After nearly half a century of explosions, folks in Perquimans County have become blasé about the sharp cracks and house-shaking rumbles that roll out of the secretive, government-owned peninsula in Albemarle Sound, on the North Carolina coast.
They scarcely bat an eye when a truckload of blackened, bomb-shredded cars rolls out, or a Boeing 727 passenger jet, minus wings and tail, rolls in on the back of a giant trailer.
Last week, though, news broke that a full-sized replica of the house and compound where Osama bin Laden had been killed had been built on the peninsula. That was different. Even longtime residents flocked to the Internet, clicking on a website where satellite images had been posted to finally get their first real look at Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity.
Or “The Point” as it’s called by the CIA paramilitary operatives who have trained there since the early 1960s.
Harvey Point is suddenly international news because last month the first book was published that offers an eyewitness account of the bin Laden raid. No Easy Day , written by former SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonnette under the pen name Mark Owen and North Carolina-based military author Kevin Maurer, mentions training that the SEALS performed in North Carolina, including practice assaults on a full-scale mockup of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
That piqued the interest of at least one Internet sleuth, who hunted down images of Harvey Point, found one of the replica under construction and another a few weeks later of the site showing that it had been torn down. He or she sent them to a website called www.cryptome.org that posts various things governments want to keep secret.
The CIA’s presence at Harvey Point has long been an open secret, said John Pike, a military and intelligence analyst who runs the web site www.globalsecurity.org.
Harvey Point was established in the early 1940s by the Navy, which saw easy access to the calm, broad waters as perfect for seaplanes. The site was apparently later turned over to the CIA, but by the late 1990s, was not heavily used. Ironically, it was bin Laden who revived Harvey Point’s fortunes, Pike said.
The budget for the branch of the CIA overseeing paramilitary activity – then called the Directorate of Operations – grew sharply after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Since then, there has been a complete renaissance in snake-eaters,” Pike said, using an insider term for special operations troops and paramilitary operatives.
“They just opened up the coffers for that part of the agency after Sept. 11, and money was just no object,” he said.
And money was certainly of little importance when planning and executing the raid on bin Laden.
Near the west side of the base, the opposite end from the tip of the peninsula, is where the mock compound stood.
A photo taken on Feb. 15, 2011, shows it under construction, but nearly complete. Another, Jan. 30 of this year, shows the compound had been completely removed. Bin laden was killed May 2, 2011.
The SEALs staged assault after assault via helicopter onto the bin Laden replica, until it was automatic, according to the account in No Easy Day .
The intelligence experts who had been studying the actual compound in Pakistan via drone, satellite and other sources could accurately describe the outside, but had no way to know how the interiors of the buildings were arranged, so the mockup didn’t have an interior.
Still, the fake compound was eventually so detailed that the doors and balconies were in the correct locations.
Bissonnette went out of his way to compliment the civilian staff there, which the SEALS sometimes asked to make adjustments to the mockup. The changes were always done quickly and without questions, he wrote.
Perquimans County Manager Frank Heath said many locals work on the base. It’s one of the larger employers in the mostly-rural county, and is highly valued for those jobs.
He said that he, too, had checked out the images, but didn’t want to say much about the base.
“We don’t really comment on what they do, or who they are, except to say that they are an asset to the county and leave it at that,” he said.