Today I have an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the FBI should not relocate to the suburbs—that such a move would be bad for the Bureau, bad for our democracy, and bad for Washington, DC. Here’s the longer version of my op-ed:
The FBI’s official stationary carries the exact address of its headquarters, 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, as if one could wander right by the angular, concrete, eleven-story monstrosity without noticing the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The aging block-sized headquarters, named by President Nixon after Hoover’s funeral on May 4, 1972, and officially opened in 1975, is one of the best examples of the blessedly brief Brutalist era of architecture—which if one stops to analyze that sentence means that the building is recognized by experts as uniquely and especially ugly.
Today, the building is nearing the end of its lifespan and not even historical preservation experts want to save it. The Bureau’s needs have shifted too—digital records have negated the need for floor-upon-floor of fingerprint files and the war on terrorism has increased headquarters staff is today scattered across 21 annexes in the DC area. The thousands of Hoover Building staff who do spend their days wandering its depressingly drab corridors certainly would love a fresh start somewhere else, a building filled with natural light and a whole lot less linoleum. Planners have estimated that selling or trading the land to a private developer, one of the largest parcels between Capitol Hill on one end and the White House at the other, could net close to $900 million—enough for the cash-strapped government to build a huge modern, 55-acre complex somewhere in the suburbs. In the years since the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI has come to worry too that its current building is too close to neighboring streets and a new suburban location would offer greater “setbacks” and physical security; similar security concerns have kept its once-popular public tour closed since 9/11.
For jurisdictions near DC, landing the new FBI headquarters has become the largest economic development gem in years; Alexandria and Fairfax, Virginia, to the south and west and Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince Georges counties to the north and east are now all competing for the future billion-dollar building project and the workers, still years away. A January presentation by the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate agency, drew more than 350 people and spilled over into an overflow room. Each jurisdiction is touting their access to public transit and proximity to major highways, yet nearly all the locations under consideration are 45-minutes or even an hour away in Washington’s notorious traffic from the downtown.
The DC suburbs are already filled with hidden spy complexes; the CIA Headquarters at Langley, Virginia, and the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, are just glimpsed from neighboring roads. The unremarked headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other covert operations are barely known even to their own suburban neighbors.
The FBI, though, is different. We shouldn’t want to hide our chief law enforcement agency away in the suburbs. Since the 1970s, it has stood symbolically on DC’s most important street under the watchful eye of the White House, Congress, and the public. It’s not supposed to be a hidden spy agency; it’s meant to be a publically-accountable law enforcement agency, front and center as a guardian of our democracy.
Ensuring accountability and trust in its leadership means it must be answerable to the public; it should symbolically exist in the public eye, its building open to the visiting public, its officials close to the oversight of Congress, the Justice Department, and the White House. On its best days, the FBI stands as the primary protector of our nation’s security and liberties—but on its darkest days, it has also been one of the greatest threats to our civil liberties. Journalists and congressional staff know it’s hard enough as is to get information out of the Hoover Building today, let alone when its staff is someday isolated in some location outside the 495 Beltway.
There’s a more existential question for the federal government wrapped up in the FBI relocation debate too: How much government should actually be located in our capital? And how accessible should it be? The Department of Justice, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Hoover Building, is even closer to neighboring streets than the FBI headquarters. Ditto for the IRS headquarters up the street. As their New Deal-era buildings age, will each of them relocate in the years ahead to suburban office parks to achieve the required war-on-terror “setbacks” too? What other agencies will soon claim “security needs” as part of an effort to gain nicer offices in leafy, university-like campuses?
In the wake of the September attack on our Benghazi consulate, diplomats have lamented the modern security requirements of our overseas embassies. Centrally-located embassies in foreign capitals—what once were inviting, urban temples of American democracy—have been replaced in recent years with fortress-like suburban compounds that discourage visitors and isolate our diplomats even in the capitals of some of our friendliest allies. We shouldn’t now make the same mistake in our own capital.
In the last decade, navigating around DC government buildings that can’t relocate—like the White House and the Capitol—has become a maze of closed streets, bollards, and jersey barriers. The Supreme Court in 2010 closed for the first time the bronze doors at the top of its iconic steps in the name of security. In a republican democracy, we shouldn’t fortify our government right out of the capital city—or the public out of the capital. Being located in the capital should be a sign of importance and respect, whereas in recent years the government seems to have switched to a default of moving offices out of the downtown to the suburbs.
Replacing the Hoover Building is undoubtedly necessary, but requiring the new FBI headquarters to remain in downtown DC should be a critical step towards ensuring that our government operates in public view. That’s an achievable goal. Indeed, two other top federal law enforcement agencies—ICE and the ATF—have both found and built in the last decade new headquarters locations within blocks of where the FBI is today. The FBI is only asking for the same space it has now—actually less, just better utilized: The Hoover Building today is 2.4 million square feet and developers have been told the new headquarters should be just 2.1 million. The answer should be to rebuild the FBI where it is on Pennsylvania Avenue, which would be disruptive in the short-term but an important sign for the overly security-conscious capital, or to move to one of several sites within the District that DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has identified could work for the new headquarters.
If we can’t keep our nation’s primary domestic security agency safely in the capital, what can we keep safe in Washington?
This is an odd list for me, because it’s much more heavily historical nonfiction than normal. I did read a lot of fiction this year, but mostly pretty forgettable thrillers as I’ve been trying to learn that genre for the last two years. There were some exceptions: The Ex-Pats, by Chris Pavone, and The Power of the Dog, by Don Winslow, but I didn’t find a lot of great thrillers this year. Particularly, it was a down year of Le Carré books, after a bunch that really wowed me last year.
As I gear up for my next book, I also did a lot of research reading, so this list represents for me actually a relatively high percentage of the non-required reading I did in 2012. And there were a handful of fiction books that I really enjoyed: Kurt Anderson’s True Believers really got under my skin and made me think; Richard Ford’s Canada was a great read over Christmas, and the lyrical The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell kept me company for a round-the-world journey back from India.
Without further ado:
1) An Economist Gets Lunch, by Tyler Cowen :: No book did more to improve my life in 2012 than this treatise on eating by a George Mason economist and food lover. Cowen’s approach is that we have a limited number of meals on earth and that each meal should bring the maximum possible enjoyment—a bad meal is an unnecessary negation of life’s pleasures. He provided a lot of tips in the book about how to think about eating, how to explore, range widely cuisine-wise, and generally broaden your eating horizons. I tried very hard to follow his advice—and it opened up untold wonders and happiness for me in 2012: Exploring new suburban ethnic restaurants on a random weekday, trying cuisines I’d never eaten before, and ordering dishes that I’d never consider eating before (one of his recommendations is, at a good restaurant, order the least appetizing-sounding item on the menu because it’s probably the one the chef has put the most work into making taste good).
2) Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow :: This massive Pulitzer-winning cradle-to-grave biography of George Washington has been on my shelf for years; I finally took a long weekend at Peacham this summer to read it straight through. He makes a very convincing case that Washington is every bit as impressive and worthy of our nation’s hero worship as his legend holds him to be. Coupled with two trips I made to Mount Vernon last summer and fall, Chernow’s book really helped life Washington back into my life and got me interested in the early history of DC—and inspired more than one editor’s letter in the magazine.
3) The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro :: The latest installment of his now four-and-will-be-five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Caro continues his sui generis examination of what made LBJ LBJ. This volume only covers a few years, the 1960 campaign and his time as vice president, ending just a few months after Kennedy’s assassination, but Caro traces Johnson’s careful and calculating use of power through a turbulent time. The vice presidential period is particularly fascinating, as Caro examines how LBJ—who craved power innately—dealt with the powerlessness that his post presented him after his years as Senate majority leader.
4) The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe :: As the US saw its last space shuttle grounded for good, I went back to read Wolfe’s original classic about the space age and the first crop of astronauts. It’s a book that I’ve wanted to read for probably twenty years—I remember growing up my parents’ copy of the book sat on the bookshelf over our computer and I was intrigued by it from a very early age, although obviously it took me a very long time to actually read it. It didn’t disappoint; Wolfe’s language just crackles, bringing to life the drama and the human stories behind the early test pilots and astronaut program.
5) Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David Sanger, and The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era by Michael Grunwald :: These two books, one by a New York Times reporter and one by a Time correspondent, were the best things written about the Obama administration—both arguing, Sanger on the foreign policy front and Grunwald on the domestic policy front, that the Obama administration actually accomplished a great deal in its first term. Sanger’s insights into China and particularly Iran underscored how important smart, in-depth reporting can be, and Grunwald on energy and health care was the latest in the seemingly-ever-growing pile of evidence of how shoddy day-to-day journalism is today. Grunwald argues that effectively we believe about the stimulus and TARP is wrong—that it was highly effective and has in certain ways fundamentally altered the path of the nation’s economic future in positive ways.
6) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach :: Yes, I’ll stipulate this book is, like Jonathan Franzen, effectively “chick lit for smart people” but geez was it a fun read. The first hundred pages or so really made me as a professional writer deeply jealous of his writing ability, although I think the second half of the book was weaker and the ending a bit far-fetched. Still an entertaining weekend read.
7) The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers :: I really like novella-length books and try to read a couple every year, and I’ll often end up giving them as Christmas gifts, as in past years I’ve done with Mystery Guest and Sense of an Ending. This year, in a twist, I got Yellow Birds as a Christmas gift, and read it quickly over the holidays. The story of two soldiers and their friendship in training and then in Iraq, it was quite moving—and had a very unexpected ending, unfolding in a way much darker and much more emotionally than one expects from the early pages.
8. Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez :: The best thriller I read in 2012, this science-fiction-as-fact novel focuses on what happens when drones and robotic-killing machines begin to migrate—as they inevitably will—back to the United States. Our military monopoly on armed drones won’t last too much longer and you’re already beginning to see a push for private sector and law enforcement drones domestically. Suarez’s techno-thriller really brought the threat home.
9) The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy; Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas :: Looking back at this list, I evidently read a lot of presidential biographies this year. Much like Chernow and LBJ, these two books both argue for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the presidency in the latter half of the 20th Century. Gibbs and Duffy’s book far exceeded my expectations—they trace the relationships between the modern living presidents and ex-presidents, intertwining their stories in a way that highlights just how exclusive their “club” truly is and how there are deep friendships and kindnesses hidden far from the political spotlight. Similarly, Thomas’s biography of Ike exposes him as a much more cunning and successful president as he tends to be portrayed—nothing like the gentile, disconnected golfer his reputation seems to be. Thomas argues that we were lucky to have Ike as president at the dawn of the nuclear Cold War because perhaps only he was strong enough to threaten nuclear war while restraining the military sufficiently from actually going to nuclear war.
10) The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough :: The history of the Panama Canal, as told as masterfully as McCullough tells every topic he tackles, this book traces both the abandoned French attempt to build the canal and then the successful American attempt. I had known nothing of the French expedition before diving into McCullough’s book; beyond that, though, we have an oddly large assortment of Panama Canal memorabilia in our apartment, and it was fun to look at the maps and pictures we have and match them up with the book’s tales.
I had the privilege of serving for the past couple of years on a Harvard Executive Session regarding the future of the state court judiciary. It was a simply fascinating series of conversations about the role of the judiciary, the unique challenges of state vs. federal courts, and so on. Part of the result of those sessions are a series of white papers by the National Center on State Courts, which includes this week now one by me:
In Courts as Conversations: An Argument for Increased Engagement by Court Leaders, social media expert Garrett Graff explains the true significance of the arrival of social media as it alters the expectations and habits of American society. He advises state court leaders that they “must not only learn how to communicate with new tools; they must also envision new means of judicial engagement with the public through the new social media that can further advance the legitimacy of courts in a democratic society.”
If you’re interested in the judiciary, I hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think. I was invited last year to speak to the national conference of chief justices in Atlanta and had a fun exchange with them about how the courts are falling behind the other two branches of government in adopting and embracing new technologies.
CNN often ends up calling me when they can’t think of anyone else in Washington to discuss a random topic, so this month’s random topic ended up being presidential pets. Now it’s actually a pretty fun subject—presidents have had a wide-ranging menagerie in the White House, from parrots to alligators to horses—but it was still one of the more silly interviews I’ve done, but given the political winds this year and the controversies over Mitt Romney’s dog not an entirely trivial one. An excerpt from the piece:
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as political silliness were it not for one troubling fact: Sometimes the way a president connects with critters can affect the way voters relate to him.
“Presidents and their pets have a long and storied history,” says Garrett Graff, a goldfish owner and editor-in-chief at Washingtonian magazine. His theory about why voters take such an interest in such matters: “Most of us don’t ‘get’ Middle East oil politics, and the rise and fall of the G.D.P., but we can ‘get’ if you connect with a dog or you connect with a cat.”