Warrenton Training Center, Warrenton/Remington/Culpepper
Supposedly operated by the U.S. Army as a training and communications facility this complex of four separate sites is actually used by the CIA for communications with agents in the field as well as for training of agents and personnel in the arts of clandestine and operations. It is also used for interception of electronic communications. There are underground tunnels and facilities here along with state-of-the-art computing and signal processing equipment. In fact, it’s not clear exactly what is going on here; the only thing we know for is that the Top Secret Government doesn’t want you to know about this place and what goes on inside it.
The Warrenton Training Center takes its name from Warrenton, the town closest to “Site A” and “Site B” of the facility. However, there are two other sites comprising the WTC. “Site C” is near Remington and “Site D” is near Culpepper. Signs at all four sites identify them as being part of the Warrenton Training Center and under control of the U.S. Army.
Warrenton Virginia Map Photo Gallery
The Warrenton Training Center was established in 1951 as a communications training facility for the Department of Defense. It was transferred to the Department of the Army in 1973 and its mission was to support the National Communications System (NCS); the NCS was created in 1963 to coordinate radio and other electronic communications between the various branches and agencies of the federal government, including the CIA, FBI, FEMA, and the Department of State.
As Warrenton expanded during the 1960s and 1970s, it became clear that a lot of secret stuff was going on there. Ham radio operators and shortwave listeners managed to track various coded shortwave transmissions known as “numbers stations” to Site C. Coded transmissions by the Department of State’s embassy radio network also originated from this site. Site D began adding radomes, satellite antennas, and antennas intended only for receiving during this time. Reports began circulating that Warrenton was the Top Secret Government’s “communications central,” a place where secret communications were transmitted, signals were intercepted, and personnel were trained in the art of preparing and breaking coded messages.
Several new buildings were constructed at Sites A and B during the 1980s, and Warrenton was still going strong at the time this book was written.
What’s There: Site A is reportedly used for training, administrative, and residential purposes and except for the armed guards and security fences looks much like a small college campus. There are numerous buildings here and what seem to be, from a distance, homes. The latter are believed to be for use of instructors and others who must spend an extended period of time at Site A.
Site B is the largest of the four and is reported to be the headquarters for the Warrenton Training Center. It covers 346 acres and includes several multi-story buildings, some of which were constructed in the late 1980s. Also visible from the road is a microwave tower and a water tower. One of the buildings constructed in the 1980s is what appears to be a large mansion; the gate across the road leading to it has a sign reading “Brushwood.” This is believed to be a conference center, although there are rumors this is a “safe house” for defectors.
Site C near Remington resembles a shortwave transmitting station like those used by the Voice of America. There are several large antenna towers at this location along with smaller buildings used to house transmitters and power distribution. While this site is guarded, it is likely that only a small number of people actually work here.
Site D near Culpepper also has some antenna towers like Site C, but not as many. Many of the antennas are like those at National Security Agency sites intended for satellite eavesdropping, and it’s believed that this is a “listening only” location. There are more and larger buildings here than at Site C, and more people seem to be working here.
Secret Stuff: So what were those “numbers stations” that transmitted from Site C?
Beginning in the 1950s, some very unusual signals were being heard on shortwave radio on frequencies adjacent to those used by stations like the BBC and Voice of America. These stations transmitted nothing but blocks of numbers in groups of four or five read by a woman in an eerie, mechanical voice. On some especially strong, clear transmissions, listeners could hear a faint “click” sound between each digit, indicating the messages were produced by one of those devices used by the phone company when you reach a number that has been changed or disconnected.
Cryptology experts quickly recognized these number groups were part of a “one-time-pad” message system. The agent in the field would copy the number groups and then either add it to, or subtract it from, the corresponding group on a sheet from a “one-time pad.” The groups resulting from the addition or subtraction are then compared to a master key list to produce the message. After the sheet from the pad has been used, it is destroyed (the CIA reportedly produced one-time pads whose pages would dissolve in your mouth). The one-time pad method sounds clumsy and low-tech, but messages produced by this system are virtually unbreakable so long as copies of the pads and master key list don’t fall into the hands of the opposition.
At first, most of the numbers stations transmitted in English, German, or Russian. With the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba, Spanish-lan-guage numbers stations began operating and soon became the most commonly heard such stations in North America. On any given night, shortwave listeners could hear dozens of numbers stations in Spanish, with a few English, German, and Russian language stations also heard.
Shortwave listeners quickly suspected the stations transmitting groups of five-digits came from Cuba and other nations. In a few cases, audio from Radio Havana Cuba’s shortwave broadcasts could be heard in the background of the five-digit Spanish stations, indicating they shared the same transmitter sites. And some Soviet agents, like CIA defector Edward Howard, were found to have shortwave receiving equipment and one-time pads containing five-digit groups in their possession when arrested.
The four-digit messages seemed to be coming from a source within the United States because they were uniformly loud and free of the distortion found on more distant shortwave signals. In 1984, a mathematics professor at a Connecticut college used a portable shortwave radio to conclusively determine that four-digit messages were being transmitted from Site C; he parked near the site and found the signals so strong that his shortwave radio “overloaded” and no other stations could be received, indicating he had to be within a few hundred feet of the station transmitter. His observations were confirmed by other shortwave hobbyists with portable radios.
Beginning in the early 1990s, a new type of numbers message started being transmitted from Site C. These became known as “3/2” messages, because they consist of five-digit groups was as distinct pause between the third and fourth digit of each group. This is believed to be part of a “book key” system, in which the CIA and the agent use a commonly available book to decode the message. The first three digits of each group are believed to be the page number, and the last two digits representing the position of a word on the page, counting from the first word in the upper left corner. This method does away with the problem of how to get one-time pads to agents.
It is now believed that the Internet is used for espionage communications, especially in areas where Internet access is common. This may be true, as the number of transmissions from Site C is down greatly from its peak in the 1980s. However, every day numbers groups are still broadcast from Site C and can be heard, with a little patient tuning late at night, on any shortwave radio.
Getting a Look Inside: Most of us have to be content with gazing at the four sites from the outside, but we can imagine what the inside looks like thanks to Del Miller, a columnist for MacOpinion magazine (a magazine for Apple Macintosh users). In his August, 2000 column, he recounted a visit he paid to the main site (presumably Site B) in 1986. At that time, he worked for a company that made advanced computing equipment, and the Warrenton Training Center was interested in buying such systems. Before he could visit, he underwent a background check that lasted three weeks (including interviews with people who had known him at least ten years). After arriving at the guardhouse at Site B, he was escorted to an underground location through what he described as tunnels drilled into granite; he said the walls were lined with old mainframe computers, some of which used vacuum tubes. His meeting with Warrenton personnel was different from the usual sales presentation in that they did not respond to any of his questions about their needs and requirements. Instead, they asked him very precise and narrow questions about the capabilities of his company’s computing systems and never told him what they planned to do with the computers. The only response he could ever get about the intended applications was, “Listening, just listening.”
If you’re not as fortunate as Del Miller, you’ll have to be content with glimpses from the roads adjoining the four sites. The antenna structures at Sites C and D are readily visible, but little else can be seen. Sites A and B are located in heavily wooded areas, and visibility will vary between seasons. You’ll see the most in late autumn and winter after leaves have fallen and summer foliage has died. .
Getting There.- Site A is southwest of Warrenton at the intersection of Routes 744 and 802. Site B is northwest of Warrenton on Route 690 near Viewtree Mountain. Site C is southeast of Remington near the intersection of Routes 654 and 651. Site D is ten miles from Culpepper at the intersections of Routes 669 and 672. Do not take the well-paved road leading into Site B; there is a guardhouse just around the curve past the entrance and uninvited visitors can expect to be detained for questioning and possible arrest.