Inside the Spy Base Where the Military Will Detain Immigrants
At Goodfellow Air Force Base, servicemembers train on how to collect phone calls, texts, and other communications. How will immigration lawyers securely represent their clients?
One of the Texas military bases selected for the Trump administration’s immigrant detention camps is an intelligence training hub for the U.S. Air Force and other military services. That’s prompting civil-rights lawyers to fear that communications between detained people and their attorneys may be collected and monitored.
Five former military intelligence specialists, including some who spent time on the base, cautioned that Goodfellow Air Force Base isn’t itself an operational nexus for hoovering up phone calls, texts, emails, and other communications. Instead, Air Force and other personnel are trained in how to collect what’s known as signals intelligence at the base.
But they also told The Daily Beast that the training at Goodfellow involves the collection of phone and text data from proximate sources, raising the prospect of inadvertent or even deliberate monitoring of privileged communications on or near the base. One ex-intelligence officer described it as a “turnkey capability,” though he doubted officials would repurpose the training into active monitoring.
Immigration advocates already fear that the creation of the detention camps on military bases means their access to active or potential clients will inevitably be restricted in the name of on-site security. Multiple military intelligence sources noted the remoteness of Goodfellow. Goodfellow’s selection to host one of the camps, say civil-liberties lawyers, will chill attorney-client communications—whether or not officers on the base actually turn the interception key.
“Even the unrealized risk that communications could be intercepted will likely cause people to self-censor and prevent them from receiving the full benefit of legal counsel,” said Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the digital-rights group Access.
Goodfellow isn’t Fort Meade, the Army base between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., that houses the surveillance-behemoth National Security Agency. Soldiers, Marines, and airmen who’ve trained in signals intelligence at Goodfellow describe the collection there as limited to training exercises.
Steve Kleinman, a retired Air Force colonel and senior intelligence officer for the service, said that in theory, Goodfellow ought not to be an communications-interception concern any more than any other military base. Its intelligence functions concern training, “not an operational mission,” he said, and there are “lots of controls in place so training doesn’t impact any real-world activity.”
But, Kleinman continued, “the world under the current administration is the Wild West. The confidence I’ve had in the past” for sharp delineations of what is and is not legally permissible “has been a little bit shaken.”
“If I was a lawyer for a detainee on the base, and I look at the history of signals-intelligence training on the base,” said Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union, “I’d probably insist on a guarantee of confidentiality with regard to communications with my client, and I’d seek one from someone on the base.”
Days after the Trump administration signaled the militarization of its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, officials have offered very few specifics about how the internment will operate in practice. It remains unclear what provisions base officials or their superiors are making to accommodate the influx of attorneys who will require access to the base in order to protect their clients’ rights in deportation proceedings.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has said the bases are merely providing “logistical support” for the Department of Homeland Security, which requested the military house the camps, but it’s unknown how the two departments are delineating each other’s responsibilities in administering facilities that will detain an unknown number of people for an indeterminate period of time.
Nor is it clear what precautions, if any, Goodfellow officials plan to take to guard against incidentally collecting privileged communications from attorneys at the base. Goodfellow’s public-affairs wing referred The Daily Beast to the Pentagon. Neither the Pentagon nor the Department of Homeland Security answered questions about the anticipated operations of the camps.
Administration officials have yet to explain why Goodfellow was specifically selected to host the camp. It was one of four bases that officials from the Department of Health and Human Services surveyed earlier this month. But several military-intelligence officials with experience at Goodfellow suggested that its remoteness was a factor.
“I don’t know, the more I think about it, the more Goodfellow makes sense because it’s small and empty,” a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “[Imagine if they] threw them [the immigrants] on Fort Hood [located some three hours east of Goodfellow], how many people could take pictures and ask questions,” the source said.
A second Air Force intelligence specialist agreed: “It’s just a bizarre choice. There’s so many other bases in Texas that would make sense, it’s the odd one out. Many bases are larger, and could better support that infrastructure.”
It is not clear how much legal process the administration intends to provide at the camps. Trump has been tweeting for days against providing any, decrying the presence of “judges or court cases” for undocumented immigrants. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, contended on Monday that “just because you don’t see a judge doesn’t mean you aren’t receiving due process.”
Several former military intelligence specialists described on-base training in signals intelligence collection that the presence of protected-class communications, such as attorney-client discussions, are likely to complicate.
“I was a little confused about Goodfellow for a few reasons. It’s a AETC [Air Education and Training] command, wherein, the base is only used for training purposes… [of] all Air Force enlisted and officer personnel in the intelligence pipeline,” a former senior U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist told The Daily Beast.
“There isn’t a collection capability per se on base, although, I would say that there’s a ‘turnkey’ capability in the sense that if they rewired communications on the base, then there would be the processing equipment and personnel (linguists working in signals intelligence) available,” the source said, adding, “That all being said, I think the possibility of that occurring would be quite low, [but] a concern for me is the proximity of foreign nationals on an intelligence training post.”
A former U.S. Marine cryptologic linguist who underwent training at Goodfellow said that Marines undergo some signals intelligence collection training on the base as apart of the overall training curriculum for Marines entering the intelligence community.
“Generally speaking, any collection would be harmless to any legal effort on the base, but back in 2010, we briefly turned on the collect for CDMA [a cellular network protocol], and collected the text messages [from individuals using Verizon or Sprint] and they came in clear,” the source said, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We were also able to passively intercept audio. Now, those instructors weren’t total assholes—there was a rule about wiping the collection device and you weren’t allowed to keep headphones on for more than a second in order to verify the collection was working. We were told we were operating under a USSID (signals intelligence directive) that covered training and evaluation.”
The source said the USSID is issued by the National Security Agency, which operates under Defense Department regulation 5240.1-R and issues directives for any and all groups collecting signals intelligence for the U.S. government. While a signals intelligence collection under CDMA would scoop up any Verizon or Sprint customers, the Marines also have the capability to collect on devices using GSM, CDMA’s competitor protocol.
“If CDMA stateside is still such a shitshow that Marine tactical gear can passively collect, there’d be a risk of at least one particular group of students seeing or hearing some shit they shouldn’t,” the source said. “It’d be brief, maybe one or two text messages or a second or two of audio, so not like a real collection effort, but it’d still be a bad fucking idea.”
The senior Air Force intelligence specialist said that there’s a 30-day window on “incidental” collection. “If Americans are collected upon, it has to be purged within 30 days no matter what,” the source said. “Foreign national to foreign national phone calls out of these centers would likely not be subject to limits on collections, especially coming out of a military base (any base communication is subject to monitoring). If American attorneys are present, that calculus changes.”
The source said this monitoring, which is sometimes referred to as “own force monitoring” and “blue force monitoring,” occurs on telephone landlines and does not extend to personal cellphones of individuals on U.S. military installations. However, a senior U.S. Navy intelligence specialist disagreed, telling The Daily Beast, “If they are on a base, they can monitor any government device [including cellphones]. If they are anyone using government systems they can be monitored, exploited, and acted on.”
That’s a concern for detained immigrants as well as attorneys. And it’s got an ominous recent precedent. Lawyers for detainees at Guantanamo Bay have repeatedly had their client-relevant communications intercepted and overheard.
“I’d want some assurance that my communications with my client are not being monitored. If I was a loved one, I’d think I’d be circumspect, very careful about what i said over the phone,” said the ACLU’s Abdo.
Access’ Stepanovich said the administration and the military needed to take “extensive, affirmative steps” to prevent “even the impression of interference” with detainees’ ability to confidentially discuss their cases with attorneys. Such steps, she said, include suspending a training exercises involving communications interception.
“It has long been held that anyone in the United States is guaranteed due process of law by the U.S. Constitution, and the very heart of due process is the right to consult with an attorney,” she said. “The decision to house these people at military facilities, including facilities designed for signals intelligence exercises, unquestionably offends the spirit of that right, and runs the probable risk of violating the letter as well.”