The FBI’s requirements have shifted with time: Digital records have negated the need for floor upon floor of fingerprint files, while staff increases have led to workers being scattered across more than 20 annexes in this area alone. The thousands of Hoover Building staffers who spend their days in its drab corridors would almost certainly love a building filled with natural light and less linoleum.
Planners have estimated that selling or trading the land, one of the largest parcels between Capitol Hill and the White House, could net close to $900 million — enough for the cash-strapped government to build a huge, modern complex in the suburbs. Security concerns after 9/11 ended the agency’s once-popular headquarters tour, and since the Oklahoma City bombing some have questioned the FBI’s proximity to neighboring streets; a suburban location would offer greater physical security.
Nearby jurisdictions, including Alexandria and Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, are all competing for the billion-dollar building project and the FBI’s workers, the largest economic development prize to come in years. A presentation by the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate agency, drew more than 350 people in January. Each jurisdiction is touting its access to public transit and major highways, yet nearly all the locations under consideration are at least 45 minutes from downtown in Washington’s noxious traffic.
The D.C. suburbs are already filled with spy complexes. Beyond the CIA headquarters at Langley and the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, there are the unremarked headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center and other covert operations.
The FBI, though, is different. We shouldn’t want to hide our chief law enforcement agency. For four decades it has stood symbolically on Washington’s most important street. It’s not supposed to be covert; it is meant to be a publicly accountable law enforcement agency, front and center as a guardian of our democracy.
Ensuring accountability and trust in its leadership means the FBI must be answerable to the public; it should exist in the public eye, its building open to visitors, 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, though on its darkest days, it has also been one of the greatest threats to our civil liberties. Journalists and congressional staff know how hard it is to get information out of the Hoover Building; things could be worse if its staff is isolated somewhere outside the Beltway.