cia-ohbBy Peter Galuszka

Northern Virginia, the economic engine that drives the rest of the state, has always been strongly linked to the federal government. By extension, that means tied to the Pentagon, and, as a recent book shows, the Central Intelligence Agency and today, all its antecedents.

Author Andrew Friedman, a history professor at Haverford College, spins an often intriguing but  flawed narrative  about how human settlement patterns converge with America’s domination of the post-colonial world after World War II.

Former CIA Director Allen Dulles handpicked Langley, an obscure North Virginia town, for the new headquarters of the fast-growing organization then housed during the late 1940s and 1950s in a series of ugly and drafty temporary buildings thrown up around the Reflecting Pool near the Washington Monument.

Selection is key. Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, made the choice according to the mores of the narrow elite of which they were part and the fear of imminent nuclear holocaust.

There were plenty of choices, writes Friedman, in “Covert Capital, Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia,” University of California Press:

“The CIA received lavish proposals, and most made more obvious sense – cheaper sites in Prince George’s County, Maryland,  sites more secure from nuclear fallout in Charles County, Maryland; sites more convenient to commuters off Shirley  Highway near the new subdivisions of Springfield, Virginia, southwest of the city,; sites in Southwest DC; then being redeveloped; sites in Montgomery County, near the National Institutes of Health and the Naval Hospital; sites in Alexandria, once part of the District, with easy access to defense development at National Airport, in a county where a greater percentage of CIA agents already lived.”

What decided the matter was happenstance and perhaps some long-term strategy. It just so happened that Allen Dulles’s sister owned a country house near McLean that was built in a Frank Lloyd Wright style centered around a swimming pool. Lots of the Cold War elite gathered there on warm evenings for a swim and “dry martinis and Overholt Rye.” Invited along were ambassadors and visiting heads of state. Stuffy German army brass loosened up after they got a pair of bathing trunks and a cocktail.

It wasn’t the only reason. Top executives at the CIA also somehow liked that part of the woods for retreats for relaxing when they weren’t planning sabotage or training dictators how to keep dissidents in check. One was Desmond FitzGerald, who ran guerilla operations against Communist China. Another was Lyman Kirkpatrick who trained Fulgencio Batista’s political police in pre-Castro Cuba.

So it was. The decision was  made in 1955. It was  finished in 1963 so that 11,000 people could move in. Just to give the flavor of the times – not only could the entire area be toasted by nuclear weapons in nanoseconds, but “colored” passengers moving on a bus across Key Bridge had to stop at the Virginia and reseat themselves according to Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. This happened near the current site of the Key Bridge Marriott, which, over the years, has been a favorite haunt of visiting spies.

The inevitable sprawl began. There wasn’t much in McLean, but in due course, there was Tysons Corner. Dulles International Airport (named for John Foster) had its own access Road. Route 7 was highly developed as was Reston, in a  new “planned unit development” mode around Lake Anne.

Apparently by design, keeping the CIA people and their families segregated when they went shopping played softball or held a cookout was part of the plan. It was for security but it may also have been to keep them from questioning what their job was all about. The officials had a particular circuit – organizing some intelligence gathering or active measure like training thugs in one Third World country and then rotating back home to the patio Weber and margaritas. Hardly anyone went into the District.

Likewise, the CIA’s Foreign Helpers also ended up in the neighborhood –notably members of the friendly government of South Vietnam who flooded the area after the fall of Saigon.

This pattern of isolation is maintained today as much of the intelligence world expands or has been privatized throughout the NOVA sprawl. The War on Terror has greatly increased the number of people with security clearances and they spill all over the place from Prince William County to Winchester. The same suburban value system prevails.

Friedman may be making too much out of a few things. Segregating intelligence types is hardly uncommon. In the old Soviet Union, the headquarters of the KGB was at Lubyanka, a large Neo-Baroque building in downtown Moscow. But the real spy work is done at Yasenevo, a huge and tightly secure complex in suburban Moscow that has been around for decades. The Russians, of course, have for centuries made it a high art form to rope off their elite.

Friedman seems to imply that the CIA and Allen Dulles created the concept of exurban sprawl. Not exactly. About the time he was building the new CIA, superhighways and white flight were building a suburban culture throughout the U.S, especially in the Sunbelt from DC to California. The whole point was to be isolated from cities and to move among people of similar race and income levels. The word “Edge City” is not just something a reporter in NOVA thought up as Friedman suggests. The term has been used for years and featured prominently in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel about development in Atlanta. Friedman also hits the South a little too hard. Jim Crow was despicable but it was hardly unique to Virginia.

Still, Friedman’s book is of special interest to me. In 1956 or 1957 – I can’t remember – I moved with my Navy doctor father from Camp Lejeune to Bethesda, then a small bedroom community not far from Northwestern D.C. I remember a bunch of small bungalows, a farmer’s market, a couple of movie theaters and the huge government complexes of NIH and the National Naval Medical Center, now Walter Reed.

I remember when they broke dirt for the Beltway behind our home but I had moved away before the big NOVA exurb had been created. Over the years, I learned much more about the place and its people. But I have always been baffled by one point: why such a crucial spot during America’s imperial and post-imperial eras could be such an aesthetic nightmare. Friedman helps explain why.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


15 responses to “NOVA’s a Mess? Blame the CIA”

  1. Peter, great write-up. It sounds very consistent with stories I’ve heard. The CIA types still hang out at J. Gilbert’s at Old Dominion & Dolley Madison. Lots of the higher ups live in McLean & Great Falls. Based on the evidence I’ve seen, I don’t know how much “I want to work near where I live” or “I want to get away from an increasingly black D.C.” was the main driver. Probably both.

  2. Interesting wrinkle on the NoVa suburban sprawl debate… history of which I was unaware. I agree with you that it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on the CIA, however. Sprawl was/is a national phenomenon. NoVa was hardly distinctive in that regard.

  3. Yes… fascinating article! thank you!

    I’m with Jim Bacon on the sprawl issue. The DC area did have govt influence in sprawl not because it’s govt or CIA but because it’s the primary employer.

    In other places, there is also sprawl and there is no prominent govt or CIA presence.

    Big corporate enterprises need lower level trench workers as much as they need corporate leaders and lower level worker – commute.

    I’m sure that is the case in the DC area – the upper level GS types live in NoVa and nearby locales and the worker bees commute to the exurbs.

    but I too remember when I-95 was built. At that time, Fredericksburg had 15K residents as did the adjacent counties of Spotsylvania and Stafford – both of which were poor – had one high school each.

    Our primary employer was a fibers/rayon/film/cellophane plant that made wrappers for cigarettes and the like – American Viscose – and from 1963 on it changed hands several times as cellophane was being replaced by plastic.

    everybody and their dog was related to someone who worked at that plant.

    1978 was the fateful year the plant closed and from that point on – people were looking for jobs – at the Quantico Marine Base, the Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground and the Pentagon now that I-95 had been open for 15 years.

    from that point on – The Fredericksburg Area morphed from a company town to a commuter bedroom community where up to about 1/2 of the adult workers – commute.

    It’s way more than just the CIA – it’s the who’s who of Federal government HQ centers… from the Park Service to the USDA and CDC and all the contractors and lobbyists associated with those HQ operations.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    The driver behind No. Virginia’s startling post WW11 growth is simple. Look at the map. No. Va. is far closer to downtown federal government Washington DC that any other place in either DC or Maryland. For example in WW11 it was roughly an 8 mile drive through urban DC to get get to Naval Medical Center (today next to NIH) while it was less than half a mile across the Potomac River to get to the Pentagon.

    Original DC was a tilted square with No. Virginia fit neatly into its southern Quadrant. In late 18th thought 19th century and early 20th, the Potomac River kept Federal DC contained behind its northern river banks.

    The early 20th century trolley breached the river for mostly residential and its light ancillary commercial that fed off the federal government that was expanding across the river along its northern shore. Key bridge in Georgetown facilitated the trolley and later early auto access into today’s Arlington. (14 street bridge and George Washington Parkway south to Mount Vernon was originally the creature of Alexandria City to south)

    WW1 aided later by FDR put the Federal Government on steroids. Memorial Bridge in the 1930s. The 1960’s Roosevelt Bridge followed.

    Hence the explosion of Rosslyn Va. into the first dense high rise city in middle Atlantic states. This was ignited by the new bridges and the 1960’s federal general services administration decision to start leasing private buildings, rather than building federal buildings. It’s also why Rosslyn first go round was a disaster. Nobody in DC knew how to build a high rise city.

    And obviously the shy and secret keeping covert types at the CIA were not going to publicize their presence in Rosslyn. Plus Great Falls with its understated but refined residential neighborhoods fit neatly into the leafy country horse back riding set’s version of Georgetown for upper class ivy league spooks. The Kennedy’s and Jackie’s family too loved both places, most particularly the wooded bluffs above the River behind Chain Bridge. Given that the George Washington Parkway along those bluffs could be easily extended out to Langley for the CIA sealed the deal. It gave lickedly-split and safe from prying eyes access into DC from Langley.

  5. cpzilliacus Avatar

    An excellent discussion. Thanks for sharing.

    For the record, the only U.S. intelligence agencies not headquartered in Northern Virginia are the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is in the District of Columbia; and the National Security Agency (NSA), which is located at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (but its predecessor agencies were once located at Arlington Hall in Arlington County).

  6. I was gonna say – Md has quite a few govt facilities of the “secret” kind.

    Fort Meade is not a small place…,_Maryland

    what people forget when we talk about our military expenditures as a percent of our GDP spending is that there is a significant additional spending on non-DOD , “National Defense”.

    We spend about a trillion dollars on the military combined with non-military “national defense” – and our total tax revenues are about 1.4T.

    It might be interesting to see what the total govt payroll is for the DC-Md-Va MSA compared to other MSAs…

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Right, of course Maryland. Actually the NSA is a bigger deal as far as privacy threats than the CIA, which actually was considered a house of liberals by some.

  8. cpzilliacus Avatar

    The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) used to have its headquarters complex in the Fort Sumner area of Bethesda, Montgomery County, Maryland (but also had operations in Fairfax County and the District of Columbia). Thanks to BRAC, it is all consolidated to one site in Fairfax County.

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    These kinds of articles just make me laugh. Some liberal author from Haverford hold his breath until he nearly passes out and then starts writing.

    The CIA picked that spot because it was secluded, private and a short ride down a federally owned road to the Pentagon. They also had enough land nearby for the spooks to build a golf course. Which they did. Go to River Ben Country Club (founded in 1960) in Great Falls and find any member in his 70s or 80s. They are all ex CIA. But be polite or you might see a Glock come out of the golf bag.

    I also love some of the comments. The CIA created sprawl? What created the sprawl in Atlanta? Coca-Cola? Have you ever been to Silicon Valley? Even once? It’s all sprawl. Jim Bacon seems to have figured this out.

    As far as aesthetic nightmares – I give up – what do you call Henrico and Chesterfield Counties? Seaside on steroids? Paris in the Piedmont? You guys crack me up. They are both one big strip mall and housing subdivision. At least NoVa has Old Town Alexandria, downtown Herndon and Reston.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I said sprawl was everywhere in my original post.It’s not a Jim Bacon exclusive although I agree with him and he obviously agrees with me.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      My complaint with you is the “aesthetic nightmare” comment.

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    She outside of the gw parkway and rich homes it is that

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “She outside of the gw parkway and rich homes it is that”

      Klingon? Some odd variant of Pig Latin? Let’s assume you are trying to say that you think the area near the CIA (or perhaps all of NoVa) is an aesthetic nightmare otherthan the GW parkway and some big houses.

      Henrico and Chesterfield counties are also aesthetic nightmares. So are most of the suburbs of London. In the real world there is very little aesthetic beauty among human settlements. Yes, downtown Barcelona is quite fetching. So is Georgetown in DC or Old Town in Alexandria. However, these are the rare exception. Most people live in cookie cutter apartment buildings, town house complexes or suburban subdivisions.

      I am always perplexed when people who live in places that are nothing more than suburban sprawl come to Northern Virginia and complain about the suburban sprawl.

      What did you expect? Castles of gold?

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don, Hey, I LOVE Brutalist architecture! Big fan!

    (previous comment was mis tap on SmartPhone not Klingon.)

Leave a Reply