Two buildings in Washington feature prominently in CIA photo intelligence work

Placeholder while loading article actions

For the past few weeks in this space, we’ve hung around the Steuart Building at Fifth and K NW streets, the top floors of which housed the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center from 1956 to 1963. The place was buzzing in October 1962 when Soviet nuclear missiles were photographed in Cuba.

Even the best-kept secrets can be hard to keep. by Jim Allen dad, georgewas in the Steuart Building for a few years when he was part of a small Army Map Service contingent that worked there with the CIA.

Jim, from Fairfax Station, wrote: ‘He told me he once took a taxi there and when my father gave the address to the taxi driver, the taxi driver said, ‘Oh. You’re one of those CIA guys.

David Stinson said there was a CIA print shop on the top floor of the building, with print jobs laid out on pads.

“On our hot summer days in DC, the large, industrial-sized windows were kept open,” he wrote.

One day a huge summer storm hit. Papers flew out of the windows and fluttered to the ground below. Dave wrote: “The area was filled with government workers collecting the windblown documents!”

by Chris Hughes dad, John T. Hughesworked in the Steuart building, first as a photo interpreter for the Defense Intelligence Agency, then as a national security briefer.

Chris wrote: “Half our neighborhood in Annandale was working overtime in October 1962 – many of the neighbors were in the intelligence community. He didn’t say anything to my mom about why he couldn’t come home for those two weeks but said to fill the car with food and water and if anything happened take the kids and go west.

Once tensions have subsided, John F Kennedy wanted the nation to understand what had happened. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked John Hughes to give a televised prime-time security briefing. (You can find it on YouTube.)

John had to sort through images, find the ones that weren’t classified. The visual aids were projected onto a 10 foot high screen.

“He didn’t have a pointer long enough that day,” wrote Chris, of Herndon. “In order to point out a feature at the top of the screen, he used two fishing rods that someone had in the trunk of his car. With tape he could then point to the top of the screen.

Caroline Harwood worked at the Navy Yard in the 1970s and 1980s. His carpool passed a building near there that had “Photographic” in its name. Carolyn wrote: “Do you know if the CIA had an office there?

Answer Man suspects she is referring to Building 213, which became NPIC’s headquarters in 1963 after the organization overran the Steuart Building.

Unlike the Steuart Building, Building 213 – at the southeast corner of First and M SE Streets – was a government office building, more obviously secure. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

Jack O’Connora retired CIA intelligence officer and author of “NPIC: Seeing Secrets and Growing Leaders: A Cultural History of the National Center for Photographic Interpretation,” said that when an extension was built on the building between 1984 and 1988, the chain link fence was replaced with a wrought iron fence and brick-faced concrete columns.

“Also at this time the name of the organization was put above the entrance – National Center for Photographic Interpretation – so that your reader in the carpool would not be mistaken,” he wrote.

Morgan Birge II of Fredericksburg, Va., worked in Building 213 from its opening in January 1963 until the late 1990s. Among his memories, he looks Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” fame argues with a guard at the gate, trying to get the guard to admit it was a CIA facility. Wallace was instructed to call a phone number for more information.

Due to classified work in building 213, documents generated there were marked with their security classification. This included the cafeteria menu. “Maybe well deserved,” Morgan said. “The way the food was, they needed to do that.”

Morgan said that to hide the nature of the work going on inside 213, large yellow boxes of film supplies from Eastman Kodak were rewrapped in plain paper before delivery.

Not all work is related to national security. The US Geological Survey occupied part of the sixth floor, accessible by an exterior elevator that bypassed the secret stuff.

“This office investigated rocks brought back from the moon,” Morgan wrote.

Today, the descendant of the NPIC – the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – is in Springfield. Building 213 was demolished in the summer of 2014. Washington Nationals fans may recall walking past its location on the way to the ballpark. There was a trapeze school on the block that once housed the top secret facility.

Marjorie N. McClure