Just south of the Cuban capital’s Jose Marti airport—and clearly visible to passengers on final approach—is a little known Russian military base, one without weapons systems but with scores of antennas and satellite dishes straining to hear some of America’s closest held secrets.
NEARLY 28 miles square, Russia’s “Radio-Electronic Station/Cuba” near the abandoned Cuban village of Lourdes is the largest and most productive spy station the Russians ever built, a base that specializes in “telephone espionage.” It is the last and most valuable jewel in their electronic crown, the Russian version of “Echelon,” a worldwide spy network that includes bases inside Russia and overseas — a network that is reportedly called “Dozor.”
Lourdes is operated by Russia’s GRU, its military intelligence arm, and the Federal Agency for Government Communications (FAPSI), an electronic spy agency that evolved out of the old KGB in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lourdes is an “intelligence cornucopia,” as one official of America’s National Security Agency once described it. Its primary target is American telecommunications. Its primary weapon — satellite dishes that steal signals.
Other dishes at Lourdes direct spy satellites as they fly over North America, and Lourdes has long hosted a secret cell of Russian security services experts who look for damaging information on potential recruits, according to the Pentagon. In all of this, it takes advantage of Cuba’s geographic position just south of Florida. Lourdes lies within the “footprint” of every U.S. communications satellite as well as most international satellites. And it is close enough to the U.S. mainland to pick up wireless communications as diverse as military radios and taxi dispatchers throughout the southeast United States on a good day, Florida on a bad one.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and as Cuban defense minister the Russians’ landlord, bragged to friendly Mexican journalists in April 1994 that 75 percent of Russia’s “strategic intelligence” flowed through Lourdes.
Essential to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it still has great, if diminished value to the Russian government. Intelligence analysts say that its value has dropped not only because of changing Russian priorities, but because much of what Russia has long targeted at Lourdes and elsewhere is no longer available.
Its big base at Andreyevka in the Russian Far East remains open, but one of its two other big satellite intercept bases, near Aden in Yemen, is closed and the other doesn’t operate full-time. And instead of being carried by microwave beam to and from communications satellites, critical commercial and military intelligence is now being carried instead by transatlantic and transpacific fiber optic cables or digital cell phones that are more often than not encrypted. And in the superpower spy battle, the United States has another advantage the Russians don’t: much of the world’s telephone traffic crosses or at least touches America’s or its allies’ shores. Few networks traverse Russia or Cuba.
So, today, Lourdes and the entire “Dozor” system are increasingly hard of hearing. Their priorities are less dramatic as well. Lourdes no longer makes much of an effort to ensure that Moscow gets advance word of a surprise missile attack as it did in the days of the Reagan administration. It now has to try harder to grab faxes or emails that tell of U.S. commercial and technological advances as well as making sure the U.S. is living up to its strategic arms accords.
Yet while Lourdes is not what it used to be, it remains critical to Russia’s intelligence needs because it is Russia’s only big ear on America.
“The need for its is permanent, both for Moscow and Havana,” Col. Gen. Mikhail Kolesnik, Russia’s current chief of staff, said in late 1995 when he visited the base, and there is no indication the Russians have changed their minds since. The base, which fell on hard times in the early 1990s, is now being upgraded. How well it is doing, of course, is a state secret.
The history of Lourdes and U.S. efforts to protect sensitive government secrets provides an interesting insight into the beginnings of the debate on the government’s effort to control encryption technology, for it was Lourdes’ capabilities that raised the specter of Soviet spying in the 1970s which in turn led to government efforts to secure society.
Little has been written about Lourdes or “Dozor,” unlike U.S. electronic spy stations in England, Germany, Australia or New Zealand, which have commanded TV documentaries and books. And while the U.S. National Security Agency has attracted a lot of critical attention in the digital community, Russian as well as other nations’ “telephone espionage” has been virtually ignored. Lourdes’ history raises a number of questions for the digerati: does it matter whose flag Big Brother salutes — your own government’s, a private entity’s or another government’s? Which is worse, or does it matter? And how do you deal with a threat from a foreign government?
These questions are difficult to answer without knowing how a superpower goes about what was once quaintly called “wiretapping.” And the questions are no longer abstract. Around the world, nation after nation is emulating Russia and the United States, using electronic eavesdropping to gather most of their intelligence, particularly economic and commercial data.
The rapid growth of communications media, like satellites, cell phones and Internet, as well as the equally rapid growth of information that flows through those media, whether email, trade secrets, or blueprints make such spying both easier and more tempting.
In addition to the nations of the U.K.-U.S. spy alliance — the so-called “Wasp Alliance” of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — other nations, big and small, are involved in the eavesdropping business. The intelligence agencies of Germany, France, China, India, Cuba, even Burma all use secret satellite intercept facilities to downlink voice, data, fax, video and email. Worldwide, the army of people involved in listening, processing and analyzing communications numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
But no nation, with the possible exception of the United States, has been as successful at remote wiretapping as Russia — and the Soviet Union before it. And nowhere has its success been as stunning as it has been at Lourdes — long the central processing facility for a multitude of electronic eavesdropping operations scattered throughout Cuba.
Fifty miles to the west of Havana, at Los Palacios, are short-wave and high-frequency receivers, while 20 miles to the east of the capital, near Alamar, are giant, concave “ears” pointed toward the East Coast and aimed at microwave links that carry long-range communications. Nearer Lourdes are 700-foot towers festooned with smaller dishes aimed at Florida.
At Lourdes itself, the Russian headquarters complex has more than 50 buildings of various sizes and shapes, manned mainly by analysts who record and listen to what is intercepted — and prepare it for transmission back to Moscow, some by encrypted satellite relay, some by special planes flown out of Havana. Lourdes strains to intercept satellites that fly over the U.S., trying to retrieve information like communications from cell phones and wireless data systems.
InsertArt(891752)And south of Lourdes, near the city of Bejucal, is a Cuba’s own spy base, using some of the same equipment Russia has, part of the price Russia paid Cuba to keep Lourdes operating in the post-Soviet era.
“The Cubans have everything they need,” said one U.S. intelligence analyst.
How good is Lourdes? The U.S. intelligence community is not as impressed as it used to be with it. Some in the CIA call it a minor annoyance. Others see it as having great value still. Here is what the Defense Intelligence Agency told the Senate Intelligence Committee in May of 1996 in the most recent public assessment of its capabilities: “The Lourdes facility enables Russia to eavesdrop on U.S. telephone communications. U.S. voice and data telephone transmissions relayed by satellites visible to the facility are vulnerable to Russian intercept. Most other unprotected telephone communications in the United States are systematically intercepted.”
And although commercial intelligence is the top priority, it is not the only one, says the DIA: “Personal information about U.S. citizens in private and government sectors also can be snatched from the airwaves and used by Russian intelligence to identify promising espionage recruits in these sectors.”
In other words, the DIA says, Lourdes can grab most international telephone traffic carried by satellite as well as commercial data. And, yes, the facility could be used to engage in blackmail.
WIDE ARRAY OF TARGETS
Lourdes’ targets are varied: the commercial data dumps from the one branch office of a multinational bank to another, the latest progress of a microchip assembly plant under construction, the White House political office’s travel arrangements, or a reporter talking to his sources — if it is carried by satellite rather than fiber optic cable. In the early days of the Clinton administration, one high-ranking CIA official told a gathering of journalists who cover national security issues: “Everyone of you in this room has his or her phone calls monitored out of Lourdes.”
InsertArt(891751)The most telling indicator of Lourdes’ value has been how much money the Soviet Union and Russia laid out to build and maintain the complex. The NSA long ago estimated that the Soviet Union spent $3 billion to build it and the Russians themselves admit that each year they pay their Cuban landlords $200 million worth of fuel, timber and spare parts for various equipment, including military equipment. That doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars the Russians spend operating the facility each year ... including the millions of dollars paid to the 800 to 1,000 Russian technicians who man the antennas and tape recorders. The Russians know that to maintain a decent standard of living in Cuba, you need dollars. And now, 10 years after the end of the Cold War, U.S. analysts say new money is being spent to upgrade the operation.
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.