Thursday, July 29, 2010

My Secret America

Here's my ed note in Capital Business this week:

I read with special interest last week The Washington Post's three-part series on "Top Secret America" because what the paper described as "the capital of an alternative geography of the United States" is my home.

I reside in Columbia, near Fort Meade and the National Security Agency north of Washington. My father was one of those people who never talked about what he did, and he was hardly alone. It didn't really register with me until I went off to college that I seemed to know a lot of mathematicians and engineers and people who wore badges on chains around their necks.

I think I began to get a sense of our alternative geography when I spent a couple summers delivering flowers for a local shop. My trips would invariably take me to many of Columbia's nondescript buildings, some without posted addresses. The local maps were not reliable, so I learned to cast about for delis, bars and barber shops to ask for directions. Sometimes I guessed where I needed to go by spotting a security guard -- who in those pre-Sept. 11 days always seemed out of place in the sleepy suburbs.

True story: As a reporter, I also once spent a day at the site of what would become the National Business Park across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the NSA. I was there to do a story on a fellow who was hellbent on saving frogs from the bulldozer. He would spend hours collecting the amphibians so he could move them to safer wetlands elsewhere. His efforts didn't seem nearly as creepy as the van idling nearby, watching us.

It wasn't until March 9, 1991, that the NSA, after 37 years, erected a sign formally acknowledging its presence in our parts. I know: I wrote the story.

Friends often complain to me that Columbia seems so bland, and reflecting on it, perhaps that's how Top Secret America likes it. But to live there is to know better. It's hard to hide one's private passions, as many merchants will tell you. Just hang around the wine racks or the Nordstrom shoe department. I once did a story on a local landmark, an outdoor biker bar called Daniels that sits just yards off Route 1. It was late afternoon and many of the stools were filled with guys and gals in leather, their gleaming Harleys parked nearby. Several, it turned out, worked for one of the contractors in the area or the "Defense Department."

It's a special club, the national security industrial complex. During the telecom boom, I knew acquaintances who jumped from government service to funny-named start-ups specializing in fiber optic gadgetry. Many of them made out handsomely, like they saw the future before the rest of us.

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