When secret facilities aren't

The Week

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that a proposal by officials in Fairfax County, Va., to get the FBI to move its headquarters to a seemingly unused patch of government land next to a Metro station has run into opposition from a secret source. It seems that the CIA is a tenant, and, indeed, has used the facility for years for clandestine purposes of some sort. The Post goes out of its way to give readers a general idea about where this site is, but presumably out of a sense of responsibility or maybe in response to a request from the Agency, does not identify the actual address. 

Reporters makes their own choices, and when it comes to national security, it's OK to err on the side of caution. But far too often, everyone with stakes in the secrecy wars finds themselves focused on precisely the wrong things, or on the trivial at the expense of the important.

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The CIA facility, this one here, is located at 6999 Loisdale Road. Everyone who lives near it will tell you about it if you ask. It's been identified in numerous public forums. The bad guys know it exists; the CIA and the Air Force often assign counter-surveillance teams to the area. Indeed, it's a good thing that the bad guys know about the facility, because if they go there and try to do something, then they might get arrested and — no more bad guys. 

So, tourists will gawk, and it will be harder to sneak in CIA officers for training. Actually, finding better ways to sneak them in is what tradecraft advances are for. Keep a facility in the same place for 30 years, and your neighbors will know where it is. 

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The government gets snippy when you ask about these things. The General Services Administration used to publish a ledger of all government properties and their tenants. The post 9/11 infrastructure hardening put an end to that. (In point of fact, truly clandestine CIA facilities are not listed; they're owned by front companies kept hidden from the GSA.) Mt. Weather? The main relocation facility for the cabinet? For one thing, the Russians knew about its existence before Congress did, way back when, and even today DHS won't talk about it, not even the site's overt topside tenants.

Site R, the Alternate National Military Command Center, identified by name and location in at least 100 public Defense Department documents I've found? Technically classified at the CONFIDENTIAL level. Why? I don't know. The facilities manager of Site R once proposed giving public tours before 9/11. A few years ago, a facility along the Potomac in Washington, D.C., attracted a lot of attention and created a number of bureaucratic hurdles precisely because the Navy was so cryptic about its purpose. 

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A lot of energy is put into protecting the stuff that doesn't need protection. The government doesn't have to acknowledge everything that our open source culture makes public, but it creates headaches and invites attention when it tries to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

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