The top 10 Beltway intel centers hiding in plain sight.
- By Matthew M. AidMatthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry, a history of the National Security Agency.
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).
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| Report |
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |