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Arlington: The Birthplace of NSA Surveillance

David RobargeToday’s National Security Agency is housed in a sprawling complex in Fort Meade, Md., but, according to a recent lecturer at Arlington Public Library, domestic surveillance by the NSA was perhaps born in Arlington.

David Robarge, the CIA’s Chief Historian, told a standing-room only crowd last week about the history of espionage in Arlington, which started at Arlington Hall during World War II.

Arlington Hall — located off Route 50 between S. Glebe Road and George Mason Drive — was the site of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), which became part of the newly-formed National Security Agency in the early 1950s, Robarge said. The Army bought Arlington Hall, which was formerly the site of the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, in 1943.

Arlington Hall was where the SIS launched a top-secret project called VENONA (which was declassified in the mid-1990s), helmed by Col. Carter Clark.

Clark realized “after World War II was over and we were done fighting the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians and others, we’d eventually be fighting the Russians,” Robarge said. “So he said ‘let’s start watching them very closely, looking at their intelligence communications to see what they’re up to inside the United States.'”

Arlington Hall (photo via Arlington Public Library)Robarge said Clark assembled a team of linguists and mathematicians in Arlington Hall to break Russian codes. In total, VENONA uncovered more than 300 operatives of the Soviet Union in the federal government, working in the White House, Justice Department and the Manhattan Project.

“If it was involved in national security and the war effort,” Robarge said, “the Soviets had some kind of penetration inside there.”

VENONA uncovered the spying of alleged traitors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and several others, none of whom could be convicted of treason because VENONA evidence was classified and “couldn’t be used to arrest anyone,” Robarge said.

VENONA was infiltrated by Soviet spies in the late 1940s and officially went dark in 1949, Robarge said. By then, however, the Army’s intelligence service was firmly established at Arlington Hall, which would one day also launch the Defense Intelligence Agency, which departed the facility in 1984 and for Bolling Air Force Base.

The Department of Defense transferred a portion of the facility to the Department of State, and in 1993 the National Foreign Affairs Training Center opened at Arlington Hall.

Photo (bottom) courtesy Arlington Public Library

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