FBI's Fairfax Agents Packing For Pr. William

The concrete and glass building, to open in December 2007, will be
The concrete and glass building, to open in December 2007, will be "basically blast-resistant," the developer said. (Wisnewski Blair & Associates)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The FBI is joining the exodus to the outer suburbs, moving its Northern Virginia-based agents from a cramped Tysons Corner complex adjacent to the Capital Beltway to 15 acres on a former horse farm in rural Prince William County.

It's the first major government office to relocate to Prince William. Construction began there this month on a $32 million building, nicknamed "the Taj Mahal" by some FBI officials, that will feature highly finished terrazzo floors at the entrance, a soaring atrium and a giant fingerprint etched into the elevator doors.

The departure from Fairfax County has brought the same headaches faced by companies that move in search of open space and cheaper land: more time on the road and employee anxiety. FBI agents still do most of their work inside the Beltway, say some law enforcement officials who fear investigations will be slowed because many of the 150 Northern Virginia-based agents will be stuck in endless traffic on Interstate 66.

But the man who spearheaded the move, Joseph Persichini Jr., calls it "visionary." He believes it puts the bureau on the cutting edge of the rapid growth that is spreading to Northern Virginia's outer suburbs. He also says the bureau needs a more secure location in the post-Sept. 11 era.

"If you look at the data for where is the growth of the economic corridor today, and where is it going to be three to five years from now, it's Prince William," said Persichini, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office, which handles cases from Northern Virginia and the District. "As growth goes, cases increase."

The 30-year agent turned from crime fighter to demographer in planning the move. He spoke to economists and attended George Mason University seminars, where he analyzed future growth patterns in the region. "This is a business decision, and travel is a cost of doing business," Persichini said, adding that the Prince William land cost $2.6 million compared with $12 million to $15 million for similar plots in Fairfax.

The debate provides a law enforcement twist on the changes sweeping Northern Virginia and the anxiety that can result as more people move farther from the Beltway, demographers said.

"This happens every time there is a corporate relocation. It's always wrenching," said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, which researches urban and metropolitan change.

"The FBI is just chasing the development across the region," he said. When the bureau first moved its Virginia branch of the Washington Field Office to Tysons, he said, "Tysons was the Prince William County of 1987. It was viewed as, 'Oh my God, how can anyone work out there?' "

The FBI has been moving farther out into Northern Virginia for years. The agency's presence had long been the Alexandria Field Office in Old Town. After that closed, the FBI in 1987 opened in Tysons what is still called the Northern Virginia Resident Agency.

The Tysons office has nearly 300 employees, including support personnel and agents tracking everything from health-care fraud and white-collar crime to drugs and violent gangs. Although counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents are in the District, those in Tysons are investigating high-profile matters such as the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001 and corruption allegations against Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.). The bureau plans to bring new counterterrorism squads to the new Prince William office and to open a language translation unit there, to help with the chronic problem of attracting Arabic speakers.

Even with the move, the FBI's presence inside the Beltway will still include the national headquarters in the District and hundreds of District-based agents in a separate location at the Washington Field Office.

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