Nestled a half mile inside a hardened rock tunnel, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center buzzed with excitement on July 4, 2006, as the shuttle Discovery prepared to launch.
Then, at approximately 1:30 p.m. during the final countdown at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the center’s alarms and strobes shrieked to life. Defense satellites had picked up a heat-related signature half a world away. An expert crew at the mountain quickly identified it as a missile, pinpointing its type, location and telemetry. It had been launched from North Korea and was headed east. Several more missile launches were detected including a long-range Taepodong II capable of striking the western United States.
As the missiles advanced, the op center alerted top defense officials. President Bush was just a phone call away and if contacted might have had only minutes to decide whether to engage America’s nuclear arsenal. Fortunately, the missiles fell far from U.S. shores in North Korea, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean.
Still, the episode marked the end of an era. A few weeks later, Cheyenne Mountain’s commander, Brig. Gen. Rosanne Bailey, retired and the once highly sought command was downgraded to a “directorate.”
Critics say a decision two years ago to move the operations center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to the basement of an office building on Peterson Air Force Base in nearby Colorado Springs and to disperse other missions at the mountain could undermine U.S. national security.
According to military and defense sources familiar with the missions and U.S. government documents obtained by The Washington Times, the move — billed as a cost-cutting measure — received insufficient government review, violated previous Pentagon directives, may have broken U.S. law and has left the United States less able to track potential threats and the operations center more vulnerable to attack.
“We see decisions like closing Cheyenne Mountain that are driven for cost purposes only, not military requirements,” said Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney. “Cheyenne Mountain should remain an active facility but cost pressures are driving combatant commanders to make riskier decisions.”
The decision to move the op center originated with Adm. Timothy Keating, in 2006 head of both NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, created after 9/11 to safeguard further the U.S. homeland. Adm. Keating apparently convinced the nation’s top military leaders that moving the center would save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Other government officials tried to slow the process to ensure that safeguards would be incorporated at the new site. But they were marginalized in what critics argue was a needlessly quick campaign to place the mountain on “warm standby” while scattering critical elements of the mission to several air bases.
Adm. Keating’s mantra was “faster, quicker and cheaper,” said one military official familiar with Cheyenne Mountain’s recent transition who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He would not let anything stand in his way.”
A spokesman for Adm. Keating, now commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, referred questions to Northern Command.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of Northern Command and Norad, said in a statement Sept. 18 in response to a Government Accountability Office report on the transfer that he had told a closed-door briefing for the House Armed Services Committee that he is “committed to improving our security posture to protect our command center.”
Gen. Renuart said he decided to “exceed the baseline security requirements at our headquarters by implementing enhanced force protection measures.” He asserted that the move from the mountain would have more benefits than costs. “The operational advantages of this effort are numerous and unmistakable,” he said in the statement.
However, Gen. Bailey said in a telephone interview that she had a number of concerns.
“The reality is you can’t make a glass building as resistant to attack as you can a facility in a mountain,” she said.
The Cheyenne operations center came on line at a time when NORAD was just beginning to scour the skies for bombers and other threats.
In the late 1950s, Gen. Earle E. Partridge, who commanded the first version of NORAD, feared the mission was in grave danger because it was located inside an Ent Air Force Base building surrounded by the rapidly growing suburbs of Colorado Springs. The New York Times quoted Gen. Partridge fretting that “one man with a well-aimed bazooka shot” could obliterate NORAD in the first wave of a nuclear battle, blinding the nation when seconds counted to respond.
Gen. Partridge and others lobbied for, and won, a massive bunker inside Cheyenne Mountain.
The Army Corps of Engineers supervised the excavation of the mountain, which has more than 100,000 32-foot-long implosion-preventing bolts and a horseshoe-shaped tunnel — an ingenious funnel, designed to sweep the force of a nuclear blast past the compound’s two imposing 25-ton steel blast doors and 15 separate building-sized areas inside the complex.
The mountain was completely operational by 1966. It was fenced and wired on the outside and machine-gun carrying soldiers kept saboteurs from coming anywhere near the op center in the mountain’s heart.
Recent visitors, including these reporters, faced security searches before entering a bus that brought them into the tunnel, through the blast doors (which were last closed on 9/11), up a small gangway, and into the compound, which sits on 1,300 half-ton shock-absorbing springs. The complex contains sleeping quarters, a medical facility, food stocks, large water supply - even a barbershop.
The mountain became a lasting symbol of fears of an apocalyptic war as depicted in films such as “War Games,” a movie directed by John Badham featuring a young Matthew Broderick. Cheyenne Mountain also figures in flying saucer and 9/11 conspiracies and was part of an annual NORAD public relations campaign to “track” Santa Claus’ sleigh as he delivers toys around the world each Christmas Eve.
As the Cold War dragged on, the advent of more accurate Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles meant the mountain would be less likely to survive a direct nuclear hit. Yet a jetliner loaded with fuel — like those that caused New York’s Twin Towers to crumble on 9/11 — would barely cause op center crews to blink, in contrast to what could happen should the same fate befall Peterson.
A U.S. military official, who is familiar with the program and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the decision to move operations from the mountain may have violated a classified National Security Presidential Directive, dated June 20, 2003, that requires the director of central intelligence, in cooperation with the Defense Department, to maintain a capability to “provide continuously, strategic and correlated tactical warning and crisis situation assessment information” to the president and top military and civilian defense leaders.
The directive warns that terrorists have “shown both the capability and willingness to attack high-value U.S. targets within the homeland and abroad. … Accordingly, we must assume that U.S. nuclear weapons and the associated nuclear command and control system could some day be the target of a determined state or non-state adversary with access to substantial resources, intelligence, and advanced capabilities, including weapons of mass destruction.”
Therefore, facilities must provide “appropriate protection for personnel and equipment” and “critical equipment” must be “made survivable” so the president and top leaders can obtain timely “warning and assessment information,” the directive said. Facilities should be “designed to operate through or otherwise survive nuclear effects.”
On May 28, the transition was completed. Northern Command and NORAD announced that their operations had been combined in Peterson Building 2.
Problems began surfacing within weeks. When Iran in early July launched a volley of test missiles, including a type capable of striking Israel, NORAD took longerto identify the threat than it would have at the mountain, according to a military official who asked not to be identified. The official did not say how much longer.
The transition, the official said, has “slowed the process considerably. … The missions, once done by a single entity … has now been fractured.”
James W. Graybeal, chief Northcom spokesman, declined to comment on the monitoring of the Iranian missile launches, saying that such operational capabilities are classified.
Northern Command has argued that the mountain was outmoded, no longer necessary because the threats facing the United States are different from the Cold War era.
Mr. Graybeal said the consolidated NORAD and Northcom command center at Peterson “has provided unprecedented command and coordination capability and agility in supporting our federal and state partners during pre- and post-landfall operations for Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike.”
“At the same time, we have continued to monitor long-range aviation in our NORAD mission, as well as support security efforts at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions,” he said. “These multiple and near-simultaneous operations, which in the past would have caused impediments in our unity of effort and time-sensitive decision making, were improved because of the new consolidated command center.”
However, the decision to transfer operations was made despite concerns that the new location would be much more vulnerable to attack.
Classified defense documents from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ Program Analysis and Evaluation Office in late 2007 raised the specter of a “successful surprise attack” on a NORAD operating at Peterson.
The documents, obtained by The Times, said that by 2020, if China decided to launch a nuclear attack, a mere fraction of its arsenal would be needed to have a 99 percent assurance of destroying NORAD’s mission at Peterson. However, a NORAD kept in the mountain would possess “up to an 85 percent chance” that “functions will survive,” according to the documents.
In layman’s terms, said a second military official closely involved with security, NORAD is now vulnerable to the sort of terrorism that would have been impossible had operations stayed in the mountain.
“Park a guy who will give his life for his dear leader at the [open land] right outside [Peterson’s] north gate with a rocket-propelled grenade [and NORAD] is out of any fight,” the official said. “Make your cell-phone call and give the green light to launch nuclear missiles at North America, and it’s over. There’s no one to fight the fight. You bring down the world’s only super power and the cost is minimal.”
A former NORAD officer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, described another scenario: A plane veering off course from the Colorado Springs airport and hitting the Peterson building within seconds of ironically being identified by NORAD, creating chaos, possibly blinding the United States as related attacks begin.
Mr. Graybeal noted that the command is committed to improving security of the command center, as stated by Gen. Renuart and said that there are redundant security features.
“We are not closing Cheyenne Mountain,” Mr. Graybeal said. “It will serve as an alternate command center with critical watch and warning systems remaining in Cheyenne Mountain and more than 60 people from our commands continuing to work in the facility.” Instead, Northcom is “simply remoting or ‘piping in’ capabilities that exist in Cheyenne Mountain to provide a fully integrated command center for all NORAD and USNORTHCOM missions at Peterson,” he said.
But a military official and others familiar with the operations center said that piping in information from the mountain is not secure and that the flow of information could be deliberately or accidentally severed.
On Aug. 15, there was an unspecified power problem at Peterson’s Building 2, causing an evacuation, including personnel to Cheyenne Mountain. Nonessential personnel were sent home and authority for NORAD’s mission was temporarily transferred back to the mountain. An “after-action review” of the incident obtained by The Times noted that Building 2’s “poorly defined power” and “unstructured evolution” of networks since the inception of Northern Command contributed to the event.
“Building 2 was never designed to house the number of networks, servers, and user terminals currently installed,” the review states, adding that the event was the “second major power issue” in five months, “calling into question the concept of redundant power.”
Adm. Keating — who is now head of Pacific Command — told reporters in March 2007 that moving operations from the mountain to Peterson would “save us money” and improve “combat efficiency and effectiveness.” However, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has been unable to verify Adm. Keating’s claims that the move would save $150 million to $200 million.
Moreover, inspectors cautioned that there had been no analysis of what effect the transition would have on NORAD’s ITW/AA mission, which is pronounced as “it-wa” by insiders. ITW/AA uses satellite, radar, sensor and intelligence to monitor events around the world, around the clock, against strategic, tactical and terrorist perils.
“Without benefit of an analysis of operational effects of the proposed moves, the completed security assessments, and final protection level designation to inform him, it is unclear what level of risk the commander is accepting,” said the May 2007 GAO report.
The 2008 GAO analysis, released to Congress Sept. 18, also highlighted serious problems. It stated that NORAD no longer enjoys the highest level of protection, meaning that the “loss, theft, destruction, misuse, or compromise of these assets would result in great harm to the strategic capability of the United States.”
“We are recommending that the Commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM re-evaluate the full spectrum of security vulnerabilities associated with moving the NORAD Command Center and related functions from Cheyenne Mountain to Peterson AFB, and that the Commander certify that he is fully aware of and accepts all of the risks, ” the report stated.
An official familiar with internal NORAD matters who spoke on condition that he not be named stated that no analysis has been done on the effect the transition would have on ITW/AA. Short for Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment. ITW/AA is NORAD’s number one mission.
There are also questions about the training of Peterson staff.
The mountain’s former four centers relied on a rigorous regimen to produce officers capable of handling complex computer systems and the stresses of a nation under siege. The systems are so complicated that it takes officers several months to fully qualify in rigorous testing that includes absorbing 12 study guides, mastering some 900 critical tasks and working under supervision for at least two months.
Asked if this is still the standard at Peterson, an official who is close to Northern Command said no.
Mr. Graybeal, however, said “all capability risks were considered prior to making the decision to move.” He did not elaborate.
In March 2005, the mountain’s place in the nation’s defenses seemed stronger than ever. Northern Command and NORAD commanders whisked the media into the mountain on a tour to boast about a new, larger operations center. Plans were even made for a new command center to be built inside the mountain so that Northern Command’s crews could work alongside NORAD, according to officials in Colorado.
During the tour, Adm. Keating told reporters there were so many significant improvements to the computer system and operations that “we’ve got it right here.” “This is state-of-the-art,” Adm. Keating said. “We’re not going to come back in a month and say, ‘Oh Jimminy.’”
But not long after, Adm. Keating’s frustrations with the mountain began to surface, according to Northern Command officials. He found it difficult to wear two hats, the officials said. His NORAD hat required him to be inside the mountain for exercises and Northern Command officials said Adm. Keating only visited the mountain for training.
The two commands, separated by a 25-minute drive between Peterson and the mountain, were put together because of their proximity to each other. But Adm. Keating preferred to begin the day at Peterson, the Northern Command officials said.
The issue came to a head, according to the officials, in the fall of 2005, during a training exercise in which Adm. Keating lost communication with NORAD and then complained to his staff that he was unable to be in two places at once.
In 2006, Adm. Keating’s office circulated among Northern Command officers a “point paper on cost savings.” It is in these documents, obtained by The Times, that he first proposed placing Cheyenne Mountain on “warm minimal” or “warm robust” status, a first step to breaking up of the mountain’s pieces and moving operations to Peterson.
The documents contain no option to retain NORAD inside Cheyenne Mountain, but indicate that the objective was to “explore alternative approaches to meeting the mission at a lower cost.” The documents also noted that ITW/AA’s abilities might be negatively affected and that the commander would be “accepting risk” to gain efficiencies.
In July 2006, Gen. Bailey retired. She had criticized the way the move was being conducted.
During a meeting, according to one participant, she questioned the logic of a proposal to move NORAD’s missile warning center out of the mountain to Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, fearing the move would harm national security. Adm. Keating thanked her for her input but did not change his mind.
In an interview this week, Gen. Bailey said that at the time she left the service she expressed three main concerns about the transfer: how to integrate NORAD’s strategic mission with the less urgent tasks of Northcom; whether training at Peterson would be as good as training for Cheyenne Mountain personnel; and whether moving from a mountain to a building would reduce security.
“If concern about an aircraft heading toward our shore was raised, that’s an urgent and immediate need,” she said. “That is the sort of thing that is done in the mountain. If the aircraft is an airlifter with a maintenance problem, that is something that ultimately could be the attention of Northcom.”
“The challenge of integrating the two is not to divert attention from resetting the warning operation after something occurs,” she said.