For the annual CIA holiday party, security was tighter than usual. Guests underwent background checks after responding to their invitations, but still a cadre of CIA security officers lined the entrance road to headquarters at Langley. Dressed in black uniforms, the officers carried M4s and looked decidedly unfestive.
Inside the main lobby, while a trio of musicians played seasonal tunes, a long queue formed to meet and greet Director Leon Panetta and Deputy Director Michael Morell and their wives.
The only somber note was the memorial wall, where 12 stars have been added since last year. Each of the now 102 stars commemorates the life and service of CIA officers who have died trying to protect us. Some of their names have never been made public.
FBI Director Robert Mueller likes to joke that if he had as much money as the CIA, he would put on fabulous Christmas parties, too. Actually, the food at the CIA’s holiday party is prepared and served by agency dining room employees under the direction of executive chef Fred DeFilippo, a graduate of the other CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. It’s cheaper — not to mention safer — that way.
This year’s party was as splendid as ever, featuring everything from fried Rappahannock oysters, shrimp grilled on skewers, assorted pâtés, smoked salmon, assorted quesadillas with guacamole, and roast beef and ham carved to order to meat balls with tomato sauce, a bow to Panetta’s Italian heritage.
Among the several hundred guests were White House counterterrorism chief
John Brennan, former CIA directors Michael Hayden (pictured) and James Woolsey, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and her husband Alan Greenspan, and Catherine Herridge of Fox News. Bravo, Panetta’s Irish Setter, made a brief appearance.
There is no better description of CIA headquarters than in my wife Pamela Kessler’s “Undercover Washington: Where Famous Spies Lived, Worked and Loved.”
Editor's Note: Get Pam Kessler's book. Go here now.
In the spirit of the holidays, she has given me permission to share some excerpts:
Try going to the CIA when they’re not expecting you, and you will be sternly questioned and asked to leave. So, head on home, log on to www.cia.org, and settle for the virtual tour.
Ah, but if you’re on the list! If they have your social security number on the day’s appointment roster, that same stern guard will be all boyish smiles. Just inside the gate, which looks a lot like Customs, there is a little stopgap measure — a traffic light. If it turns red, people do stop. If they don’t, the steel barrier that is poised to rise from the roadbed will stop their cars for them.
Everyone has a fantasy of what the CIA is like — even some employees, who persist in calling headquarters “the campus.” No ivy is detectable on the walls, however. Driving along the entrance road, one expects to hear a gun shot (target practice, surely) or be startled by guerrilla trainees jumping out from the rhododendrons. Actually, that sort of training takes place in Camp Peary, near Williamsburg.
One envisions a labyrinth. But the CIA plant is straightforward, at least from the outside, like a candy factory. There are just two main office buildings, one occupied in 1961 and another in 1988, after the agency outgrew the first. Among other lesser buildings on the grounds, a strangely steaming edifice turns out merely to be the backup power plant.
There is The Bubble, also known as the auditorium, and the water tower, which is just a water tower. A modern house mysteriously out of character with the rest of the architecture turns out to be the day-care center. (The children are known by numbers.)
The lobby is full of appropriate symbolism and inspirational messages. On the left is the robust statue of “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the OSS. No one is seen to genuflect, but it could happen. They used an old belt of his to get the right girth measurement. The statue was delivered recumbent on a pickup truck.
The CIA’s white marble lobby sets a tone of reserved austerity. A serious place. No one gets in without going through one of a battery of special gates, putting in an ID card and punching in a code. Even then the cards don’t always work, and sometimes an arm of the gate sticks. The visitor’s ID card is unmistakable, with a large orange V and the words “Visitor Escort Required.” Everyone wears ID here, all the time.
Inside, one imagines dark empty halls. The cloistered dens of pipesmoking men scheming cosmic agendas into their drifting plumes of smoke. The laboratories of eccentric wild-haired geniuses leaning over their latest fiendish device. And the offices of chilly bureaucrats, immaculately dressed, smooth-faced. If this is a true picture, it is not immediately visible. Most things here are done with computers, anyway.
Even when you do get past the ID check, there are only a few approved stops for the visitor. Only one of the three cafeterias, for instance. The second is for employees only. The third is for undercover officers. Nobody can eat with them.
A final note: Since the book was published, the restricted dining room has been abolished, and the CIA now has three dining rooms plus a cafeteria. No matter. As Pam says in her book, “This is a tour that no one can confirm or deny.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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