But some Northern Virginia officials have been told that the biggest obstacle to redevelopment may be a federal client that’s already at the site: the CIA. Now, as Maryland, Virginia and the District jockey for a prize worth perhaps as much as $3 billion, the presence of the classified site has left several Northern Virginia officials feeling as if one of their best prospects has been mysteriously hobbled.
Fairfax’s bid is one of about three dozen, setting up a political face-off among officials in the region and members of Congress for what they see as a potential blessing to their local economies. Officials from the District, Maryland and Virginia have offered possible sites — vying not only for the prestige that comes with having a new FBI headquarters within their boundaries but also for as many as 11,000 jobs.
In what has been an open secret in Northern Virginia for years, elected officials say the CIA maintains a classified facility in what appears to be a warehouse on property owned by the General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord. The high-stakes competition for the FBI has put a new spotlight on the site, including new details that suggest the spy agency’s facility is more elaborate than a warehouse.
In interviews, local and federal officials — all speaking only on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned about discussing national security secrets or because they knew only a few details about the spot — said the agency has built a facility that may extend underground and whose infrastructure may be so costly to relocate that its presence could scuttle any redevelopment of the 70-acre site.
A Northern Virginia official, who toured the GSA site several years ago, said he was told an elevator is needed to access the CIA’s facility, whose walls are lined with lead.
“The person who gave us the tour said, ‘Don’t be fooled by the building’s exterior, because most of the activity that occurs cannot be seen from above ground’ — which the only thing I can conclude from that is they must have a big underground chamber of some sort,” the official said.
In “Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking,” authors Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz, now The Washington Post’s national security editor, report that the CIA uses the warehouse-like site to train “a cadre of technical officers to bug offices, break into houses, and penetrate computer systems.” Several Northern Virginia officials who have studied the site say it is also served by state-of-the-art telecommunication networks.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told several Northern Virginia officials that he has toured the site but could say little more.
“All he said was, ‘You guys need to understand that this is a major, major problem for you,’ ” a Northern Virginia official said. “And he went so far as to suggest that if it doesn’t happen in Springfield, it’s solely because of that. . . . His thing was, ‘If it stops, it’s going to be because somebody at the highest level says you can’t touch the CIA.’ ”
Warner declined to comment about the facility for this article.
Northern Virginia officials have made the case that placing the FBI next to a top-secret intelligence facility would allow for synergy and shared security. But several of them said the clandestine facility also hindered efforts to redevelop the GSA site several years ago when defense officials were looking to shift personnel as recommended by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
“You’ve got the right location. You’ve got all the right assets. You’re in the right county. But it will never happen, because of the CIA there,” Keith E. Eastin, who was then the assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment, told local officials at a meeting in the Pentagon, according to an attendee. Instead, the military decided in September 2008 to move 6,400 federal employees to the Mark Center in Alexandria.
Eastin, now a vice president at the Louis Berger Group consultancy, said he would not have named the CIA. He said other factors played larger roles, including the cost of moving and storing millions of files elsewhere. He also said the site could not be easily redeveloped because the concrete slab under the warehouse was unusually thick and would make demolition costs exorbitant.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who said he was aware of the clandestine facility, said he believes the national security complications could be overcome. But he worries that politics will play a decisive role in the FBI’s decision.
“We understand everybody’s going to be advocating for their sites. That’s natural,” Wittman said. “What we want to make sure is this is based on a clear, transparent decision-making process.”
The FBI began talking about house hunting nearly a decade ago. In June 1974, the agency moved into the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which included a crime lab and a firing range. But the building has deteriorated and the agency has grown, especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI now wants to move about 11,000 employees and consolidate staff from 21 locations in the region.
The Senate’s authorizing resolution stipulates that the FBI find a site in the region within two miles of a Metro station and within 2.5 miles of the Beltway. Thirty-five proposals have been put forward from across the region.
Among them is a play from Maryland to locate the FBI in Prince George’s County.
In a sales pitch at a congressional hearing this month, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the FBI would be right at home near Metro, the National Security Administration, the U.S. Cyber Command and other cybersecurity centers. Maryland backers also argue that Prince George’s could use more of an economic boost than Fairfax.
Congressional staffers say Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been driving the Maryland delegation’s efforts on the FBI.
One Virginia congressional aide — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the move — fretted over Maryland’s chances because of Mikulski’s clout, especially with a Democrat in the White House and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) making moves for a possible run to succeed him.
But former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said the politics are not clear-cut.
He said the Obama administration may also factor in the pleas from Democrats Warner and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine in Virginia, a swing state whose importance in national elections has grown.
“It’s clear that there’s going to be a political tug of war between the Maryland delegation and the Virginia delegation,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va). “This is going to be a titanic political contest.”
The GSA said the site is a warehouse, period. Items stored there include office furniture, vehicles and huge numbers of files.
The list of agencies that store things there includes the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, the Patent and Trade Office, and the Red Cross.
“I can’t even tell you if the CIA is there,” said Dan Cruz, a spokesman for the GSA.
The CIA declined to comment.
Jonathan O’Connell and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.