The U.S. economy is stuck in the doldrums, but the intelligence business in America is booming. The 17 organizations that today comprise the U.S. intelligence community are all, to one degree or another, building new multimillion-dollar headquarters buildings and operational facilities all over the greater Washington metropolitan area despite recent budget cuts.
For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began construction last year on a brand-new headquarters complex on the grounds of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Anacostia, which formerly was a federally run psychiatric facility. When completed sometime in 2017, DHS intends to consolidate 40 of its offices that are currently spread throughout the Washington region in the new complex, including its own intelligence component and those of its subordinate agencies, like the intelligence staff of the U.S. Coast Guard.
On a per capita basis, there are more spies working in and around the Beltway than anywhere else in the world. Almost half of the 200,000 men and women who belong to the U.S. intelligence community work in Washington, as do several thousand foreign intelligence officers who operate openly from dozens of embassies and international organizations in the U.S. capital, trawling the landscape for secrets.
According to a 2001 report prepared by the General Services Administration (GSA), which owns or leases all U.S. government facilities, as of 9/11 the CIA had offices in 29 facilities spread throughout the District of Columbia, northern Virginia, and southern Maryland.* This did not include over a dozen covert safe houses, training facilities, and communications centers, as well as several large heavily guarded warehouses inside the GSA Stores Depot in Franconia, Virginia, where the agency stored its classified files, equipment, and supplies. And that was before the terrorist attacks that dramatically increased the intelligence community's post-Cold War role.
The same was true of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which the GSA report showed was operating from over a dozen sites in the Washington area. Among the more interesting FBI sites referred to in the GSA report was the Art Barn at 2401 Tilden Street in Northwest D.C., whose attic was filled with eavesdropping equipment during the Cold War so that the FBI could listen to the telephone calls of the Hungarian and Czech embassies across the street. The Art Barn's clandestine work became a matter of public record in the 1980s when the attic's floorboards collapsed, sending hundreds of pounds of the FBI's wiretapping equipment crashing down into the art gallery on the ground floor.
The facilities may have changed, but the intelligence community plays as big a role as ever in Washington, with many of its most important offices hiding in plain sight. Meet the spies next door:
* Correction: This sentence originally misstated the year the GSA report was published as 2011.
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