"In the entire country, it happens to be in your backyard," said James Bamford, a former network-news investigative producer who documented the Yakima installation in his 1982 book about the NSA, "The Puzzle Palace."
"It doesn't make noise, doesn't send smoke," he said. "It's almost invisible. The whole agency is virtually invisible."
Bamford and others keyed into electronic eavesdropping say the Yakima Research Station has played a major role for decades in Echelon, the global-surveillance network operated by the NSA and its counterparts in the British Commonwealth — Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
According to Bamford, the low-profile NSA has 58,000 employees in the United States and abroad, more than the CIA and FBI combined. Its budget, reportedly more than $6 billion, is classified.
Because the Earth is curved, intercepting satellite communications takes teamwork. The result is Echelon and its network of listening posts. The biggest is thought to be at Menwith Hill north of London.
Patrick Radden Keefe, author of "Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping," contends the Yakima site is even more mysterious.
"People don't know a lot about it [Menwith Hill] but at least they know it's there, because you have 1,400 people who live and work there going out into the surrounding communities," he said in a recent telephone interview.
"Of the different listening posts around the country and the world, Yakima was the hardest one for me to get any information about."
Neither Keefe nor Bamford could say how many people work at the Yakima Research Station. They say it is used mainly for intercepting and relaying communications, not analyzing data or translating foreign languages. They doubt its size is anything close to Menwith Hill, but they concede they don't know for sure.
Passers-by can see the satellite dishes from the freeway north of Selah, but that's as close as they're likely to get. Access is severely restricted, enforced by its location inside a 260,000-acre Army base used primarily for artillery training and target practice.
According to Bamford, such installations have the capability to analyze 2 million intercepts an hour, which then are whittled down to one or two reports a day for NSA brass at agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.