

In 2003, the RAND Corporation published a report entitled “Mastering the Ultimate High Ground: Next Steps in the Military Uses of Space.” “High ground” is a military expression referring to a position on elevated terrain from which soldiers can better survey the battlefield and more easily defeat an advancing enemy. Space provides the ultimate overlook, and its mastery provides the supreme tactical advantage. This kind of “global situational awareness” has been deemed crucial to national security; the US intelligence agencies strive to see everywhere (in order to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles, avoid satellite collisions, and surveil the planet’s surface) and, via the interception of space-based communication links, hear everything.1

1 The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’s regulations are in a state of flux, as spacefaring nations are constantly recalibrating their policies toward defense-related uses of space. While it is illegal for any nation to launch a “space weapon,” that term has not technically been defined; it is likely to be a subject of debate for years to come.

Every satellite in orbit requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure on the ground. The sheer size of this network is staggering, difficult to quantify or visualize, but there exist approximate inventories of the property holdings of the Pentagon (one of the largest landowners in the world). In his 2004 book, The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson noted that, at the time, the Department of Defense deployed nearly 255,000 military personnel at 725 bases in thirty-eight countries. US military-communication sites, which range from unmanned installations to fully staffed facilities, are generally not included in lists of bases. They are thought to number more than six thousand worldwide.

For the past four years, I have tracked these terrestrial manifestations of America’s effort to dominate space: its global network of remote bases, orbiting satellites, and foreign military installations, some of which do not officially exist. One component of this research is a database of photographs, videos, field recordings, and maps, some created, some found, and some collected from sympathetic sources and fellow researchers.

The Ultimate High Ground includes the atmosphere surrounding us, which is a critical conduit between far-flung “ground stations,” or “Earth stations,” and is charged with their coded transmissions. These sites, whether radar-detection posts, satellite-tracking bases, telecommunications-intercept centers, space ports, unmanned transmitter arrays, or overcrowded field offices, are fragments of America. They are fixed technological nodes in a fluid cartography characterized by orbiting constellations and constantly redefined by shifting geopolitical strategies. The objective, however, remains the same: the infinite extension of perception. The liminal terrain formed by ground stations points to what dwarfs them, the unfathomable stores of encrypted data that stream in and out of their internal network.

The four English and German sites featured here represent a selection of my ongoing research and a fraction of the US’s global network. Some date to World War II, when America found itself in virtually every corner of the globe; many more were built in the first decade of this century, with the explosion of the military-intelligence industry stemming from the global “war on terror” and increased surveillance of countries like China and North Korea. (The Washington Post’s Top Secret America series provides a sense of the enormity, complexity, and secrecy of the domestic national-security infrastructure.)

The following map shows a number of other sites: Some are well known, others exist only as points on a map. All the information used to identify and map these sites is legally and publicly available and was culled from available maps, cartographic data, and online satellite-watchers’ forums; declassified reports from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and National Security Agency (NSA); documents obtained from the CIA via Freedom of Information Act requests; and literature from Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project.

The status of the sites on the map is categorized as active, inactive, or unknown. Primary roles attributed to the sites are communication, detection, processing, and headquarters. This map is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended for navigation.

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Teufelsberg, Berlin, Germany

After World War II, the rubble from four hundred thousand destroyed buildings was dumped on top of a Nazi technical college that had been one of Albert Speerʼs contributions to Hitler’s master plan to transform Berlin into Germania, capital of the thousand-year Reich. The pile of debris on the western outskirts of Berlin is now the highest point in the city. In 1961, the US Army Security Agency built a listening post atop what was known to West Berliners as Teufelsberg (“Devilʼs Mountain”). American and British code breakers, who called the base the Hill or Site-3, intercepted a constant stream of communications between East Germany and the Soviet Union. The serendipitous placement of a Ferris wheel to the east of the Hill increased the clarity of reception. As soon as engineers realized this, the NSA secretly purchased the Ferris wheel, which was left in place until Teufelsberg was decommissioned in 1991.

Architecturally, the site is a mishmash of midcentury modernism: Brutalist concrete support structures, a faceted, mirrored administration building, and numerous geodesic domes. These domes, designed to protect sensitive eavesdropping and communication dishes known as radomes, are composed of white Teflon-coated panels made from a special thermoplastic polymer invisible to electromagnetic waves, which pass through it unimpeded. The panoramic overlook from Teufelsberg includes twentieth-century icons such as the Radio Tower Berlin (1926), the Nazi-designed Olympic Stadium (1931), Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation housing block (1957), Fernsehturm (TV Tower) Berlin (1969) at Alexanderplatz, the workers’ housing blocks along Karl Marx Allee in former East Berlin, and those blocks built in response in the Hansaviertel in former West Berlin. The sonorous ambience of the tower’s radome, intact except for a west-facing portal, is unearthly: Acoustic reflections inside the multifaceted dome produce a slow-decay reverb that seems to be electronically enhanced, as if amplifying the resonances of some phantom encryption equipment.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Teufelsberg was abandoned; everything valuable or classified was carted away or shredded, pulped, and burned on-site. Curiously, the telltale Teflon domes were left intact. For years, private security guards watched over this haunted place, which the city hoped to turn into a luxury resort for wealthy Germans. The main tower’s tessellated walls were at some point cut at the base, and the lower panels now flap in the wind, revealing the structure’s frame, as if it were a giant Teflon banana being peeled. From inside the upper floors one can look out over the surrounding complex, the Grunewald forest, and the northwestern edge of the city in the distance. The site, accessible by crawling through holes in the surrounding chain-link fence, is now a playground for art tourists and urban explorers.

Shortly after I moved to Berlin in the fall of 2007, the American filmmaker David Lynch announced his plans to buy the site and turn it into a Transcendental Meditation school. Suddenly the holes that trespassers cut in the fences every night were no longer repaired; the few security guards who had occasionally roamed the grounds disappeared, giving the site over to the wild boar that dwell beneath the domes. The geodesic domes are slowly being dismantled by tourists, their hexagonal, pentagonal, and triangular panel taken as mementos. I visited one day in 2008 and met a pair of Belgian artists who told me of their scheme to methodically deconstruct the crowning radome and rebuild it in Thailand. At Teufelsberg in August of last year, I was confronted with a group of squatters who had set up a generator-powered camp at the base of a tower that was once called Project Jambalaya. A homemade sign read "Keine Fotos" ("No Photos"), and the squatters brandished their middle fingers at visitors. Nearby, a new BMW station wagon was parked next to the main engineering building—inside the locked gate. Men dressed as security guards were bilking twenty euros from gullible tourists for permission to take photos. A group of former intelligence officers from the US are now trying designate Teufelsberg as a monument to the cold war, though they’ve had little success or support.

RAF Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, England

Located in the North Yorkshire Dales, RAF (Royal Air Force) Menwith Hill is said to be the world’s most powerful satellite-telecommunications portal, Americaʼs biggest spy base, and a key component in the global signals-intelligence collection and analysis network known as ECHELON. The network was reportedly created by US intelligence agencies during the cold war, in connection with partner agencies (and installations) in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, but its existence was not revealed until 1988, by the British investigative reporter Duncan Campbell.

The massive amount of communications that flow through satellite networks—voice and data transmissions from mobile phones and land lines, faxes, emails, Internet queries—intercepted by ECHELON are ostensibly used only for military, security, and diplomatic purposes, though investigations by journalists and the European Parliament have found evidence of industrial espionage and invasion of the privacy of civilians. If it’s any solace, the bulk of personal communications, especially Internet data, is carried by underground and undersea fiber-optic cables, which are much more difficult to tap (although not impossible).

Menwith Hill was constructed in 1958 as part of the US’s burgeoning network of foreign bases, most of them built on land granted by, purchased from, or otherwise claimed (sometimes covertly) in Britain, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Canada. The existence of Menwith Hill was not officially recognized by the NRO until October 2008; it was revealed to the public in a document that also identified the Pine Gap station, near the town of Alice Springs in the center of the Australian desert, along with previously undisclosed NRO stations in Colorado and New Mexico. (The NRO is responsible for designing and operating reconnaissance satellites, working in conjunction with the NGA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and CIA.) Menwith Hill is on British soil and is technically an RAF base, though it is leased to the US government, which operates an air-force installation on the premises. The grounds are occupied by an antenna field; the land beneath the arrays is sublet to local sheep farmers for grazing. More than two thousand American military officers, federal employees, and contractors work inside the base, while British Ministry of Defence police guard the gates and patrol the perimeter.

When I first saw Menwith Hill, the contrast between the bucolic landscape and the base felt uncanny. Amid idyllic seventeenth-century farmhouses and fields dotted with roving sheep, the Hill’s thirty-two radomes seem weirdly organic, as if they had sprouted from subterranean spores and spread beneath the peaty soil. Conspiracy theories abound among locals: a massive subterranean lair beneath the base, connecting portals in the surrounding hills and caves, mind control, alien technology. At night, security lights spill into the sky above the base. The Teflon-wrapped radomes shield the satellite dishes and other, unknown equipment from the elements and from view. Presumably, the direction a dish is pointed can be revealing.

In 2007 I was given a tour of the perimeter and environs by Anne Lee, a retired physics teacher and activist who has been protesting the existence of the base for more than twenty-five years. She has entered the facility more than five hundred times, usually being arrested or escorted out, though occasionally her late-night visits went undetected. The Hill, Duncan Campbellʼs 1993 BBC documentary about the base, features her prominently.

On our tour, Anne pointed out the base’s “tentacles,” which connect it to the landscape and the outside world: a sewage-treatment plant, water flowing from the Hill’s grounds into creeks and watersheds, copious signage, and transmission points such as microwave towers. These are connected to the base via buried fiber-optic cables, discernible by the asphalt strips that zigzag across the surrounding roads, and are allegedly used for eavesdropping. Hundreds of cameras line the perimeter. According to Anne Lee, some contain powerful zoom lenses capable of relaying high-definition video to computers operating facial-recognition software. We were spotted and identified long before being stopped and questioned.

I managed to secure a personal tour of the base, a privilege rarely afforded even to British military officials, in 2009. One of the many conditions of the tour was that I leave all electronic equipment in my car. I could take notes but not make drawings. On the tour I was shown radomes, operations buildings, schools, and other buildings accommodating the “families of Menwith,” all from inside a constantly moving car. We drove past American suburban tract homes with Ford and Chevy pickup trucks in their driveways and imported barbecue grills on their lawns. I was allowed to enter just a few buildings: the medieval-themed officersʼ mess, the all-American grocery store, and a Burger King. Immediately after the tour ended, I rushed to my car and drove to the nearest pub, the Black Bull, to make sketches of everything I had witnessed.

Four Views

A video showing four views of RAF Menwith Hill, one from each corner of the base, all looking away from it.

Southwest: Known by locals as “dangerous corner” due to the high number of accidents caused by contractor vehicles. The A59 is a Roman road, meaning it runs fairly straight and was originally built during the Roman Empire as a thoroughfare.

Northwest: The public footpath, protected by the presence of a rare orchid discovered there by Lee and her fellow activists.

Northeast: A typical view into the valley of Nidderdale, declared by the government agency English Nature to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and thus safeguarded from further development.

Southeast: Looking in the direction of the Victorian spa town of Harrogate and the intersection most frequently used by employees commuting to and from the base. Harrogate, population seventy thousand, is seven miles from the base and home to many American contractors and federal employees who work at Menwith Hill. In this last scene, a blue van and yellow bus, both American and full of camouflaged personnel, drive through the frame. Then a red Mercedes with the steering wheel on the left stops before turning: The eye of Horus mounted above its rear bumper is a symbol often associated with omniscience.

Four views of RAF Menwith Hill.

RAF Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, England

Fylingdales is home to a constellation of radars, which monitor the skies as part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System network that protects the continental US. These radars are capable of sensing orbital objects within three thousand miles of the North York Moors, where the base is located. Originally designed during the cold war to scan the northern hemisphere for missiles launched from the USSR, facilities like Fylingdales are now used to track objects—many of them as small as a few millimeters—in orbital and atmospheric space, both to defend against attacks and to maintain a catalogue of the constantly expanding cloud of space debris composed of dead satellites, booster-rocket shells, and shards of metal from launch separations. In doing so, Fylingdales safeguards the communication networkʼs most valuable and vulnerable assets, the satellites themselves. Its motto: "Vigilamus" ("We are watching").

On a tour of the facility, I took note—again, no photographs allowed—of a screen tracking satellites and orbital debris in real time. The RAF flight lieutenant on duty showed us detailed 3-D renderings of active (and some dead) satellites at their precise coordinates, zooming from location to location with the ease of globe surfing in Google Earth. Two computers with large red and black TOP SECRET labels sat on the ground a few feet away, their monitors showing only the default screen saver of a slowly animated, boundless field of stars. I was told that these workstations are used by the Americans.

A mural at the American-themed bar in the RAF Fylingdales officers’ mess shows the base’s three radomes before they were replaced, in 1992, by the current tetrahedron shell. When I visited in 2009, it was scheduled to be destroyed.

Threat Intercepted

Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) develops the augmented-reality software used to visually render geospatial data (allied and US assets, maps, satellite imagery, unknowns, and adversaries) in real time. AGI is based in Exton, Pennsylvania, but primarily services military and intelligence agencies and businesses in and around Washington, DC.

Promotional video: "AGI recognizes the passion and spirit of our industry to advance toward a new reality."

Bad Aibling Station, Bad Aibling, Germany

The medieval town of Bad Aibling was named for the natural springs that have for centuries attracted Germans to this otherwise sleepy valley in Bavaria. After WWII, the Americans established a listening post here, to intercept communications between Eastern-bloc countries and the USSR. In 2002, Bad Aibling was still considered to be the third most powerful American monitoring station in the world. Two years later it was closed, reportedly as part of an agreement between the EU and the NSA in response to the European Parliament’s complaints that the ECHELON surveillance system was being used for industrial espionage. There is a map near the eastern entrance to the base that was modified when the Americans pulled out: The area occupied by the radomes was covered with a metal plate.

I visited the base in the spring of 2008 and found the gates unmanned and open. (Unlike Teufelsberg, vandalism is almost nonexistent at Bad Aibling, though I did come across a sign emblazoned with Hurensohn, meaning “son of a whore.”) The radomes, however, were protected by locked fences. A German security guard approached and asked whether I had permission to film. He told me that he was retired but continued to make his rounds out of habit; he also told me that the Americans were still there, pointing to a red-roofed building in the distance. He pointed to a green-roofed building nearby, where he said agents of the German intelligence service (BND) were stationed. Then he drove away without further explanation.

On the outskirts of the base, along the road to the buildings pointed out by the security guard, there used to be a biker bar called Chicken Joeʼs Ranch. The owner, nicknamed Chicken Joe by the Americans, runs a website that features videos of Bavarian bikers celebrating the Fourth of July. The bar recently lost its license and closed.

Some of the photographs shown here were featured in the 2009 exhibition “Dark Places” at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, cocurated by Neal White, the Arts Catalyst, and SCAN. I’d like to thank everyone at the Arts Catalyst in London, especially Nicola Triscott and Gillean Dickie; Neal White; Angela Marquis, community-relations adviser at RAF Menwith Hill; Flight Lieutenant Tim Fenton MBE, media and communications officer at RAF Fylingdales; Steve Wright and Dave Webb at Leeds Metropolitan University; and Anne Lee.