One of the many mini-scandals burbling around Washington these days involves two former officials for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who were recently indicted on charges that they conspired to pass along national defense intelligence to Israel. Reading up on the scandal in order to pass muster at the various summer pundit picnics around town, I noticed that the breakthrough in the FBI's investigation took place when a Pentagon analyst who had been flipped by the Bureau arranged to wear a wire and meet one of the men in front of Nordstrom's at the Pentagon City Mall.
Suddenly, a light bulb went on over my head. Isn't that the same mall where Linda Tripp lured Monica Lewinsky into an FBI trap and started the ball rolling on impeachment? Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or maybe not. I did a little research, and it turns out that the mall has been the location of choice for a number of federal stings and investigations.
What is it about this shopping mall that makes it such an appealing spot for our nation's top law enforcement squads? I called the FBI to find out, but a taciturn press officer declined to comment. So, I decided to take a trip across the river to check it out myself (and maybe covet a pastel-colored Kitchen Aid mixer as long as I was already there).
The glass-topped shopping center (official name: "The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City") is in the heart of the capitol's military industrial complex. Just a few lanes of traffic and an overpass away--less than half a mile--is the Pentagon, home to thousands of military and civilian employees. Men and women in uniform can be spotted every day at the mall, browsing through stores after work or snacking in the food court on their lunch hour. It would have been just a hop, stick, and jump, then, for Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, who walked over from his office last July to meet up with AIPAC official Keith Weissman.
The two men chatted, surrounded by the potted plants that flank the entrance to Nordstrom's department store, and possibly--if they're anything like me--slightly nauseated by the variety of scents mingling in the air around the nearby perfume counters. The conversation was brief but allegedly incriminating. Franklin had been confronted a month earlier by investigators, and agreed to help sting Weissman by wearing a wire and passing along information that he portrayed as government intelligence about potential threats to American and Israeli soldiers in Iraq. Weissman took the bait, went straight to the Israeli embassy with the information, and now awaits trial.
A few storefronts away is Sam Goody, where yet another federal law enforcement trap was laid in 1998. Army National Guard Maj. Stephen Tucker thought he was meeting a 14-year-old girl with whom he would later have sex when he traveled all the way from Kansas to the mall's only record store. Tucker had met "Angie" online, unaware that she was actually a U.S. Customs officer. Agents arrested Tucker as soon as he entered the store before he even had time to browse for a copy of Garth Brooks's greatest hits.
Several escalator rides down is the most important spot on any tour of Pentagon City Mall sting sites: the food court. When I arrived, the ketchup-stained tables were packed with diners, many of them wearing FBI t-shirts. (No, they weren't agents gathered for some kind of training exercise, but tourists). Over a decade ago, at this very food court, several dozen computer geeks would gather once a month to discuss their trade--infiltrating private computer networks. They would shove together tables, drag plastic chairs over, and go get their Frank & Stein Dogs and Drafts or Johnny Rockets orders before kicking around the latest hacker techniques and gossip. They may have blended into the mall atmosphere, but their online work wasn't so well-concealed. It didn't take long for federal investigators to develop an interest in the group, and the Secret Service eventually showed up to a monthly meeting in 1992 to have the hackers kicked out of the mall.
Without question, the mother of all federal mall investigations is the Lewinsky case. It's more than a little absurd to think that the impeachment of the president can be traced back to a showdown in front of Panda Express, but history can be cruel. On Jan. 16, 1998, Monica sat here in the food court, waiting for her friend Linda, who had suggested they meet for lunch at the mall. Linda was late, so Monica flipped through a women's magazine and considered getting lunch for herself at the Kabuki Sushi food stall. Before long, however, she spotted Linda coming down the escalator and walked over to greet her. Unfortunately for Monica, directly behind Tripp were two FBI agents in dark suits who flipped open their badges, and, doing their best "Law & Order" impression, told her: "Ma'am, you are in serious trouble."
The agents whisked Monica away to the Ritz Carlton adjacent to the mall to be questioned by lawyers from the Independent Counsel's office. (The hotel has seen its share of history, including Marv Albert's cross-dressing/biting escapade in the mid-1990s.) There, in Room 1102, Kenneth Starr's associates made little progress. Monica demanded to call her lawyer, refused to talk until her mother arrived, and eventually everyone became hungry. (Monica never got her sushi, after all.) So they headed back into the mall.
After dinner at Mozzarella's American Grill in a corner of the mall's second level--which no doubt involved mediocre cheese sticks and awkward conversation--Monica and her accompanying agents decided to kill some time shopping. As it happened, Linda Tripp, who had been asked to stick around in case Starr's deputies needed her assistance, had also whiled away the hours in the mall. This led to an uncomfortable moment when she passed Monica's entourage, Crate & Barrel bags in hand. "Thanks a lot," Monica huffed to her now ex-friend.
I don't know whether it is the mall's convenient location to the Pentagon (perfect for would-be informants) or innocuous character (far less suspicious than a suggested rendezvous outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building) or simply its tasty soft pretzels that make it such an appealing spot for FBI stings. But I can tell you this: My future mall trips are going to be strictly solo, and I'm not standing too close to potted plants.