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A hidden world, growing beyond control

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To get another view of how sprawling Top Secret America has become, just head west on the toll road toward Dulles International Airport.

As a Michaels craft store and a Books-A-Million give way to the military intelligence giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, find the off-ramp and turn left. Those two shimmering-blue five-story ice cubes belong to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes images and mapping data of the Earth's geography. A small sign obscured by a boxwood hedge says so.

Across the street, in the chocolate-brown blocks, is Carahsoft, an intelligence agency contractor specializing in mapping, speech analysis and data harvesting. Nearby is the government's Underground Facility Analysis Center. It identifies overseas underground command centers associated with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups, and advises the military on how to destroy them.

Clusters of top-secret work exist throughout the country, but the Washington region is the capital of Top Secret America.

About half of the post-9/11 enterprise is anchored in an arc stretching from Leesburg south to Quantico, back north through Washington and curving northeast to Linthicum, just north of the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Many buildings sit within off-limits government compounds or military bases.
Others occupy business parks or are intermingled with neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers and go unnoticed by most people who live or play nearby.

Many of the newest buildings are not just utilitarian offices but also edifices "on the order of the pyramids," in the words of one senior military intelligence officer.

Not far from the Dulles Toll Road, the CIA has expanded into two buildings that will increase the agency's office space by one-third. To the south, Springfield is becoming home to the new $1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, which will be the fourth-largest federal building in the area and home to 8,500 employees. Economic stimulus money is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this kind of federal construction across the region.


Construction for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield (Photo by: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post)

It's not only the number of buildings that suggests the size and cost of this expansion, it's also what is inside: banks of television monitors. "Escort-required" badges. X-ray machines and lockers to store cellphones and pagers. Keypad door locks that open special rooms encased in metal or permanent dry wall, impenetrable to eavesdropping tools and protected by alarms and a security force capable of responding within 15 minutes. Every one of these buildings has at least one of these rooms, known as a SCIF, for sensitive compartmented information facility. Some are as small as a closet; others are four times the size of a football field.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. "In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF," said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. "They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF."

SCIFs are not the only must-have items people pay attention to. Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."

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This project was last updated in September 2010. Data is accurate as of that date.
"Top Secret America" is a project nearly two years in the making that describes the huge national security buildup in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. | Read More »



More than a dozen Washington Post journalists spent two years developing Top Secret America. | See the details »


Video

Top Secret America on Frontline

A short video from PBS’s FRONTLINE on The Post’s two-year investigation. An hour-long documentary film is forthcoming. Watch the trailer »

The reporters

Dana Priest

Investigative reporter Dana Priest has been The Washington Post's intelligence, Pentagon and health-care reporter. She has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service for "The Other Walter Reed" and the 2006 Pulitzer for beat reporting for her work on CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas. She is author of the 2003 book, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military, (W.W. Norton).

William M. Arkin

William M. Arkin has been a columnist and reporter with The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com since 1998. He has worked on the subject of government secrecy and national security affairs for more than 30 years. He has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books about the U.S. military and national security.

Project Credits

Stephanie Clark, Ben de la Cruz, Kat Downs, Dan Drinkard, Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, Justin Ferrell, David Finkel, Jennifer Jenkins, Robert Kaiser, Laris Karklis, Jacqueline Kazil, Lauren Keane, Todd Lindeman, Greg Manifold, Jennifer Morehead, Bonnie Jo Mount, Larry Nista, Ryan O’Neil, Sarah Sampsel, Whitney Shefte, Laura Stanton, Julie Tate, Doris Truong, Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, Michael Williamson, Karen Yourish, Amanda Zamora.

Contact Us

Phone: 202-334-9300
E-mail: topsecretamerica@washpost.com


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