A Refuge for Spies Opens at CIA Headquarters

From a Wall Street Journal story by Warren P. Strobel headlined “A Refuge for Spies Opens at CIA Headquarters”:

LANGLEY, Va.—It looks much like any modern gym on the inside. Except there are no cellphones, no Kindles or tablets, virtually no electronics of any kind, and only muted conversation among the smattering of patrons engaged in late-morning workouts.

“You don’t know who’s next to you,” said one of those patrons, a counterterrorism analyst.

The analyst was exercising at the spy agency’s ultramodern “field house,” a stone’s throw from the Central Intelligence Agency’s hulking headquarters buildings on its fortified Northern Virginia campus.

The 43,000-square-foot facility opened March 14, ending a more than two-decade quest to replace a pair of cramped and moldering basement gyms and finally bring the agency up to par with the athletic facilities found at military bases and on Capitol Hill.

Congress, which lavished funds on gyms for the U.S. armed forces, for years balked at doing likewise for a civilian intelligence agency. The CIA gym symbolizes a recognition by its leaders that the spy agency needs to focus more on its people after over two decades of playing front-line roles in conflict zones around the world.

“The pressures and strains faced by our officers and their families are unrelenting—with two decades shaped by counterterrorism threats followed by two years of COVID,” CIA Director William Burns wrote in response to questions about the new gym.

“As an organization, we have learned that in order to maintain a high-performing, resilient organization, we need to take care of our officers,” he wrote.

The new gym, named Langley Field House, is intended to help the spy agency attract and retain workers as it competes with the private sector for technological expertise, those involved in its design and construction said. It sports the latest in accessibility features to accommodate the CIA’s disabled employees, including military personnel who retired and joined the CIA after being wounded in U.S. counterterrorism wars.

There are wheelchair-accessible sinks and showers in the locker rooms; Braille instructions on workout equipment and gym directories; and charging stations for electric scooters.

The Wall Street Journal was given the first media tour of the Field House, as well as a look at two ancient, now-closed gyms, one each in the basement of the CIA’s Original Headquarters Building and New Headquarters Building. The latter have the feel of a high-school physical-education class, with cramped, dimly lighted spaces, ancient lockers and a make-do running track that snakes through an office hallway.

“It was disappointing, the lack of resources the agency had put into the old gyms,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired senior CIA operations officer, while praising the agency’s leaders for replacing them.

“For a long time, the agency did not have that commitment to wellness and resiliency,” he said.

The CIA declined requests to disclose the new gym’s cost, citing the agency’s classified budget. A previous proposal for a new facility would have cost an estimated $15 million to $25 million, the Journal reported in 2012.

The drive for a new gym dates to at least the mid-1990s and the Clinton administration. David Petraeus, a retired general and fitness buff who took over as CIA director in 2011 under President Barack Obama, made a major push to replace the old gyms—and failed.

“I felt that the world class workforce of the Agency should have a fitness center that was commensurate with the quality of our people,” Gen. Petraeus said. “In short, we tried but were never successful in gaining the resources for such a facility.”

The repeated delays, a former official said, were partly due to the four separate congressional committees needed to sign off on the funding, and a Capitol Hill culture giving priority to the U.S. military. The CIA’s lawyers nixed proposals to seek private donations.

In 2020, Congress finally agreed to pay for the gym, and work began under CIA Director Gina Haspel during the Trump administration.

The gym was constructed on what had been a portion of a CIA parking lot, prompting one proposed name for the building in an internal naming contest: Where The Parking Used to Be. Others included Super Secret Spy Gym and Gym 007.

Langley Field House is designed to be an oasis from job pressures that include sudden deployments halfway across the world, all-nighters when a world crisis hits or viewing and analyzing gruesome images of terrorist attacks, the officials said.

The building is screened in part by trees that host singing birds and is connected to headquarters by a small wooden bridge across a stream. Inside, there are no “reminders of mission,” in CIA parlance—no security posters, no CIA logos, no paintings or photographs celebrating the agency’s derring-do.

The counterterrorism analyst who was working out one recent morning uses a wheelchair as the result of a car accident. He said that he couldn’t use the old agency facilities and that going to a private gym meant an hour-long drive and difficult encounters. “They would look at you like you have three head,” he said. He and other CIA workers with disabilities, including those from an employee group called Wayfinders, said they had a voice in designing and equipping the gym.

The analyst demonstrated a machine that allows him to pull down on weights—140 pounds in this case—for an upper-body workout without being drawn out of his wheelchair or tipping it over.

Langley Field House also has special features designed to meet the digital security requirements of a spy agency. The small snack bar, called the Fuel Station, doesn’t allow credit-card purchases. There is a rack of reading material—everything from France’s Le Monde to a motorcycle magazine—to replace banned electronic reading devices. The building, like other CIA facilities, is shielded against electronic eavesdropping.

Officials who oversaw construction included Betsy Davis, the agency’s deputy director for support, who is responsible for CIA facilities, security, travel and human resources.

“We protect our people wherever they are,” she said.

Warren P. Strobel covers intelligence and security in the Journal’s Washington bureau. He has traveled with seven U.S. secretaries of state and two presidents. He and his colleagues’ work at Knight Ridder Newspapers challenging the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq was featured in the 2018 Rob Reiner movie, “Shock and Awe.”

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