WASHINGTON -- At a time when taxpayers are being socked millions of dollars a day for Iraq and national security initiatives, the FBI -- America's front line against terrorism -- is spending 32 million on a new subheadquarters on a onetime Northern Virginia horse farm that is being dubbed the "Taj Mahal" by its own agents because of its opulence.
The building will house 150 agents and various support personnel who are an extension of the bureau's Washington Field Office and who are responsible for the southern suburbs of the nation's capital. The justification for this move is that the close-in Fairfax County space that had housed the operations had become too cramped and that changing demographics made moving further south attractive.
But here's the rub: Most of the bureau's business in this area still is in the densely populated environs just on either side of the beltway. The agents now will be miles and many traffic jams (not to mention gallons of gas) away in Prince William County at the very edge of the metro complex. While that area has grown substantially, it will be several decades before it reaches the size and importance of the closer suburbs.
This once again emphasizes an FBI trend to move out of traditional government space both for security and to further establish its independent image -- one removed from the Department of Justice. That concept was first established when the bureau departed the department's Pennsylvania Avenue building and set up shop in a monolithic fortress-like structure it constructed down the block, removing itself from the shadow of the attorney general and his staff.
Excess of funds
In the late 90s the bureau, because of congressional indulgence, found itself with an excess of funds that permitted it to begin abandoning federal building space it shared with other agencies throughout the country. It contended that the Oklahoma City bombing had shown these structures to be security risks. It began constructing its own field and residential office buildings from coast to coast, including even in Anchorage, considered one of the more remote posts. One residential office that was assigned responsibility for only a few counties in a Midwestern state moved into an elaborate structure that has remained half empty when there was ample space in a nearby federal building, prompting one wag to crack that "they were building for the new century -- the 25th century."
Most of this questionable use of money appears to have fit not only the bureau's paranoia, but also former director Louis Freeh's idea of a cabinet level FBI separate from and equal with the department. His efforts to abolish and absorb other federal law enforcement agencies and to establish a large international presence were no secret.
The FBI's building spree has caused increasing concerns about the creation of a national police force with sweeping power, a concept this nation has sought to avoid despite the bureau's steady encroachment on responsibilities assigned other state, local and federal agencies including drugs, firearms, explosives, gang organizations and even prostitution. The one area with which it seems not to be terribly comfortable is the most important -- counter intelligence. Official inquiries since 9-11 have found the bureau seriously deficient in that area despite promises of reform.
It seems amazing that the bureau's keen sense of public relations would not foresee bad publicity over the announcement of a new building with soaring atrium and terrazzo floors and engraved elevator doors particularly at a time when other federal agencies have trouble finding the funds to carry out their efforts in fighting rising levels of violent crime. The 15-acre campus will have jogging and hiking trails and picnic tables, for heaven's sake. Even anonymous agents quoted in news reports of the project voiced some embarrassment while others expressed frustration over the prospect of having to travel as far as 40 miles to carry out some duties.
The responsibility for this arrogant disdain for fiscal prudence lies both with Congress and the administration.
Perhaps the agents housed in the Taj Mahal on the former farm can ride their horses to and from town when things get jammed up on Route 66 or I-95, which happens daily at most any hour. But then they would have to build an elaborate, bombproof stable in which to house them.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.