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Flashback: Spy Vigil in Huntsville

An excerpt from the cover story in the August 1988 issue of Business Alabama.

More than 50 Alabama companies, most of them in Huntsville, were working on Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) contracts in 1988.

More than 50 Alabama companies, most of them in Huntsville, were working on Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) contracts in 1988.

Text by Martin Burkey; Art by Barbara Reddoch

If your economy, like Huntsville’s, is based around national defense — Star Wars anti-nuclear missile weaponry, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, jam-proof missiles guided by laser beams and glass fibers, space shuttles and more — you probably rate a big red pin on the map of places Soviet and other foreign intelligence agents would like to go on a spying spree.

And that means you also rate a significant anti-spy effort by the FBI.

“Working for a high tech firm in Huntsville, Alabama is very high profile,” FBI counterintelligence specialist Gwynne Hupfer told employees of Huntsville’s General Research Corp. “There is a very real threat from hostile intelligence services in this area. It’s not an imagined threat. It’s not just in the big cities.”

“We had information recently that the Soviet KGB will let you name your price for SDI or Stealth technology,” Hupfer said.

FBI officials are long on generalities and short on specifics. However, the number of FBI agents assigned to Huntsville has increased in recent years.

“There have been some strange contacts, particularly in the places (restaurants and bars) on University Drive,” Hupfer added. “Some cases are still going. We’ve also had people contacted by mail.”

The veil of secrecy was parted briefly during Senate hearings three years ago, when it was revealed that an Army officer had acted as a double agent while stationed at Redstone Arsenal. His identity hidden, “Sgt. Smith” testified that between 1975 and 1978, he provided false information to the Soviets on Army missile programs.  He had delivered information once a month to an operative in New York and later dropped off information at a graveyard in Fayetteville, Tenn.

FBI agents also note that Soviet ships, their top decks bristling with electronic listening devices, are invariably docked at Mobile when tests are conducted at Redstone Arsenal, Fort McClellan or other military installations. 

“It’s interesting that if there is a problem, and the test has to be delayed for a day or two, the ship has a malfunction and has to stay an extra day,” Hupfer said.

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