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March 12, 2013 3:45 PM The FBI’s Stalinist Parking Garage

By Tim Weiner

The J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington is a threat to national security. It’s time to tear it down.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters has been falling apart for years. At this point its decrepitude imperils the bureau’s biggest mission: to prevent another Sept. 11 attack.

If you’ve ever been in Washington, you know the place. You can’t miss it. It’s that pile of concrete defacing Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and the Capitol, that looks like a Stalinist parking garage, an architectural crime against humanity. It’s a public disgrace.

The building’s ugliness is a perfect match for its shoddy construction. Rainwater pours into the building, and its thick skin is cracking. Passers-by run the risk of being brained by a falling chunk of FBI facade.

On the inside, things are worse. Never mind that the electrical systems, the air ducts and the elevators need $80 million worth of repairs. The Hoover building fails to meet basic security criteria established for federal buildings three years ago.

These failures are, of course, classified. But they are no secret: The FBI headquarters can’t support its fraying patchwork of computer systems or secure its cubicles from cyberspies.
What’s more, the building is as crowded as a rush-hour subway — and as incompatible to candid conversations among agents. FBI counterterrorism specialists need to be able to speak with FBI intelligence analysts face-to-face, in private. But the Hoover building’s space constraints prevent them from sitting down together in one place.

Bad Business

Instead, they are closed behind an endless series of doors, unable to adequately collaborate. That might have been fine when Hoover ruled as an absolute monarch, hurling commands from on high. It’s a bad business in this day and age, when intelligence and analysis need to flow up the chain of command.

The place already was overflowing on the day its present director, Robert Mueller, took office on Sept. 4, 2001. Back then the FBI had 9,700 people assigned to headquarters. Today it has 17,300. Half of them can’t fit into the building. After Sept. 11, 200,000 square feet of basement, storage and cafeteria space were converted to offices. When that ran out, FBI administrators started renting space in suburban shopping malls and corporate parks. Rent for these remote offices now exceeds $3 million a week.

More than 8,000 FBI headquarters personnel are housed at more than 40 annexes inside and outside Washington. Landlords and tenants in at least nine of these places refuse to operate under the government’s security constraints. So the offices are useless for anything resembling counterterrorism.

On the contrary, if you want to see what a palace built with tax dollars looks like, go to the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters complex. (No, they don’t have guided tours; neither does the FBI since al-Qaeda struck.) The main building, dating from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, has a gleaming marble lobby and snazzy, Mad Men- style executive suites on the seventh floor. The newer buildings, added under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, are state-of-the-art — good-looking and girded against hackers, from the wires to the windows.

So why does the FBI have to work in a Brutalist hellhole? It’s no way to run an intelligence service.

Our elected representatives in Congress loathe spending money on things such as diplomatic security. Then they scream when an ambassador is killed for want of armed guards. Though a new base for the FBI would surely cost a billion dollars and take a decade to build, the FBI deserves better, and so do we.

Fitting Legacy

A shovel in the earth would be a fitting way to salute Mueller when he retires in September after 12 years. Yes, his FBI has from time to time erred on the side of excess — but far less often than Hoover’s did. Mueller’s agents blew the whistle on the CIA’s secret prisons. And Mueller himself confronted President George W. Bush in the White House over his unconstitutional eavesdropping on Americans.

Mueller is the first director — ever — who has struck something approaching a proper balance between national security and civil liberties. He has often said what he doesn’t want when he retires is a gold medal and a speech saying: “Congratulations, you won the war on terror — but we lost our civil liberties.”

I’m not saying a new headquarters should be dedicated to Mueller. We all know the pitfalls of the Edifice Complex — just look at the Hoover building. We simply owe the FBI’s agents a decent place to work.

Even as a replacement is constructed, the old place will need some work to make it last through the coming decade. As a tribute to the preservation of civil liberties in a time of continued danger, we could start by scraping Hoover’s name off the facade.

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  • Gregory Stroud on March 12, 2013 6:58 PM:

    Feel free to blame Stalin for all sorts of sins. He had many.

    That said, the J. Edgar Hoover building in no way, I repeat no way, resembles Stalinist architecture. Nor does the building echo Stalinist culture.

    Culturally Stalinism was pompous, conservative, and prone to classical flourishes. It was also better built than you might guess (excepting first five year plan factories).

    The Hoover building is much more Brezhnev, even post-Brezhnev, in style, and (perhaps) construction.

    I know you did not, in all probability, mean to be taken literally, but Stalin and Stalinism are too serious of subjects to be used as mere epithets.

  • Anonymous on March 12, 2013 10:05 PM:

    Yes, the Atlantis Resort in Dubai actually looks much more Stalinist.

  • Gregory Stroud on March 13, 2013 7:41 AM:

    yes it does... that's amusing

  • Frank Wilhoit on March 13, 2013 8:45 AM:

    Here's another question: why was the building so poorly built? This may seem like a distraction, but if you lift that lid, many things will crawl out from under. For extra credit, discuss the Mies van der Rohe library as a parallel example.

  • audax minor on March 13, 2013 10:15 AM:

    Why would Stalin have needed a parking garage? He lived above the shop, his henchmen were driven to work, his subjects walked to work or took the bus or lived above the shop on some Godforsaken gulag.

    As for the paean to the FBI's latest Dear Leader, did he really need to double the headquarters headcount to not get his man, Osama bin Laden? After all, the CIA did that. Which maybe does prove the point that residing in marble palaces makes for an effective bureaucracy.

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