Nest of Spies

On October 22, 2014 · 1 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.

Spit

On June 26, 2014 · 2 Comments

I’ve certainly featured spits of land on 12MC before. They’ve come up in the context of Shingle Spits and in a very specialized sense in one of my favorite geographic forms, the always wonderful tombolo. I was able to visit a particularly nice example of a spit in Homer, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. I’ve discussed their formation by a process called longshore drift in an earlier article so I won’t go into detail about that either.



Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska (my own photo)

Rather, I became a lot more curious about the name. Why spit? The whole notion of spit — the saliva kind — seemed a bit unsettling. Maybe the two could have a common etymology, I pondered. Spit could be expelled from one’s mouth, and a sand spit could seem to be expelled from a nearby landmass in a similar fashion. It appeared somewhat plausible if a bit vulgar.

Fortunately the Intertubes included sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary that I could consult for such burning questions and curiosities. I took a look at spit, well in its written form not in its literal form of course. The saliva version came from the Old English spittan, similar to spew. It may have had an imitative origin as well, an onomatopoeia, sounding a lot like what it described. How pleasant.

Spit, the landform, may have derived from late Old English spitu, coming down from from Proto-Germanic and before that Proto-Indo-European, meaning a sharp point. A related usage would apply if one cooked meat on a spit. The word spike also fit here.

It appeared that two similarly-sounding words with different etymologies eventually converged. That was interesting for about thirty seconds. Let’s take a look at a few spits I’ve selected somewhat randomly because I found an answer quicker than I expected and I still have a lot of room left in this article.


Arabat Spit



Arabat Spit, Crimea

I decided to highlight the Arabat Spit on the Sea of Azov for a couple of reasons. First, it was considered the longest sand spit in the world at 110 kilometres (68 miles). That in itself was sufficient justification. Second, it became a part of disputed territory with the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Was it part of Ukraine? Was it part of the Russian Federation? I won’t wade into that morass except to note its superlative size and peculiar situation. This is not a political blog.


Inch Strand, Ireland


Inch Beach
Inch Beach by Jim, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Spits can exist anywhere longshore drift takes hold. The process often created great beaches, as happened at Inch Strand (or Inch Beach) on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland (map). An inch would seem to be an unsuitable unit of measurement for this sizable sandy expanse so I’ll assume it came down from something Gaelic. I featured this spot solely because I hope to travel onto the Dingle Peninsula later this summer, and if so, maybe I’ll stop at Inch and take a photograph for the 12MC horde.


Sandspit Beach, Pakistan


Sandspit, Karachi
Sandspit, Karachi by Hemanshu Kumar, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Finally I had to mention Sandspit Beach outside of Karachi, Pakistan along Hawke’s Bay on the Arabian Sea (map). As one source noted, "One thing unique about these waters which you won’t find in any part of the world are the horse and camel rides." I’m sure there were many other places where one could ride a horse on a spit (I even saw that happening on the Homer Spit) so the camel would be the thing that made it special. Did that make Sandspit Beach unique? Where there other spits with camel rides? Do the camels spit on people, as camels sometimes do? Who knows. Let’s proclaim it as if its all true and have the Intertubes work it out.

I confess that I featured Sandspit Beach for a completely different reason. I wanted to add a Pakistan push-pin to the 12MC Complete Index map. Unbelievably, until today, after more than a thousand articles, the Twelve Mile Circle had never focused a single topic on Pakistan. Today was your lucky day, Pakistan.

Imagine dodging camel dung while looking for a sandy spot to lay a towel, though.

Longest Distance – Simplest Directions

On September 29, 2013 · 7 Comments

It’s Sunday, a day to relax, so I thought I’d dispense with an article that required actual research and focused on something that might exercise a different part of the brain. It’s kind-of silly and pointless although it offered an opportunity for plenty of 12MC audience participation. I wondered, as I drove to my destination, about the longest distance I could drive without a GPS talking to me. For some of you that would be infinite because you don’t use a GPS on principal, and I respect that. I still find the device useful as a companion to a range of the other tools including my own common sense. For those who choose to use a GPS then, about how long could one drive without hearing a single voice command? I know I’ve seen instructions that said something like "continue on Route XYZ" for greater than a hundred miles on my various road trips.

That can’t be the longest. Obviously I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to test a solution in the wild so I decided to use Google Maps as a proxy. The rules would be simple. In fact, there would be only one rule: the written directions must have a single command equivalent to keep on truckin’. Point your vehicle, don’t turn, don’t deviate, don’t stop, don’t bear right or left, don’t drive aboard a ferry, don’t negotiate a roundabout, just continue to follow the single line of instruction.



I-40 Between Barstow, CA and Oklahoma City, OK, USA

Google Maps reserved its craziest distances for the United States. I didn’t know if that was a Google thing or if it was a characteristic of the U.S. interstate highway system of very well-developed motorways through extremely depopulated areas. Interstate 40 turned out to be the grand champion for a segment between Barstow, California and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Here were the complete Google driving instructions:

  • 1. Head east on I-40

That’s all. For 1,215 miles — 1,953 kilometres (¹), head east. Well, it also noted helpfully that one would pass through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas before entering Oklahoma. However that didn’t change the basic premise. Assuming one never had to stop for gasoline, for rest or for a biological imperative, the GPS unit would remain silent for more than twelve hundred miles and nearly nineteen hours at normal highway speeds. Theoretically.

There were numerous extreme occurrences in the United States with a single written instruction provided in Google Maps. All of them were longer than 621 miles — 1,000 kilometres. The segments are a bit of a pain to isolate so you can either take my word for it or go into Google Maps and tease them out yourself. Remember, Google seems to offer slightly different results to different people as well as changing conclusions over time so your results may vary.

  • I-40: 1,215 miles (1,953 km)
  • I-90: 1,135 miles (1,827 km)
  • I-70: 1,105 miles (1,778 km)
  • I-80: 1,053 miles (1,695 km)
  • I-10: 974 miles (1,568 km)
  • I-5: 855 miles (1,376 km)
  • I-90 + I-94: 824 miles (1,326 km) followed by 823 miles (1,325 km)
  • I-94: 824 miles (1,326 km)
  • I-81: 682 miles (1,098 km)
  • I-26: 649 miles (1,044 km)
  • I-15: 647 miles (1,041 km)

The Interstate 90 and Interstate 94 discovery was particularly interesting, with back-to-back 800+ mile segments. It would have stretched 1,647 miles (2,651 km) if it weren’t for an instruction to "keep left to continue on I-94 E" outside of Billings, Montana. That last item brought up a good point. I’ve only checked these distances going in one direction, generally west to east or north to south. Distances could vary if one flipped directions. I’ll leave those stones to be turned by the 12MC audience. Maybe someone will discover a result that blows my findings out of the water.


Russia



M58 Between Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai and Uglegorsk, Amur Oblast, Russia

I figured, the larger the nation the greater the probability of a single road stretching the farthest, right? What better place to start than Russia? The best example I uncovered occurred between Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai and Uglegorsk, Amur Oblast, on Highway M58, a part of the Trans-Siberian Highway.

  • 1. Head east on Amyp/M58. Continue to follow M58

That was the single line of driving instruction for a distance of 1,337 kilometres (831 miles). It seemed like a glitch, though. Why would Google specify an odd rectangular gyration on an otherwise clear stretch of road that would require one to turn at Uglegorsk?

I had to turn to Yandex for a decent satellite image. Further research indicated that Uglegorsk was a closed urban settlement that was originally constructed to serve a nearby base for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. It’s also the future site of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, now under construction. It would make sense to create a checkpoint on the M58 highway right at that spot.

Russian route M58, the Amur Highway, would continue uninterrupted for another 754 kilometres (469 mi) without the unusual detour at Uglegorsk, and the combined length would become 2,091 kilometres (1,300 mi). That would make it longer than the I-40 stretch in the United States. I’ll assume that the Russian space program is slightly more important than the nation being crowned a grand champion of silent GPS driving distances.

An interesting bit of trivia about M58; it wasn’t completed until 2010. As noted in the St. Petersburg Times,

It is the last link in a road system that stretches from Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle on the Barents Sea, and Kaliningrad, on the border with Poland, to Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean… Services — filling stations, hotels and auto repair shops — are rare on the highway, and lengthy sections do not have access to electricity.


Australia



Great Northern Highway Between Wubin and Port Hedland, WA, Australia

I turned to another large nation with wide open spaces for the next example and found a decent example on Australia’s Great Northern Highway.

  • 1. Head north-east on Great Northern Hwy/National Highway 95. Continue to follow Great Northern Hwy

The directions continued that way for another 1,323 kilometres (822 mi) through Western Australia, from Wubin to an intersection with the North West Coastal Highway south of Port Hedland, near the Indian Ocean coastline. I knew that Australia had some amazing road distances so I wasn’t surprised at all by this result.

Other Contenders

My unscientific examination of other nations yielded additional single instruction driving distances extending more than a thousand kilometres.

  • Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway: 1,301 kilometres (808 mi)
  • China’s G45: 1,078 kilometres (670 mi)
  • Algeria’s N1: 1,044 kilometres (649 mi)

Feel free to try different locations, or flip-flop directions, or use other online map sites.


Completely Unrelated

Here we go again, facing a U.S. government shutdown because of political failures to approve a budget. I reviewed what I wrote in March 2011, Tourist Options During a Government Shutdown, and found it to be up-to-date for the most part. Sadly, baseball won’t be an option in Washington this October however I’m sure there are plenty of other recreational or entertainment possibilities.


(¹) I’ll reference miles first for distances in the United States since that’s the measure used there, and flip to kilometres for locations where that’s the standard. As I’ve noted before, I don’t know why the U.S. won’t switch to the metric system. No and I don’t understand why the U.S continues to have a unit of currency that’s one-hundredth of a dollar either. What can I say?

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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