Life in the Spies' Back Yard

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Several winters ago, I was riding my bike into town from my family's house to pick up some groceries.

It had snowed the night before, and, as is often the case in McLean, the streets had not been plowed. I stopped to warm up and stood rubbing my hands together. Seemingly out of nowhere, a police car came speeding up and swerved to a halt in front of me. Five more police cars surrounded me. An officer got out of one of the cars and sauntered over. "Where are you headed, Miss?"

I chattered out a response: "Safeway."

"Mmm-hmm. Do you know where you are, Ma'am? What you're standing in front of?"

Of course I knew. "The CIA?" I slowly began to realize what was happening. There I stood, a ski cap on my head and a wind mask covering my face, wearing a backpack that would hold the food, rubbing my gloved hands together, seemingly "plotting."

"Next time you need to stop, I suggest you do so several paces ahead. Or behind. Anywhere but directly in front of the CIA."

I grew up a mile away from the agency's headquarters, so the CIA has always played a role in my life. Whether it's the occasional encounter with George Tenet at the coffee shop or the fact that there's no cellphone reception in much of McLean, the agency's presence can be felt throughout town.

For years, I was convinced that our home phones were tapped. I saw no reason that they wouldn't be: My father runs a government contracting business, and my mother is involved in international communications. Such circumstances would make anyone wary, especially the CIA.

In McLean, everyone is a stranger, perhaps because public figures go there to seek anonymity. Many of them work in Washington. The distance between the two places is astoundingly short: When British troops attacked Washington during the War of 1812, President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, fled the city and took refuge in McLean. It is home to members of Congress, government officials, pundits, journalists, ambassadors, diplomats and activists.

It seems as though everywhere you go in McLean -- not just directly in front of the CIA-- you shouldn't be there. Once, my boyfriend and I were driving and stopped to talk in front of a moderately sized house with several SUVs in the driveway. Within minutes, a man clad in black with a wire behind his ear knocked on the car window. "You can't park here. This is Colin Powell's house. Get off the property immediately, please."

Unfortunately, hangout spots are limited in McLean. The town consists mainly of dry cleaners, nail salons and banks. The opening of a Starbucks 10 years ago gave McLean a jolt of life. In the month I worked there, every brand of McLeanite had come through: political wives craving skim lattes after their personal training sessions, soccer moms in need of a double shot, the after-school crowd that came to hang out and drink Frappuccinos, and Washington insiders who liked their coffee black, with no room for cream and sugar.

When people ask me where I'm from, I usually just say "Washington, D.C." Most people from McLean say the same. Occasionally, someone will dig deeper: "Where in D.C.?"


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