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The secrets next door

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In her own way, Jeani Burns has witnessed this, too.

Burns, a businesswoman in the Fort Meade cluster, is having a drink one night after work and gesturing toward some men standing in another part of the bar.

"I can spot them," she says. The suit. The haircut. The demeanor. "They have a haunted look, like they're afraid someone is going to ask them something about themselves."

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An alternative geography

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the top-secret world created to respond to the terrorist attacks has grown into an unwieldy enterprise spread over 10,000 U.S. locations.
Launch Photo Gallery »

Undercover agents come in here, too, she whispers, to watch the same people, "to make sure no one is saying too much."

Burns would know - she's been living with one of those secretive men for 20 years. He used to work at the NSA. Now he's one of its contractors. He's been to war. She doesn't know where. He does something important. She doesn't know what.

She says she fell for him two decades ago and has had a life of adjustments ever since. When they go out with other people, she says, she calls ahead with cautions: "Don't ask him stuff." Sometimes people get it, but when they don't, "it's a pain. We just didn't go out with them again."

She describes him as "an observer. I'm the interloper," she says. "It bothers me he never takes me traveling, never thinks of anything exciting to do. . . . I feel cheated."

But she also says: "I really respect him for what's he's done. He's spent his whole life so we can keep our way of living, and he doesn't get any public recognition."

Outside the bar, meanwhile, the cluster hums along. At night, in the confines of the National Business Park, office lights remain on here and there. The 140-room Marriott Courtyard is sold out, as usual, with guests such as the man checking in who says only that he's "with the military."

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Anti-Deception Technologies

From avatars and lasers to thermal cameras and fidget meters, this multimedia gallery takes a look at some of the latest technologies being developed by the government and private companies to thwart terrorists. Launch Gallery »

And inside the NSA, the mathematicians, the linguists, the techies and the crippies are flowing in and out. The ones leaving descend in elevators to the first floor. Each is carrying a plastic bar-coded box. Inside is a door key that rattles as they walk. To those who work here, it's the sound of a shift change.

As employees just starting their shifts push the turnstiles forward, those who are leaving push their identity badges into the mouth of the key machine. A door opens. They drop their key box in, then go out through the turnstiles. They drive out slowly through the barriers and gates protecting the NSA, passing a steady stream of cars headed in. It's almost midnight in the Fort Meade cluster, the capital of Top Secret America, a sleepless place growing larger every day.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this story.
Correction: Jerome James was initially named incorrectly in this story as Jerome Jones.

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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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