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Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency Is Mysterious to its Neighbors

Newsline photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith
This entrance for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is closed for security reasons. (Newsline photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith)

By Kaukab Jhumra Smith
Maryland Newsline
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

BETHESDA, Md. - In the five years since he moved down the road, Tom Waldvogel has watched the sprawling brick campus of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency reinforce its entrance gate, increase its armed guards and add retractable gate posts.

In April, it opened an unmarked entrance on Sangamore Road and closed the old one to incoming traffic.

"I guess you just get used to it," said Waldvogel, who is unfazed by the added security. "I walk past it with my kids and they [the guards] wave to me."






Like many residents, Waldvogel, the president of the Brookes Lane civic association, said the agency strives to be a considerate neighbor and that he feels safer for the extra surveillance since the 9/11 attacks.

Others remain worried by the agency's concrete barricades and chain-link fencing and fear being targeted by terrorists.

But the agency may not be a concern -- or a neighbor -- for long.

Whatever happens under the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure recommendations from the Pentagon, the Bethesda-based intelligence agency is already planning to move.

The agency has more than 14,000 employees worldwide, several hundred in Bethesda, and it wants to consolidate many of its East Coast sites to a new 2.2 million-square-foot headquarters in the next few years, said Dave Burpee, an agency spokesman.

It contracted with a real estate services company in February to find land within 50 miles of the Pentagon, away from railroad tracks or main roads where someone could pull up a vehicle full of explosives, Burpee said. Many of its current sites face that danger, he said.

Agency officials refused to comment on the upcoming round of BRAC, and an official with the real estate firm seeking a new site would only say the agency is waiting for a Defense Department decision before it develops a strategy for a new home.

"Right now, anything you hear is pure speculation," said John Totushek, a senior vice president with the Staubach Co.

Speculation is what most area residents resort to when asked what their neighbor actually does.

"It's a question that some people don't ask or they gossip about it out in the parking lot," said Ann Finucane, office administrator at the neighboring Washington Waldorf School.

When agency employees pour out of the complex at lunch time to head to Wagshal's deli or Jerry's Subs and Pizza across the street, they remain close-mouthed about their jobs.

Miriam Baxter, a stay-at-home mom who drives by the agency three times a day, said she thinks the agency analyzes photographs of satellites. Beyond that, she is not sure.

Lawyer Joe Dennin has lived in neighboring Sumner long enough to know that before they were the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the brick rectangles on Sangamore Road housed the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which was formed in 1996 by cobbling together eight government organizations.

Before that, the buildings were the Defense Mapping Agency, and in the 1960s, the Army Map Service, Burpee said. The latest name change, made in November 2003, more accurately describes what the agency does.

"We don't just look at images, we don't just make maps," Burpee said. "We're dealing with powerful software that allows us to look at information in layers."

Geospatial intelligence, said spokesman Bill Byrne, analyzes physical features and "geographically referenced" activities on Earth in support of national security objectives.

Asked if neighbors are right to wonder at its secrecy, Byrne said only that the agency "is part of the intelligence community."

It is a part of the intelligence community that local business and county officials hope to keep around.

"They're instrumental as far as national defense, so I can't imagine that the military would shut them down" in the next round of BRAC, said Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

As for the agency's own search for a new home, Italiano said county and state economic development officials met with the agency recently to encourage them to focus on Bethesda, Montgomery County or the state.

But even if the agency were to leave, "Bethesda is a very dynamic and resilient business community," said Joe Shapiro, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.

Neighbors are not worrying -- yet -- about what might happen if the agency leaves.

Waldvogel said it is "difficult to say" what impact the agency's move might have, since he does not know if another government agency would take over the site or if it will be sold to a private company.

"There are so many ifs that I have no idea. I don't know the answer to that question," Waldvogel said.

Most think that if they lost the agency, they would be losing a good neighbor.

Finucane said that after 9/11, for example, the "guns and camouflage" security that arrived at the agency was off-putting and a little scary for some, but that agency staff "were certainly friendly when they were able to be."

"We actually felt that perhaps we were looked over and watched better than other people were at the time," said Brian Lake, who was administrator at the Waldorf school during the 2001 attacks.

For others, concerns are far more mundane -- usually involving traffic congestion, neighborhood appearance and ways to prevent nearby development.

The new entrance has already been dubbed "the new filling station" because of the guard post's overhanging design and lights, Finucane said. But the installation of a four-way traffic stop at the entrance annoys Sondra Bechhoefer, a resident of nearby Brookmont for more than 25 years, who passes by the intelligence agency while running errands.

"Traffic is backing up more than it did over at the other place at MacArthur (Boulevard)," Bechhoefer said. "Everybody has to wait for everybody to turn."

Others say the new stop signs show concern for neighborhood safety.

"Everyone cranks through Sangamore Road," Waldvogel said. "I have a 2- and a 3-1/2-year-old, so as many stop signs as they have on that street, I'm fine by it."

If the agency does move, at least some residents will feel relieved.

"From the traffic point of view, probably I'll be happier," Bechhoefer said. "Then you face the problem of who's going to move in there."


Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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