When the Intercept revealed, last week, that a windowless, heavily-fortified Manhattan skyscraper is one of the the NSA’s main eavesdropping stations in the country, people were shocked – though I can’t imagine why. If there was ever a building where form followed function, this was it. This sinister, monolithic, unlit, windowless fortress is a cartoon version of an NSA headquarters; was their architect an 11 year old? (Consider, however, that this “hiding in plain sight” strategy worked for several decades. Maybe these psy-ops types know what they’re doing.)
It turns out that the NSA Manhattan skyscraper isn’t the only glaringly obvious, creepy-looking spy HQ. I can’t decide if the design of these buildings was a brilliant stroke of reverse psychology, or if our intelligence agencies are just that brazen. (“Yeah we’re listening in on your phone calls, complain about it and we’ll release the emails you wrote to your college girlfriend about how you still think about the weekend you spent at that Swiss enema retreat.”)
The aforementioned lower Manhattan NSA building, originally codenamed “Project X” (again – they’re not even trying to be un-creepy), can reportedly withstand an atomic blast, and has enough food inside to last 1500 people for two weeks. The building is kept unlit at night, making it look like a castle where an evil Disney sorceress would live. It’s across the street from the FBI building; did people really never make the connection between the FBI building and the windowless fortress across the street? Although I guess that even when you ride the subway in New York, you could strip naked and people still won’t make eye contact with you. Maybe this “New York factor” figured into their decision to locate this listening post in Manhattan.
According to leaked docs concerning the building, NSA visitors have to be shuttled to the building in a fake AT&T van (the building is the location of AT&T’s main relay for all international calls) and go through a rigorous screening process just to get into the heavily-guarded lobby. If they revived “Seinfeld,” there would definitely be an episode about George trying to use the public bathroom in this building.
Located in Fort Meade, Maryland, this sprawling complex of mirrored glass boxes looks like half-dystopian panopticon, and half-Midwestern dying mall where three of four anchor stores have fled, and the only thing left is Orange Julius and several kiosks that sell phone cases. If you grew up in DC or Maryland, you probably know someone who has a story about accidentally turning down the road leading to this building and being very firmly turned back by men in unmarked uniforms toting assault rifles.
What do they do here? Spy stuff, I guess. No one reallly knows, but you could probably imagine. These nighttime photos were taken from a helicopter by artist Trevor Paglen. I guess just writing to the IRS and asking to get audited wasn’t working, so he decided to take things to the next level.
THE NGA CAMPUS
The what? The National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency gathers intelligence from maps and satellite images, which means that they’re the reason you shouldn’t have a skylight in your bathroom. Their budget in 2013 was $5 billion; that buys a lot of magnifying glasses. It’s in Springfield, VA, so if you’re mad about these guys invading your privacy, at least you get the satisfaction of knowing they have to commute to Springfield every day.
The banality of this campus is hard to overstate. It looks like the campus of a two-year technical college in Florida, or maybe a crappy research hospital. Also – is that a green roof on the right and a rooftop greenhouse on the left? Nice to know the government is reducing their carbon footprint while shredding the Constitution.
THE NRO HEADQUARTERS
Again – the what? The most unnerving thing about all these agencies is that we’ve never even heard of them. This one is the Nation Reconnaissance Office, where they control all the spy satellites. This is probably the dream job my mother had in mind for me when she watched me spend most of my childhood playing video games.
The NRO has an annual budget of around $10 billion, and yet I can’t get a piddly little five figure student loan forgiveness. This campus, located in Chantilly (weird to think of a major seat of power wedged in there between Chik-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby), looks like a Native American casino I went to with my mom last year, or maybe a Latvian regional airport. Who would’ve thought empire would come with so many surface parking lots?
BY FRANKLIN SCHNEIDER