High security and high profile have never been an easy mix at the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD--probably the most celebrated top-secret military command post in the world.
Hidden deep inside Cheyenne Mountain south of Colorado Springs, heavily guarded and designed to "button down" and function independently of the outside world in the event of a nuclear attack, the hemisphere's premier missile warning center is a hush-hush fortress of sensitive national security operations. Yet it's also been the subject of countless articles, books and doomsday movies and attracts thousands of visitors each year, who book tours months in advance in order to get a glimpse of its subterranean, Strangelovian marvels.
But the chance for the average civilian to inspect one of the nation's lasting legacies of the Cold War comes to an abrupt end next week. Citing concerns over the sheer volume of visitors and the possibility of a terrorist "incident," NORAD will be closing its three-foot-thick steel blast doors to the public on April 2. Future tours will consist of ninety-minute briefings at a visitors' center located outside the Cheyenne Mountain complex, with no opportunity to enter the mountain itself.
"The world we live in is not the same world we were doing tours in twenty years ago," says NORAD spokesman Commander David Knox. "We have so many people coming through, and we don't know anything about who they are or their intentions. We know the vast majority of them are just interested in seeing this national treasure--but we're getting into a more and more dangerous world."
The closure, announced a few weeks ago, has already triggered a wave of protest and paranoid speculation in Internet discussion groups. "This is VERY bad news for all American civilians," writes one Art Wholeflaffer in an online forum catering to the conspiracy fringe. "The elimination program that I have been describing over the past many years has finally been implemented. NORAD and the Pentagon...have decided to step up Operation Y2K! Needless to say, catastrophe awaits us."
NORAD's open-door policy wasn't changed in response to a specific threat, Knox says, but as a result of a security review prompted by the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings, the release of nerve gas in a Japanese subway station and other alarming events around the globe. Entombed in virtually solid granite, NORAD is less vulnerable to terrorists than other government targets, but officials concluded they could no longer guarantee the safety of the visitors themselves.
"If someone tried to do something," Knox explains, "most likely the victims of a terrorist attack would be the other people on the tour. They probably wouldn't do that much damage to the mission of the mountain."
A mania for security has been a hallmark of Cheyenne Mountain since the complex opened in 1966. At a cost of $142 million, the government built the largest fallout shelter in the world, blasting and removing 700,000 tons of granite and carving out three miles of tunnels. Within the gloomy granite caverns are a series of windowless steel buildings connected by catwalks and staffed by hundreds of U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Canadian military personnel, as well as civilian technicians. Equipped with its own power and food supply, the NORAD headquarters was intended to withstand an atomic bombing raid, but the "hardened bunker" concept was obsolete practically from the day construction was completed, as the Soviet Union quickly developed more powerful and precise ballistic missile systems.
Still, for the past 33 years the mountain has served as the continent's air-defense nerve center, tracking everything that could pose a threat to North American airspace--everything from ICBMs and UFOs to space debris and Santa Claus. (Last Christmas the NORAD Web site logged more than 30 million hits from youngsters checking on Claus's annual carpet-bombing sortie from the North Pole.) Fortunately, NORAD's tensest moments have all been false alarms.
In 1979 a technician accidentally fed an attack simulation tape into the main computers, prompting the command center's display screens to depict Soviet missiles homing in on Strategic Air Command bomber bases; the alert was so convincing that the president's command jet reportedly took off without any instructions from Jimmy Carter. The following year, a glitch in a 46-cent computer chip prompted similar bogus reports of missile launches and triggered two worldwide alerts of strategic forces in three days. The incidents inspired the 1983 hit movie War Games, which gave audiences the idea that computers, not people, ran the show at NORAD.
To allay such fears, NORAD has offered guided public tours for much of its history, bringing civilians through metal detectors and cursory credential checks to learn more about the "mission of the mountain." Even as the Cold War has waned, that mission has continued to expand; it now includes tracking suspected drug-smuggling planes and aiding space missions through the U.S. Space Command, not to mention keeping a close eye on errant rocket launches from North Korea's fledgling space program. But these days NORAD feels less threatened by rogue rockets or decaying satellites than by what a lone fanatic might try to smuggle inside the mountain in his fanny pack.
Knox notes that tourists were never allowed to see certain key areas of the complex such as the "battle warning center," only the command center itself (which is much smaller than the one in War Games). He suggests that visitors will be able to learn more about the entire operation "in a virtual sense" by watching a multi-media presentation at the visitors' center than they ever did by going inside.
"I realize that's not the same as being able to say that you were in there, but they'll actually understand the mission better," he says.
The new policy isn't expected to make much of a dent in Colorado Springs' booming tourism industry. Although NORAD's current 10,000 visitors a year is a considerable crowd for a top-security military operation, it's scarcely a blip on the screen compared to the million-plus visitors who tour the Air Force Academy a few miles away. "We don't advertise NORAD, because even when they had tours, it was so difficult to get in," says Elizabeth Youngquist, director or marketing for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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The mountain won't be entirely off-limits to civilians. Certain groups, such as journalists and aerospace-industry officials, will still be able to tour as circumstances allow, Knox says.
And then there are the Russians.
Although NORAD's leaders have been busily readying their computers for the Y2K adjustment for years, they're less confident about the Russian missile-warning system. A few weeks ago they invited a select team of their former adversaries to join them in setting up a special observation post within Cheyenne Mountain as a kind of backup. The idea is that if the Russian system malfunctions, the visitors can check the data against NORAD's system, then call home and tell everybody not to worry.
The Russian government has not yet formally accepted the proposal. But Knox wants people to know that while policies might change at NORAD--no more Joe Q. Public, welcome Colonel Boris Badanov--certain aspects of the defense center's mission remain the same.
"We will always be tracking Santa," Knox says.