On a picturesque bluff west of Spokane, a highly classified military facility – unknown to most in the region – carries out a worldwide mission from behind a coiled barbed-wire fence. Security cameras and occasional armed guards sweep the terrain.
Neighbors are mystified by what they call “the site.”
Inside the White Bluff facility, behind 3-foot thick, blast-proof concrete walls, work related to the CIA, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Defense and other U.S. government security agencies goes on in virtual anonymity.
While most residents of the region have heard of the Survival School at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, few know about the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which oversees the school but also conducts more clandestine work.
Dozens work at the White Bluff site where “code of conduct” training – how to behave honorably if captured – and Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training are taught to various government employees headed overseas.
Although the U.S. military confirms the existence of the JPRA facility in Spokane, details about its mission are classified. However, publicly available documents show the facility is involved in tracking and helping rescue U.S. military and civilian hostages who go missing anywhere in the world.
“Due to the nature of what occurs on the facility, we can’t answer your questions,” said Lt. Col. Phil Smith, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Joint Forces Command. “Virtually every question you would want to answer would be classified, and we wouldn’t be able to provide answers.”
When asked if a reporter and photographer could visit the site, Smith said, “Access to the facility is just not going to happen.”
Created in 1999, JPRA is under the supervision of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, an organization comprised of all branches of the U.S. military.
The Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va., also coordinates domestic terrorism response operations and helps the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the FBI guard against weapons of mass destruction in the United States.
And now, with the global “war on terrorism,” JPRA also trains U.S. coalition forces and oversees SERE training at Fairchild and the Pentagon’s four other survival schools, according to senior military officials.
The federal government currently is negotiating the purchase of additional land from the state of Washington to nearly double the size of the 44-acre White Bluff site, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency handling the proposed sale, did not provide a reason to the state for the expansion of the JPRA site near Riverside State Park. Because state property is involved, the sale would have to be approved by Gov. Chris Gregoire, who sits on the Board of Natural Resources.
The White Bluff site at 11604 W. Newkirk Road is described as “JPRA West,” one of two such facilities in the U.S., according to military publications. The other is at Fort Belvoir, Va., near the headquarters of the U.S. Joint Forces Command.
“Unlike the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which seeks full accounting of service members missing in past wars, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency monitors activities in cases where individuals are believed still to be alive,” according to a May 2006 article published by the American Forces Press Service. JPRA refers to missing individuals not as hostages, but as “isolated.”
Navy Capt. Michael S. Speicher, whose F/A-18 jet fighter was shot down on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of the first Gulf War, is the “longest-isolated person” JPRA is tracking, according to the article.
In addition to Speicher, there are currently at least 20 U.S. military and civilian contractor employees being tracked by JPRA, including three DEA contract employees being held by drug warlords in Colombia and a military contractor from Portland being held in Iraq, according to various reports.
To track “isolated” Americans, JPRA uses the latest in satellite imagery, computer technology and communications, coupled with experts who map out combat para-rescue plans for Special Operations Forces using low-flying black helicopters.
Specialists from the Spokane JPRA facility are known to have been dispatched to various spots around the globe for U.S. hostage rescues or releases, including the April 2003 rescue of U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital.
The recovery experts also debrief just-released hostages such as Lynch to learn about their capture and interrogation. That data is processed by the Pentagon and sometimes results in modifications to military survival training at the JPRA facility and the nearby Survival School at Fairchild.
As part of its mission, JPRA provides the U.S. military “with tools to help individuals evade and escape if isolated from their units.” Products developed by JPRA include evasion charts and maps printed on “non-paper material” and one-way signal-emitter tags that are small, lightweight and attach to uniforms, according to a military news release.
JPRA technicians have developed “blood chits,” which are written notices in several languages carried by air crews in combat. “If their aircraft is shot down, the notice identifies the Americans, encourages the local population to assist them and promises a reward for doing so,” according to the release.
The JPRA also has refined development of personal locator beacons, similar to those used by mountain climbers. But the military versions are more sophisticated and reportedly can be used for two-way communication and text messaging.
“Unlike cell phones which have limited range and spotty coverage in remote areas, Personal Locator Beacons have the capability of being detected anywhere in the world by the global life-saving satellites,” which are jointly operated by the U.S., Russia and European countries, according to a Defense Department publication.
Despite the cloak of secrecy, documents on the Internet and elsewhere paint a composite picture of the White Bluff operation.
Initially the site was used by the U.S. government during the Cold War as an Army Nike missile tracking facility. In 1963, the site became Detachment 1 of the 4000th Aerospace Applications Group, part of the “Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.”
“The 52-member unit is one of only two in the world which control U.S. military weather satellites giving detailed weather information for any spot on Earth,” according to a 1977 story in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
The weather tracking site included a giant inflated dome that reportedly contained satellite communications equipment operated by the U.S. Air Force. On cold evenings, heating equipment inside the dome colored it a glowing yellow, which could be seen on the northern horizon from U.S. Highway 2 in Airway Heights.
In the mid-1980s, neighbors were invited to an open house, recalled David Biggs, who still lives nearby.
“They built a large building on a concrete slab near the dome,” Biggs said. “I would describe it as a blast-proof building, with 3-foot-thick exterior walls, reinforced with one-inch rebar.”
“They built it behind a rock outcropping designed to protect it if there was a nuclear attack at Fairchild,” Biggs said.
Visitors were told electrical and other utility services to the building came in through an “umbilical cord” that was designed to “sever and seal” if the structure was rocked by a nuclear blast.
“There were computer consoles, dormitory facilities – the place was completely self-contained,” Biggs said.
Another neighbor, Dave Schoengold, who has lived in the area for 35 years, said government contractors a few years ago “dug for more than a year” to put in a “hardened site” structure that goes several stories underground.
“My wife and I used to tease each other that we really are living at Ground Zero if somebody wants to take out an important military communications site,” said Schoengold, a local businessman.
Biggs said when neighbors complained about low-flying helicopters or an obnoxiously loud security horn on the remote-controlled front gate, commanders at the site immediately made changes.
“They’ve been good neighbors,” Biggs said.
Spheres and surveillance
With improvements in satellite imagery, the weather tracking operation eventually was decommissioned. But the remote, highly-secure site apparently was just what JPRA was looking for after it was formed in 1999.
Since then, several improvements have been made at White Bluff. Aerial photographs show three large white spheres – apparently satellite communications equipment – and a large conference or training facility. The frame-construction building has a commanding view of Mount Spokane and north Spokane.
Neighbors haven’t been invited back.
Neighbor Sue McCoury said she occasionally sees white unmarked vans, accompanied front and back by military police pickups, racing into the facility.
“They have a whole lot of high-tech surveillance stuff over there, and from what I hear, a lot of the operation is underground,” she said.
In 2005 and again this May, the facility hosted the Department of Defense’s annual SERE conference.
“Specific topics of discussion include current training challenges and initiatives affecting the SERE community’s ability to support the war fighter, urban evasion and escape and an overview of JPRA support capabilities,” according to a program for this year’s conference.
“Three personnel each from the FBI, DEA and CIA are invited to attend,” the agenda posted on the Internet said. SERE psychologists held their own conference at the site following the main conference.
The interagency participants were scheduled to “provide briefings on their SERE programs and participate in a sidebar discussion on proposed future support from JPRA,” it said.
Gratton O’Neal “Neal” Sealock, a retired Army brigadier general and Spokane International Airport director since 2005, spoke at the conference’s opening session on May 9.
Sealock’s father, Chief Master Sgt. Gratton Sealock, helped build Fairchild’s Survival School.
Sealock was lead negotiator for the release of 24 crew members of a Navy spy plane detained in China in 2001. JPRA personnel based in Spokane also worked on the hostage crisis. But Sealock said he signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the military and could not discuss his relationship with JPRA.
The May conference at White Bluff was coordinated by Gary Percival, a top SERE Ph.D. psychologist who works as a Tate Inc. employee at the Spokane site. Tate Inc. is a Germantown, Md.-based private company with a JPRA contract.
Last week, Percival said he was willing to discuss his work but that an interview request would have to be cleared with the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Permission was initially granted, then withdrawn.
“We appreciate the invitation from your publication, but we are going to decline,” said chief spokeswoman Susanne Moore in a voice mail. Moore provided no reason for the decision.
Percival’s work as a SERE psychologist has been described in some military publications. He helped supervise the debriefings and psychological care for Jessica Lynch, according to a 2003 article by the American Forces Press Service.
JPRA’s repatriation process provides support and care for up to a year, and all POWs, detainees and hostages are eligible for free psychological and medical assistance for the rest of their lives at the Robert Mitchell Center for Repatriated POW Studies in Pensacola, Fla., the article said.
Spokane has a network of former JPRA employees who left the agency for more lucrative jobs.
Two former JPRA experts became partners in 2005 in Mitchell Jessen & Associates, a Spokane-based private company that reportedly is under contract with the CIA to “reverse-engineer” SERE techniques to use against suspected terrorists. Mitchell and Jessen are reportedly being paid $1,000 a day plus expenses for their CIA work.
Roger Aldrich, the former Spokane-based business development director for Tate Inc., served in the Air Force at Fairchild before going to work for JPRA. In 2002, he joined Randall Spivey, an Air Force colleague and ex-JPRA official, in RS Consulting, a private firm that focuses on teaching people how to avoid being abducted and how to survive if taken hostage.
In 2005, Aldrich and Spivey also founded the Safe Travel Institute, which trains Americans in how to avoid dangerous situations while traveling overseas. Two other former JPRA officials, James V. Sporleder and Margi M. Strub, also work at the institute.
The institute’s publicity brochure says Aldrich, while at JPRA, worked with the families of the Navy EP-3 aircrew detained in the People’s Republic of China in 2001.
RS Consulting and Safe Travel have offices in the American Legion Building in downtown Spokane, one floor above Mitchell Jessen & Associates, where staff have “Top Secret-Sensitive Classified Information” clearance.
Spivey is also a Mitchell Jessen partner, according to a city of Spokane business license. Mitchell Jessen is under investigation by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for its work at the CIA’s secret interrogation sites.
The principals in Mitchell-Jessen have repeatedly refused to be interviewed, saying in a prepared statement that they are proud of their work and oppose torture.
But Mitchell and Jessen’s highly-compensated work at the CIA sites has sparked anger among many other SERE specialists at the JPRA and Fairchild, according to one government employee who spoke anonymously because of security restrictions.
“They have over-inflated their credentials; we just laugh at their claims as to who is an expert. What they are doing paints the government badly,” the SERE expert said.
JPRA has grown tremendously because of the ever-expanding war on terrorism and hires top-drawer people, including many who live in Spokane and leave on short notice to respond to various crises, the SERE official said.
“We are always bumping into each other around the world. We have a lot of pride in what we are doing,” the expert added.