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A modest proposal for the new FBI headquarters

A modest proposal for the new FBI headquarters

As with most government decisions these days, where to put a new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been marked by indecision. Here is good news: the structure and campus already exist just outside the beltway in northern Virginia. Currently, it’s known as the headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a modern, expansive building in Springfield sitting securely in a large campus but only minutes (OK, on a good day) from I-395 and downtown Washington.  

The proposed budget for a new FBI headquarters in suburban Washington is $3.6 billion dollars. Inter-state competition, a proposal to build a headquarters in the District of Columbia, controversy over President TrumpDonald TrumpWhat blue wave? A close look at Texas today tells of a different story Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin Trump's former bodyguard investigated in NY prosectors' probe: report MORE’s interest in the location of the headquarters and other factors have placed the project on hold. There is a clear and compelling reason why the FBI needs a new headquarters: the current one is seriously outdated, has insufficient space to accommodate the bureau’s needs, and no amount of retrofitting and updating will address those shortcomings.  

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What happens to NGA, you ask? NGA performs important functions for the U.S. military, our strategic intelligence consumers, and informing disaster relief. One of the most important missions involves support to the warfighter. NGA professionals provide the maps, geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and unique renderings that assist the military services to prosecute their mission and prevent conflict. As such, NGA is a combat support organization.  

That critical mission will remain but should be allocated to the combatant commands as needed with central supervision provided by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. In NGA’s own rendering of its current concept of operations, the agency refers to relying on free market forces to guide its future. When the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commanders are faced with budget and personnel decisions regarding GEOINT, we will find out which forward-deployed assets, analysts and capabilities are most needed — and consequently funded.

NGA analysts also provide input into the strategic intelligence products produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency. DIA can determine how many of these analysts and what types of GEOINT products they need in support of DoD requirements. Similarly, NGA products feed into the national security analysis conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Analysts focused on more non-defense-related issues can be transferred to the CIA as need be.  

Much GEOINT collection is conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). Two revolutions have significantly and permanently affected how GEOINT is collected and concomitantly how NGA receives and processes information. The first is the digital revolution. Simply put, the cyber mission of NSA puts it in the forefront of GEOINT collection, whether that be the geolocation of a terrorist cell phone or the movements of a nation-state military across a terrain. The second is the proliferation of commercial imagery, its ubiquitous availability, and access to data associated with that imagery. For most of its imagery needs, the U.S. government no longer need rely on purpose-built multibillion-dollar satellites and highly classified National Technical Means (NTM).  

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Breaking up a U.S. intelligence agency and conducting an honest zero-based review of its necessary contributions will not be easy. From my perspective, the issue has not been one of dedication by its thousands of employees or from a lack of leadership. I have known several of the former leaders of the agency and they are among the best and brightest the U.S. intelligence community and our military have produced. In fact, should Congress and the administration embrace this proposal, the person who should be placed in charge of the effort is Principal Deputy Director for National Intelligence Sue Gordon, one of the IC’s best and most experienced administrators with several senior management assignments in the CIA to her credit, along with being the former deputy director of NGA.

Moving to the Fort Belvoir NGA facility will be a boon for the FBI for a variety of reasons.  First, the modern, large headquarters building was designed for 21st century technology needs.  It is a top secret facility with all the bells and whistles — and money — that requires. The large campus will allow the bureau to move additional facilities there in the future, if need be.  

One of the reasons the FBI needs to move to Springfield has nothing to do with fiber optic conduit or the number of computer drops, however. Rather, it is the distance — however modest — from the maelstrom that stretches from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. In the fevered atmosphere of Washington, placing the vast bulk of FBI headquarters personnel at a remove from the District of Columbia will play a role in de-politicizing the bureau (or at least some of the perception of its politicization) and allow the special agents, analysts, technicians and other professionals to better concentrate on their core missions of fighting crime at home and keeping the nation safe from external terrorist and hostile intelligence threats.  

Being at a distance from the White House and the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be an adjustment for FBI leadership. Some office space will be required downtown, probably co-located with DOJ, but if the other agencies and departments that ring the city, such as the CIA, the Pentagon and the NSA, can function (and function well) with their headquarters outside of downtown, then so can the FBI. That move is inevitable, so why not save a few billion dollars, trim the intelligence budget, and get the FBI into a great building in a prime location sooner rather than later?

Mark S. Sparkman is a 30-year veteran of the CIA. He is president of Veretus Group, an investigations and strategic intelligence firm in Washington, D.C.