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?