Congress is asking the wrong questions about a new FBI headquarters

FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Greg Nash
The FBI headquarters building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., is an eyesore that officials want to replace.

Regal buildings surround the Capitol Mall in Washington, some of them hundreds of years old and magnificent in their design, stately in appearance. They represent the dignified grandeur of a nation continually aspiring to citizen governance.  

And then there’s the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that sits among this architectural splendor like a corndog at a royal banquet.  

FBIHQ, as it is known in acronym-addicted D.C., often is called an eyesore. But that overlooks soreness in the other four senses. For those of us who have worked in that dank edifice, it is a holistic trauma experience. Federal prisons are nicer. The building is not yet 50 years old — younger by a century than many of its neighbors. Chunks of concrete have fallen from its facade to the street below. It is a monument to low-bid winners everywhere.

There is little debate that something must be done about FBIHQ. Unfortunately, the discussion mostly has centered on where a new headquarters should reside. FBI management has waffled on this question, originally preferring to move outside the District, but now advocating a tear-down and rebuild at the current location on Pennsylvania Avenue.  

The D.C. city government wants FBIHQ out since it takes up an entire block of prime real estate that could be occupied by taxpaying commercial properties. Politicians in Maryland and Virginia noisily push for a suburban relocation, not because they are interested in what’s best for the FBI — and, hence, the nation — but because it could enhance their re-election fortunes.  

When Donald Trump was elected president, he proclaimed that FBIHQ should stay right where it is and the Democrats cried foul, asserting that Trump, who owned a hotel across the street, would benefit financially. That’s because politicians are highly principled and never tolerate personal enrichment while holding office. 

All of this is semi-fascinating political theater but a preoccupation with location misses a larger question that Congress should be asking first: Does FBIHQ need to be as large as it is? Before billions of dollars are allocated to build a massive structure somewhere, shouldn’t the FBI and its overseers determine whether the thousands of employees assigned to the headquarters are really needed to run the Bureau?

Here’s some perspective. In 1950, there were about 6,000 FBI agents investigating mostly stolen vehicles, bank robberies, check frauds, AWOL servicemen, and the occasional kidnapping or gangster. FBIHQ occupied a few offices within the Department of Justice building.  

Since then, organized crime, espionage, terrorism, large-scale white-collar crime, drug trafficking, street gangs and cyber crimes have been added to the Bureau’s responsibilities. The agent population has little more than doubled, to around 13,000. But that doesn’t mean there are now 7,000 more agents on the streets.

In 1950, close to 90 percent of FBI agents were directly conducting investigations. That’s not the case today. The FBI has greatly expanded its management ranks, particularly at FBIHQ, and has created a myriad of “coordinator” positions that remove agents from direct investigations.  

Despite FBI mission responsibilities increasing exponentially, it would be surprising if 60 percent of current FBI agents investigate cases — in other words, not many more than in 1950 when the U.S. population was 150 million and not today’s 332 million. The FBI has embraced an administrative overhead burden that has taken agents off the street.  

About one-third of all FBI employees are assigned to FBIHQ entities. Keep in mind that the FBI’s value to the nation lies in its ability to investigate and bring bad actors to justice. That work is done in field offices around the country, not at headquarters. Maybe an objective examination would determine that FBIHQ needs its lavish staffing but — as one who survived three assignments to FBIHQ and witnessed the inner workings — I have confidence that it does not. 

In addition to management and overhead bloat, the FBI has a long tradition of developing and keeping niche support functions and IT infrastructure in-house, citing “security” concerns. That business model makes less sense today when many services can be safely outsourced thanks to technology advancements. These efficiency opportunities may translate into reduced need for direct-hire staff and office space, as the private sector is discovering. Granted, the FBI is much different than a private corporation; however, with some imagination, there likely are ways to reduce on-premises staffing and the square footage requirements that go with it.

Right-sizing FBIHQ and shifting investigative resources to field offices would be a smart exercise prior to investing in a new headquarters building. Once that is addressed, the best location for a new FBIHQ might become clearer.  

Some argue that FBIHQ should remain in downtown D.C. because of the perceived need to be close to the Department of Justice, Congress and the White House. That is true for about 1 or 2 percent of those assigned to FBIHQ. Top FBI executives can fulfill that requirement. Everyone else doesn’t need the thrill of living in tremendously expensive proximity to Washington and enjoying the relaxing commute.  

The FBI clearly needs some level of headquarters management and oversight. Placing the bulk of a right-sized FBI headquarters in a more affordable, less congested geographic location might help attract the kind of talented leaders who, in the past, have balked at the family hardships of a move to D.C. That would be a direct benefit to the Bureau and the country, not solely driven by some political calculation.

Hopefully, Congress will dig deeper into all the factors that might inform how a new FBIHQ could best advance the mission of the FBI and not simply focus on where to build. We’re seeing a location decision devolve into political fun and games, but the dangerous investigative challenges and imperatives facing the Bureau are anything but that. 

Kevin R. Brock is a former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.

Tags D.C. commute Donald Trump FBI headquarters FBI right-rizing property values in D.C.

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