Micah Zenko is the Douglas Dillon fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In his 1906 lecture on the formation of modern nations in Europe, German historian Otto Hintze argued that states were built around the needs of their militaries and that in the 20th century, state organization would come to be determined “primarily by the necessities of defense and offense, that is, by the organization of the army and of warfare.” The United States has undeniably been on a semi-permanent war footing since 1949, and this constant preparation for or conduct of foreign wars has transformed our politics, society, economy and laws in ways that endure well beyond the confrontations with each adversary.

In “Covert Capital,” Andrew Friedman provides an original and entertaining narrative showing how Cold War planning and operations permanently changed the suburbs of Washington. Drawing on interviews and memoirs of cold warriors, urban and exurban planning, architecture, and social theory, Friedman sketches the origins of the landscape of secrecy and denial that has since sprawled into the access roads and anonymous office parks encircling the nation’s capital. National security state employees, along with other residents of the District, Maryland and Virginia curious about the top-secret infrastructure they drive past, can learn a great deal from this book.

An initial instigator was Allen Dulles, who ran the Central Intelligence Agency from 1953 to 1961. Dulles successfully campaigned for Congress and reluctant local officials to move the CIA from its six-building complex at 2430 E St. in Foggy Bottom and temporary buildings along the Mall to the woods of Langley, which he came to know from parties at the nearby home of his sister, Eleanor Lansing Dulles, a State Department official. Allen sought to transform the new campus into an insulated and compartmentalized environment — and, by moving the CIA’s headquarters from eight blocks to eight miles away from the White House, to enjoy greater autonomy.

Dulles’s personal involvement included deciding which of the surrounding trees would remain, banning union workers from certain construction jobs (on the theory that they were more likely to be communists) and ensuring that his favorite biblical quote was stenciled into the lobby floor of the original headquarters building: “And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.” The lobby also now contains a bas-relief of Dulles with a fitting inscription underneath: “His Monument is around us.”

‘Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia’ by Andrew Friedman (Univ. of California. 416 pp. Paperback, $29.95). (University of California Press)

Around the Langley headquarters and agency components in Tysons Corner, Rosslyn and Reston, CIA personnel migrated back from overseas wars and covert missions to the comfort of their homes and the insular social and business networks of Fairfax County. Yet the inevitable disappointments that come with failing to transform foreign governments into willing allies of Washington led many agents to quiet retirements characterized by doubt, depression and destroyed households. These officials and staffers were patriotic and, above all else, loyal to the agency and its declared mission to counter communism abroad. Friedman shows how the CIA even trained and equipped local police officers who, in turn, provided CIA personnel with badges as cover for illegal domestic operations.

Many of America’s collaborators and allies of convenience, fleeing for their safety, took up residence alongside their CIA handlers in temporary safe houses, ethnic-based exile networks and opulent postwar homes: South Vietnamese implementers of U.S. counterinsurgency programs, failed contra military leaders and the shrewd Reza Pahlavi, eldest son of the shah of Iran. Feeling safe and protected in this suburban bubble, they held out hope that they could return to power in their home countries should domestic unrest or a staged coup provide an opportunity.

In many ways, “Covert Capital” is a worthy companion to “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” Dana Priest and William Arkin’s 2011 investigation of the massive and redundant counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence agencies that have materialized since Sept. 11, 2001. Friedman details how many of the defense and intelligence contractors featured in “Top Secret America” first sprouted up in the 1980s across the Potomac in Edge City — the central business district outside downtown Washington — and now line the Dulles Corridor and cluster around Metro’s Orange Line stops in Virginia.

If you live in the District, you probably notice that most of the national security workers have little engagement with the capital or with its residents who lack security clearances. Very little other than an intermittent playoff run by a local sports team ever unifies these distinct communities. In fact, the next time you meet someone working for a three-letter agency, ask if they have heard of legendary local heroes such as the late Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, or hardcore punk rock pioneer Ian MacKaye. “Covert Capital” demonstrates that the isolation of these workers was intentionally designed and has been a necessary component of how the United States has organized for war over the past seven decades.

Micah Zenko is the Douglas Dillon fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia

By Andrew Friedman

Univ. of California. 416 pp. Paperback, $29.95