Nest of Spies

On October 22, 2014 · 0 Comments

I’ve mentioned several times before that geo-oddities can be extremely localized, and I’ve used my own hometown of Arlington County, Virginia as an ongoing example. I created a bicycle ride over the weekend that highlighted a specific theme that I’ve not discussed before. Being located so close to the nation’s capital, Arlington County has been a hotbed of spies, espionage, and various cat-and-mouse games between the United States and the former Soviet Union (and now Russia).

A little Interubes sleuthing uncovered a few of the more noteworthy events and places in Arlington. I was amazed at the amount of activity that took place behind the scenes and I’m sure only a small portion ever made it into public view. Naturally I had to visit some of the known locations in person, and readers can too. I produced a map that begins and ends at the Ballston Metro Station. The complete route is about 10 miles (16 km).

All photos are my own unless otherwise labeled.


The Early Cold War


Arlington Hall
Arlington Hall as it Now Appears

Arlington Hall began as a girls’ school in the 1920’s. However, a ready-made facility with easy access to the Pentagon sounded really attractive to the government. The military seized and closed the school during the Second World War as vital to the American war effort. It became Arlington Hall Station, a headquarters of the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, where cryptologists focused on cracking Japanese codes. The Army decided to retain the property after the war because of an emerging new threat, the Cold War. Eventually the operation became part of the newly-formed National Security Agency.

Soviet efforts to penetrate Arlington Hall began almost immediately, and succeeded.

The secrets were held from everyone except the Russians… the first decrypt of Soviet KGB messages sent from New York was witnessed by Bill Weiband, the NKVD agent. The secrets were later officially shared with Kim Philby, the phlegmatic British MI-6 liaison officer to the new CIA in 1949, when he visited Arlington Hall.

Many of the Arlington Hall workers lived in the adjacent garden apartments of Buckingham and the single family homes of the Arlington Forest neighborhood, and Soviet spies flocked there too. An off-premise Officers Club existed at the old Henderson Estate (now the site of the Lubber Run Community Center, map). Officials feared inebriated officers might say things that should remain silent so the club was moved onto campus. That didn’t halt the flow of sensitive information from deeply-embedded moles though.

Cryptology operations moved to more secure facilities in the 1980’s. One part of the Arlington Hall campus now hosts the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and the other holds the US Army National Guard Readiness Center. That was the official word, anyway.

There were also rumors of Soviet and/or East German operations coordinated from a condominium building at 1515 S. Arlington Ridge Road (Street View). I had no idea whether that was true or not, although Arlington Ridge Road did make an appearance on Twelve Mile Circle in a completely different context a few years ago.


Aldrich Ames


Aldrich Ames House
The Aldrich Ames Residence

Aldrich Ames serves a lifelong prison sentence at the Allenwood high security prison in Pennsylvania, as he has done for the last two decades. He had been a counterintelligence officer in the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 30 years when he was finally exposed and arrested in 1994. His job focused on targeting people who worked at the Soviet Embassy to see if they could be converted into moles. Behind the scenes, he sold information about the identity of Soviet spies who then promptly faced death or simply disappeared.

The CIA and FBI learned that Russian officials who had been recruited by them were being arrested and executed. These human sources had provided critical intelligence information about the USSR, which was used by U.S. policy makers in determining U.S. foreign policy. Following analytical reviews and receipt of information about Ames’s unexplained wealth, the FBI opened an investigation in May 1993.

Ames was arrested at his Arlington home, at 2512 N Randolph Street.

The Arlington County property records noted ownership by Aldrich H. & Rosario C. Ames. The property was seized by the Federal government and sold in 1995.


Robert Hanssen



A Dead Drop Used by Robert Hanssen

Robert Hanssen worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his 2001 arrest, and now serves a life sentence at Florence ADMAX prison in South Carolina. Like Ames, Hanssen sold secrets primarily for greed, and he exposed informants buried deep within the Soviet military system. Hanssen used a number of "dead drops," or inconspicuous places where he could leave documents and receive payments. At least one of those secret hiding spots was located in Arlington.

I used to take my children to the Long Branch Nature Center when they were younger (map). Little did I suspect that it had a hidden historical past. There, under the edge of a wooden outdoor amphitheater (photo), Russian agents left a paper bag filled with $50,000 in cash for Hanssen. The FBI was already on Hanssen’s tail at that point and watched the location for several days. Hanssen never showed-up although he was captured at another dead drop a little later. Upon arrest he reportedly exclaimed, "What took you so long?"


Operation Ghost Stories



FBI Video of a Dead Drop in Arlington

Just when everyone thought the Cold War was relegated to the distant past it reemerged from the underground in 2010, surfaced by the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories. As the FBI stated,

Our agents and analysts watched the deep-cover operatives as they established themselves in the U.S. (some by using stolen identities) and went about leading seemingly normal lives—getting married, buying homes, raising children, and assimilating into American society… The SVR was in it for the long haul. The illegals were content to wait decades to obtain their objective, which was to develop sources of information in U.S. policymaking circles.

The ten Russian deep undercover agents that were arrested — including two who lived in Arlington — were not convicted of any crime. They were allowed to return to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange; of spies traded for spies. Both sides continued the cloak-and-dagger.

The FBI released a large compendium of documents from their investigation in 2011 including a video of an actual drop taking place in an unnamed Arlington park, a bag containing $5,000. There was speculation about the actual location at the time. It could have been one of several Arlington locations because of the lack of visual clues in the video, although most signs pointed to Glencarlyn Park (map). Fittingly, that would be less than a mile from Hanssen’s dead drop. I looked around and couldn’t find an exact match although the bridges there were constructed in a similar manner (photo). I’ll keep looking.

Maybe I’ll find a bag of cash.

Salty, Saltier, Saltiest, Salton

On October 19, 2014 · 1 Comments

Loyal reader "Lyn" contacted Twelve Mile Circle a few weeks ago with a stack of digital images from a recent road trip to California’s Salton Sea. This has long been on my list of places I’d love to see some day, and I still hope that will happen, so I was pleased to receive the photos. These pictures plus the text I’ve created around them will have to keep me content until the day I can visit the Salton Sea in person.

This wasn’t the first time Lyn contributed to 12MC either. I mentioned receiving a web hit from Cameroon awhile ago. Yes, that was Lyn who happened to be in Douala at the time and knew I’d appreciate the ping.



Salton Sea

I’m fortunate to add Lyn to the very selective list of 12MC readers who have provided material that became full articles. All photographs belong to Lyn and are used with permission.


Salton Sea


Salton Sea

According to the Salton Sea History Museum, this geographic feature was actually an extension of the Gulf of California until about four million years ago. The Colorado River washed enough silt downstream over numerous millennia to cut the tip off from the Gulf. This left behind a large, deep depression now known as the Salton Sink. The floor of the empty sink extended far below sea level, down to -226 feet (-69 metres). By comparison Death Valley — the lowest spot in North America — measured -282 ft (-86 m) so the Salton Sink compared rather favorably as the second lowest spot on the continent.


Dead Fish at Salton Sea

The Salton Sea was an artificial creation and an accident. People diverted the Colorado River to irrigate parts of the sink, and for a time around the turn of the previous century the area blossomed with cropland. The river busted from its man-made diversion in 1905 after it ran higher than usual, and flooded uncontrollably into the sink. Engineers couldn’t completely halt the breach for two years and by then the spill grew to 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 km X 24 km) within the depression, and formed the Salton Sea.

However it was an endorheic basin without an outlet to the ocean. The salinity increased over time, and continues to increase, making it difficult for the few fish species that survived there to thrive in ever worsening conditions.


Bombay Beach


Bombay Beach Salton Sea

That naturally brought up a legitimate point. Why would 12MC, or anyone for that matter, want to experience the Salton Sea in person? I supposed it had to be because every description I’ve ever seen of the few settlements still clinging to its shores undoubtedly referenced the phrase "post-apocalyptic" (e.g., Salton Sea: From Relaxing Resort to Skeleton-Filled Wasteland).

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Salton Sea held so much promise after its accidental creation while the water remained fresh, before salt built up and poisonous farm runoff added to the disaster. Bombay Beach was envisioned as an inland resort, a beachfront paradise, and was constructed in such a manner. Now it’s mostly a ruin, a desolate place strewn with graffiti and abandoned belongings in the searing Sonoran Desert by a fetid saline lake, a photographer’s paradise and an oddball’s dream. A handful of outcasts still live among the detritus adding character to the scene. Now does it make sense?


Slab City


Slab City Salton Sea

Harsh conditions created strange situations out there on the fringes of society. Slab City started as a marine corps training facility during the Second World War: Camp Dunlap they called it. The marines had no need for remote camps in the middle of the desert after the war so Camp Dunlap closed and the government dismantled it, leaving behind only the cement foundations of various buildings.

Seasonal campers in large recreational vehicles learned about the wide selection of perfectly level concrete slabs and figured that a favorable wintertime climate made this an attractive spot to park for a few months every year. Slab City came without amenities, however people remained there as long as they wanted for free. "And now thousands of visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter."


Salvation Mountain


Salvation Mountain Salton Sea

I couldn’t be sure if the isolation created unique behaviors or if people with those traits saw the Salton Sea as a beacon and arrived there from elsewhere, or a little bit of both. No matter the case, this location provided a perfect backdrop for something as wonderful as Salvation Mountain by Leonard Knight (1931–2014).

Leonard’s passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects… Its 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint and is truly unique in the United States and probably the world.

I barely scratched the surface of the Salton Sea’s weirdness or Lyn’s collection of photographs. I need to save a few surprises for later in case I ever make it out there.

Convergence at the End

On October 8, 2014 · 2 Comments

A weird pattern emerged as I researched an article a couple of months ago and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was it a geo-oddity or simply an oddity? Would it fit within the subject matter of 12MC? Would some readers find it too bizarre? Ultimately I decided I could focus on a tenuous geographic connection and shoehorn the topic into a suitable article.

Consider the following list of people and determine their commonality: Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Andy Warhol, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Joey Ramone. Think about it for a moment if you’d like or continue reading and let the answer reveal itself. Being a native New Yorker might be helpful.

The answer wasn’t a list of attendees from the world’s strangest cocktail party. It was something more permanent. Would it help if I mentioned that I was working on Presidential Death Locations when I encountered the list?

They all died at the same hospital.


NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital


Joey Ramone, Godfather of Punk Rock
Joey Ramone, Godfather of Punk Rock by Tony Fischer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The topic was morbid enough that I considered saving it for Halloween. However I tried something like that last year and apparently I enjoyed the resulting article a lot more than the Twelve Mile Circle audience. It didn’t receive much attention and it fell pretty flat, just another example demonstrating my inability to predict audience reactions.

Indeed, a big list of famous people all died at the same hospital in New York City (map). I found that fascinating. Maybe some of you did too, maybe the rest of you did not.

I discovered two more salient points as I continued with my research. First, Wikipedia produced some rather remarkable lists when I searched it for "notable hospital deaths." Admittedly, I stole liberally from Wikipedia because nobody had yet created a definitive collection of celebrity deaths sorted by hospital (and here I though everything was available on the Intertubes). Second, very few hospitals had a meaningful collection of notable deaths. Clusters were confined to places where famous people of various stripes congregated during their lifetimes, limited primarily to New York City and the greater Los Angeles area. That made sense.


Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, New York


Wendell Wilkie campaigns in Mass.
Wendell Wilkie campaigns in Mass. by Boston Public Library, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lenox Hill Hospital (map), a teaching hospital for various universities and also in Manhattan, began in the 19th Century as the German Dispensary. The name changed to Lenox Hill during the First World War when it was fashionable to whitewash every possible remote connection to Germany. Lenox Hill didn’t have quite the eclectic pedigree of notable deaths as displayed by NewYork–Presbyterian although it still had a pretty impressive spread including Wendell Willkie, Ed Sullivan, Alvin Ailey, Alger Hiss and Nipsey Russell (politician, showman, dancer, spy and comedian).


Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, California


Walt Disney Statue
Walt Disney statue at Disney World. My own photo.

Quite predictably, celebrity deaths at hospitals in the Los Angeles metropolitan area tended to skew towards show business personalities. That still provided a wide spectrum. Case in point, if one were to consider a fictional dinner party in the afterlife, imagine a guest list including Walt Disney, Corey Haim, John Ritter, and Ronnie James Dio. They all passed away at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank (map). The location was particularly convenient for Walt Disney as he sought treatment for lung cancer. The hospital was directly across the street from Walt Disney Studios.

John Ritter had the added distinction of being born at the hospital and passing away at the same place 54 years later. I imagined the list of celebrities who arrived into this world and departed for the great beyond at the same location must have been rather short. That’s your 12MC trivia for the day.


Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California


003la
003la by Mike Atherton, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Oddly enough, Twelve Mile Circle featured Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (map) in a previous article, Comedy Duos, that focused on the intersection of two streets, Burns and Allen. As I noted at the time, "The intersection’s full name was N George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive. Burns and Allen were major benefactors of the hospital."

Cedars-Sinai was dubbed "Hollywood’s Glamour Hospital" by the Hollywood Reporter. Its list of celebrity patients stretched for pages and naturally some of them never recovered. Groucho Marx, Andy Kaufman, Eazy-E, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine all spent their final moments there.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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