The List

The All-Time Top 10 Debate Moments on Foreign Policy

From Soviet gaffes to talking snowmen, the highlights from presidential elections past.

If the Romney and Obama campaigns are to be believed, Wednesday's presidential debate will pit an inexperienced, bumbling, and hopelessly overmatched challenger who isn't expecting to turn in a game-changing performance against a mediocre, zinger-less, long-winded, and grossly unprepared incumbent who might very well tumble off the stage. (The contest looks entirely different if the campaigns are talking about the other guy; Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki has compared Romney the debater to an "Olympic decathlete" who has prepared more than "any presidential candidate in modern history," while Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski has labeled Obama a "world-class debater who laid waste to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain.")

The candidates and their supporters, of course, are engaging in the increasingly absurd election ritual of managing debate expectations. But this week's debate -- the first of the general election -- is unlikely to be either a comedy of errors or an epic clash of the titans. Instead, it will probably produce a few critical exchanges that could sway the polls, define the candidates (for better or worse), or, at the very least, be remembered for years to come. Although international affairs won't be explicitly discussed until the vice-presidential debate and final two presidential debates later this month, it's worth looking back at the most memorable foreign-policy moments of elections past as we prepare for Wednesday's face-off. Here are 10 of the best:

1960: Kennedy channels Lincoln

Everyone has heard about the contrast between Richard Nixon's brow sweat and stubble and John F. Kennedy's sunny demeanor during the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, but less famous is the unexpected offensive Kennedy waged against Nixon (and the Republican vice president's foreign-policy advantage) during his opening statement. The Democratic candidate placed his domestic policy -- the assigned topic for the debate -- in the context of the Cold War. "In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free," Kennedy noted. "In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free.… I think it will depend in great measure upon what we do here in the United States, on the kind of society that we build, on the kind of strength that we maintain."

1976: Ford denies Soviet domination

When the presidential debates returned after a 16-year hiatus, Gerald Ford, who was trailing Jimmy Carter in the polls, rendered moderator Max Frankel speechless when he declared, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." (Be sure to check out Frankel's flustered follow-up.) Faced with headlines like "The Blooper Heard Round the World" and "Jerry Ford Drops a Brick," the Republican president issued clarification after clarification in the days after the debate, but to no avail. "I felt very strongly that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit," Ford later recalled. "That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that, at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland."

1976: Dole condemns "Democrat wars"

That same year, Republican vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole raised eyebrows by slamming World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as "Democrat wars" during a debate with Walter Mondale. "If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it'd be about 1.6 million Americans -- enough to fill the city of Detroit," he asserted. The remark didn't sit well with Mondale, who retorted that "Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight," and it haunted Dole for the remainder of the campaign and even during his 1996 presidential run. "Bob Dole came across as an ass," columnist Debra Saunders recalled that year.

1980: Carter asks Amy

During his one and only debate with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter gave a surprising shout-out to his 13-year-old daughter during a discussion about how to strike a nuclear arms control deal with the Soviet Union. "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was," he told the audience. "She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms." The Republicans had a field day with the comment. If Amy Carter were really concerned about nuclear proliferation, vice-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush noted during a campaign stop, "she ought to vote for Ronald Reagan." Reagan himself got in on the fun at a rally in Wisconsin, referencing his own kids, who were in their 20s at the time. "I remember when Patti and Ron were little tiny kids, we used to talk about nuclear power," he joked before a roaring crowd.

1984: Reagan renounces ageism

During a debate with Walter Mondale, the 73-year-old President Reagan deftly dodged criticism of his advanced age (he was already the oldest president in history), using humor to turn the tables on his Democratic challenger, who was 17 years his junior. When asked whether he would be able to endure sleepless nights during another Cuban missile crisis, Reagan responded, "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale later joked that while he appears to be smiling in the clip, "if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think."

1984: Bush gets pedantic

The most heated exchange in the vice-presidential debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro came when Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major U.S. political party, compared the Iranian hostage crisis to the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon," Bush began, drawing a fiery rebuttal. "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," Ferraro declared. "I've been a member of Congress for six years." The testy exchange dominated the analysis of the debate the next day. "Did he patronize her?" the Associated Press asked. "That's the debate about the debate that America may be chewing on for as long as women candidates for national office remain a rarity."

1992: Perot hears "giant sucking sound"

In a debate with President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot found a colorful way to express his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, warning that there would be a "giant sucking sound going south" if companies could save money by moving factories south of the border. The line became an instant catchphrase. "You have to feel sorry for the Mexicans: they are hearing 'the giant sucking sound' in stereo these days -- from China in one ear and India in the other," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote more than a decade later.

2004: Bush loses it

During a debate in September 2004, George W. Bush was widely mocked for reminding Democratic challenger John Kerry that he "forgot Poland" when criticizing the president for recruiting so few countries to join his coalition in Iraq. But Bush went ballistic when Kerry made a similar point in another debate several days later. "Tell Tony Blair we're going alone," Bush fumed. "Tell Silvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone. We've got 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices."

2007: A snowman talks

Debates have increased in number and have grown ever more elaborate since 2007, and perhaps nothing captured that trend better than a question on global warming in a CNN/YouTube debate during the Democratic primary. The network directed the candidates' attention to a screen where an animated snowman addressed the contestants in a high-pitched voice. "I've been growing concerned that global warming, the single most important issue to the snowmen of this country, is being neglected," the snowman observed. "As president, what will you do to ensure that my son will live a full and happy life?" Congressman Dennis Kucinich eagerly fielded the question, but the move invited a fierce backlash from pundits ("Dumb and Dumber Debates," one column complained). Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was particularly miffed. "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman," he argued.

2008: Clinton mangles Medvedev

During a Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton about the upcoming election in Russia. Clinton noted that Putin was grooming a "handpicked successor" with no real power and that the United States needed to toughen its policy toward Russia. But when Russert pressed her for the name of that successor, she stumbled. "Medvedeva," she blurted out, after a couple of false starts. "Whatever." Those who claimed that the media favored Obama quickly pointed to the episode as yet one more example of media bias.

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National Security

The Spies Next Door

The top 10 Beltway intel centers hiding in plain sight.

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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Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), McLean, Virginia

Activated in April 2005, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is responsible for managing and coordinating the efforts of all the other 16 agencies and the 200,000 personnel that today comprise the U.S. intelligence community.

Since 2008, the DNI's headquarters have been located in the 51-acre Liberty Crossing office complex in McLean, Virginia, on the north side of Highway 267 across from the Tysons Corner shopping mall. In the middle of the complex sit two office buildings that house 1,700 DNI staffers and 1,200 private contractors. The newest building, a six-story edifice called LX-2, is the home of the 700-person DNI staff. Just to the west of it sits a seven-story "X"-shaped building called LX-1, which housed the offices of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the National Counterproliferation Center (NCPC).


Special Collection Service Headquarters, Beltsville, Maryland

One of the most secretive of the dozens of U.S. intelligence facilities in the Washington area is located about 16 miles northeast of Langley on the northern edge of the National Agriculture Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. Here resides the headquarters of the joint CIA-National Security Agency (NSA) clandestine signals intelligence (SIGINT) unit called the Special Collection Service (SCS). Known colloquially by CIA and NSA SIGINTers as the "Maryland Field Site," the SCS is arguably one of the U.S. intelligence community's most important collection organizations, operating over 40 clandestine listening posts hidden away inside U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world that have provided some of the best intelligence information available since the organization was created in 1979.

Located across the street from the campus of Capitol College, the 233-acre SCS complex is set well back from the road behind a heavily sensored perimeter fence. The complex consists of a multistory headquarters and operations building; a smaller two-story building containing the visitor control center, auditorium, and cafeteria; and a large warehouse and laboratory facility. The complex's four parking lots can hold approximately 400 to 450 cars at any time. The SCS headquarters are located next to the State Department's Beltsville Communications Center, which consists of two large parabolic satellite dishes. Satellite imagery from the 1990s shows that buried fiber optic cables linked the SCS headquarters complex with the Beltsville Communications Center, clearly indicating that the communications facility services the communications needs of the SCS next door.

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Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Headquarters, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling

Created in October 1961, the DIA is the intelligence arm of the Defense Department, producing tailored foreign military intelligence reporting for the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and American military commanders in the United States and overseas. Although the number of personnel under its command is classified, sources estimate that the DIA currently employs 16,500 military and civilian personnel in the United States and overseas, 6,000 of whom work at its Washington headquarters.

Since 1987, the DIA's headquarters have been located in a six-story office complex called the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center (DIAC), located on the grounds of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (formerly known as Bolling Air Force Base) in southeast Washington. In 2005, the DIAC was expanded by the construction of a more modern annex, which is connected to the older DIAC building by an ultramodern atrium. Together, these two buildings now contain approximately 860,000 square feet of office space for the DIA. The Anacostia neighborhood just outside the base's main gate is a notorious high-crime area. DIA employees tell stories about how on hot summer nights, the crackle of gunfire can clearly be heard inside the base's high-security perimeter.


FBI Washington Field Office, Washington, D.C.

The public face of the FBI, America's top federal law enforcement and counterterrorism agency, is its huge J. Edgar Hoover headquarters building at 935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in downtown Washington, located just a few blocks from the White House. But the majority of the FBI's day-to-day operations take place in 50 field offices and 50 resident offices in every major city in the United States.

In the greater Washington metropolitan area, the FBI's nerve center is the Washington Field Office, where several hundred FBI special agents and analysts handle all the bureau's counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations in the region, which includes all of northern Virginia. For 17 years, the FBI's Washington Field Office (WFO) was located in the dilapidated Harkins Building at 1900 Half St. SW in the seedy Buzzard's Point waterfront neighborhood of Washington. But in October 1997, the WFO moved into a newly constructed eight-story office building at 601 4th St. NW in downtown Washington, located just across the street from the National Building Museum. Total floor space: 316,535 square feet.

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Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), Vienna, Virginia

One of the more obscure and less known FBI operations in the Washington metropolitan area is located in the Northrop-Page Building at 801 Follin Ln. in Vienna, Virginia. During the Cold War, this building was the home of the division of the CIA's Clandestine Service that spied on the Soviet Union. Today it houses the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which maintains the U.S. government's computer database of all known or suspected domestic and international terrorists, called the Terrorist Watchlist.

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National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Headquarters, Chantilly, Virginia

Formed on Sept. 6, 1961, the NRO is the secretive intelligence organization that designs, builds, and operates all imaging and SIGINT reconnaissance satellites on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community. NRO has the largest annual budget of any of the 17 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. Approximately 45 percent of the NRO's 3,000-person headquarters staff in Washington comes from the U.S. Air Force, 35 percent from the CIA, 15 percent from the National Security Agency, and the remaining 5 percent from the U.S. Army and Navy.

Since 1995, the NRO's headquarters have been located in a 68-acre compound in the Westfields International Center in Chantilly, Virginia, which is situated just south of Dulles International Airport. The four six-story office buildings at Westfields that house the NRO's staff consist of about 1 million square feet of office space, plus a large conference center, a spacious cafeteria, a large electrical power plant, and a covered parking garage that can handle over 2,000 vehicles. Located somewhere inside the NRO complex is the supersecret National Reconnaissance Operations Center, which controls the activities of all of America's spy satellites currently in orbit.

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Aerospace Data Facility -- East, Fort Belvoir, Virginia

The NRO has declassified the fact that it currently operates three facilities in the United States (referred to within the U.S. intelligence community as Mission Ground Stations) that receive all the vast amounts of imagery and intercepted radio traffic being collected every day of the year by the NRO's constellations of spy satellites in orbit around the Earth.

One of these Mission Ground Stations is located just outside Washington at 8199 Beulah St. just across a highway from the Fort Belvoir Golf Club. Built in 1976 to receive the digital imagery data from America's first KH-11 reconnaissance satellite, this windowless, two-story NRO facility operated covertly for the first 33 years of its life (1976 to 2009) under the cover name Defense Communications Electronics Evaluation and Testing Activity. Today it is known as the Aerospace Data Facility -- East, and it employs over 500 NRO staffers and defense contractors to keep the facility up and running.


Navy Mission Ground Station, Blossom Point, Maryland

For over 50 years, the U.S. Navy's Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington has been maintaining constellations of sophisticated electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites orbiting mor than 500 miles above the Earth to monitor the deployment patterns and operating characteristics of foreign naval radar systems in conjunction with the NRO and the NSA. By tracking the radar emissions on foreign warships, the U.S. Navy can keep close tabs on where these ships are located and what they are doing.

The U.S. Navy continues to operate a network of ground-based intelligence facilities in the United States and overseas to receive the telemetry data streams coming in from these satellites 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which contain the raw intercepts being scooped up by these satellites. One of these stations is located 40 miles south of Washington on the shores of the Potomac River and is called the Blossom Point Satellite Tracking and Command Station. Since 1967, the NRL's Blossom Point Mission Ground Station has been responsible for adjusting the orbits of these still highly classified satellite systems, as well as ensuring that all the electronic equipment on the satellites is functioning properly.

Naval Research Laboratory

NPIC, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.

During every Washington Nationals home game, tens of thousands of baseball fans unknowingly walk right by one of America's most sensitive intelligence facilities. Located on the corner of M and 1st streets in southeast Washington is a multistory, 493,000-square-foot windowless structure called Building 213, which until late 2011 housed the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), where all imagery taken by American photo reconnaissance satellites was processed, analyzed, and reported.

Late last year, NPIC was moved to the newly completed headquarters complex on the grounds of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Real estate developers have already announced their intention to convert the former intelligence facility into a mixed-used commercial center that will cater to the upwardly mobile professionals who are moving into this formerly run-down neighborhood in droves.

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DEA Special Operations Division, Chantilly, Virginia

One of the more obscure and lesser known intelligence units based in the Washington area is the Drug Enforcement Administration's Special Operations Division (SOD), which is located in a modest office building called Avion Mid-Rise IV Building at 14560 Avion Parkway in Chantilly, Virginia.

Formed in August 1995, the SOD is the DEA's electronic eavesdropping unit, tracking illicit drug activity and the movements of narcotics kings in the United States and overseas through intercepted land-line and cellular telephone calls in cooperation with the Justice Department, FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and U.S. Customs Service. Prior to 9/11, most of the SOD's activities were focused on cocaine trafficking in Mexico and Colombia. Today, much of the unit's efforts are reportedly focused on heroin production and trafficking Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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