Saturday, April 27, 2019

The NCIJTF Finds a Home in Chantilly

The story here is about two buildings built in Chantilly, VA with defense contractors in mind and how those buildings got to be leased by the FBI to house it's growing Cyber division, and the NCIJTF specifically (if you want to understand what the NCIJTF is, read this).

The government leases buildings all the time, but the most sensitive operations seem to take place on government owned property. CIA HQ is it's own government owned campus in McLean, NSA HQ is inside of Fort Meade, DIA HQ is at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Even in Chantilly itself, there is the government owned National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) complex.

FBI Cyber is certainly working with sensitive intelligence, yet a leasing arrangement was chosen in this case. Why did they choose to lease instead of own? Hard to say for sure. But I trace it back to the hacker mindset of being incognito. Holed up in a non-descript business park with no signage or even documentation saying you're actually there.

Two buildings are completed in Chantilly and sit empty

The buildings which are the subject of this article are called Mission Ridge I and Mission Ridge II and they are located at 15020 and 15030 Conference Center Dr, Chantilly, VA. You can look it up on Google Maps. Heck, you can even lease office space there, as of the writing of this article!

The overall site looks like this:
Mission Ridge Complex

The two 150,000 square foot buildings were completed in October 2007, one month ahead of schedule and "on budget" according to the Prime Contractor. It was owned by The Carlyle Group and even LEED certified. From the press release: "Terrazzo flooring, wood veneer and decorative metal ceilings highlight the main lobbies."

The most interesting part of these buildings is that they were designed specially for either federal agencies or defense contractors. As in, much extra time and expense were spent making sure these complied with "secure facility" requirements. So it was built as a "super-secure office compound...replete with columns designed to resist progressive building collapse and a hardened facade with blast-resistant windows." At the time, the owners said "It's a very dynamic market and we think we have a very unique building. We think we are on the cutting edge. We feel that it is going to lease in a shorter rather than longer period of time."

And yet...

The Carlyle Group sold the building complex almost immediately after completion to The Pitcairn Group. And The Pitcairn Group couldn't seem to lease it at all!

Of course, this also coincided with an economic downturn, so that could have something to do with it. It wasn't uncommon for buildings to be built without an actual tenant contract in-hand. However, these were large buildings, and The Pitcairn Group paid about $78 million for them, so you would imagine that they were chomping at the bit to lease them out. The area south of Dulles was still growing even with the downturn. It's surprising to me that they couldn't find a tenant but it is what it is.

It would take about 3 years for these buildings to collide with the FBI.

Hoover Building inadequate, rise of FBI annexes around beltway

Rewinding the clock a bit to set the stage for how these buildings completed in 2007 and the FBI collide.

The FBI had a major mission shift after 9/11 from primarily law enforcement to primarily national security. With this mission shift and growth came predictable headaches. The brutalist stylings of the J. Edgar Hoover building (long time FBI Headquarters in downtown Washington DC) had been a sore spot for decades but with these changes there were new issues.
J. Edgar Hoover Building

First, a massive influx of new employees needed space to do their work. The Hoover Building has a very inefficient layout and couldn't accommodate these employees physically.

The solution for that was to spread into FBI "annexes" in and around the beltway. Just to put it in perspective: in 2001, the FBI had 9,700 headquarters staff, working in 7 annexes; by 2011, the FBI had 17,300 headquarters staff spread across more than 40 annexes. (source: GAO report)

Second, the workspaces needed to be places where classified material could be handled extensively. These are mostly jobs related to counterterrorism, counterintelligence and the like, so secrecy is a major concern. Simply leasing an off-the-shelf commercial office building and sticking these new employees inside wouldn't work because it's not secure.

There are a few parts to this. The building exterior needs to be designed in a secure way or be retrofitted for physical security. And inside the building, there has to be spaces which guard against electronic surveillance and suppress data leakage of sensitive information (aka a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility or SCIF). Security policy overhauls after 9/11 were formulated and implemented, including DCID 6/9 in 2002. Another set of standards was issued in 2003 by an interagency panel, chaired by the Department of Homeland Security. And then a presidential directive was issued to assess the physical security plans of federal facilities. In 2005, the Hoover Building was judged by those standards and it failed miserably. Clearly a different approach was needed.

In the meantime, new office buildings were popping up all over northern Virginia and southern Maryland and these were built with an eye to security and properly handling classified material (like the Mission Ridge buildings). In the northern Virginia area, there is such a large demand for these spaces that groups of contractors choose to specialize specifically in building SCIFs. I have heard of some three letter agency executives getting SCIF envy between each other. As in, it becomes a pissing contest of who has more SCIF space in their facilities and it's a sign of importance if you have a lot.
Specializing in SCIFs

As mentioned above, it's not just federal agencies who would use these spaces. Large defense contractors were processing sensitive information so they needed SCIF space in their offices as well.

Of course, all of this is happening against the backdrop of the rise of the web. The areas around the beltway play a major role in this as well. For a while in the 90s, nearly all internet traffic moved through a few access points: FIX-East in College Park, Maryland; MAE-East in Tysons Corner, Virginia; MAE-West in San Jose; and FIX-West in Mountain View, California. Furthermore, the early Domain Name Servers of the internet were disproportionately clustered in beltway suburbs such as Chantilly, Herndon, College Park and Aberdeen.

These beltway suburbs sat at the crossroads of two exploding trends of the 21st century: national security bureaucracies/defense spending and the world wide web. Chantilly is a perfect encapsulation of it all. Apparently the FBI thought so too.

Presolicitation for a space to lease goes public

NSPD-54 is discussed more thoroughly in this article, but for purposes here, it established a new cyber intrusion focused fusion center called the NCIJTF, led by the FBI. So this new group needed a physical space to occupy. NSPD-54 was formalized in January 2008 and five months later a presolicitation went out on FebBizOpps, named "UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT SEEKS SOURCES FOR LEASE OF OFFICE AND RELATED SPACE IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA"

The presolicitation was sent out by the General Services Administration (GSA) but it says that the building will be used by a "Federal Law Enforcement Agency" which limits the possible options, and now looking back we know it was the FBI. It asked for 144,042 square feet of rentable space and was very specific about security requirements. Clearly they had the facility standards issued in 2005 in mind when GSA sent this out. And the geographical area they were considering was Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun Counties.
Acceptable area in first presolicitation

You see right in the middle, Dulles Airport and Chantilly for scale. It's a big area. Interested parties were asked to express their interest by June 16, 2008.

Presumably the GSA got some interest, but decided against moving forward with awarding it to anyone. Rather they waited a over year and then issued a modified, second presolicitation. Now we're into November 2009.

This second presolicitation defined a much narrower geographical area in this one. This is what the area looked like:
Reduced acceptable area in second presolicitation

This is obviously focused on Chantilly and Reston. The space requirement is increased to 175,000 square feet.

Also, the point of contact for the project changes from a representative of Staubach Co. to a representative of Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) which makes sense because JLL aquired Staubach in July 2008. But I mention it specifically because Obama's best - and sometimes called "only" - friend Martin Nesbitt had worked as a Vice President at LaSalle Partners previously and would later join the Board of Directors of JLL.

However, the second presolicitation doesn't seem to get off the ground either. There is a third presolicitation issued on May 4, 2010 which is essentially the same but it adds clarifying language making a "two building solution" acceptable and outlines the requirements in that scenario.

And, the point of contact changes again, this time to a GSA Realty Specialist.

JLL buys the buildings and GSA awards the contract

At this point, the presolicitation has not been awarded. It's now been hanging out there for 2 years.

The Mission Ridge buildings are still sitting empty. The Pitcairn Group, who bought the buildings in 2007 for $78M, ended up not being able to pay their lender. So to avoid foreclosure, Pitcairn hands over the deed to the buildings, then valued at $26.5M together in early 2010. Quite a loss on their investment.

The lender then sells the foreclosed Mission Ridge buildings to LaSalle Investment Management for $40.5M.

Martin Nesbitt

Martin Nesbitt joins the board of directors of Jones Lang LaSalle within months of this sale. To be clear, I don't know if there is any funny business here. But we know Nesbitt is extremely close with Obama and sure enough...

The lease contract is awarded to Jones Lang LaSalle. Just to go over the timeline
  • May 2010: Final modified presolicitation is issued, allowing a two building solution and now with a GSA point of contact
  • 3Q 2010: Pitcairn sells the Mission Ridge property to JLL
  • Jan 2011: Martin Nesbitt joins the board of JLL
  • Jun 2011: I&G Mission Ridge (JLL) is awarded the $53 million lease contract
Again, might be totally above board. Just something to point out.

The sale of the lease was published among real estate type publications. From this document:


From this: "The FBI will be relocating from several locations within the market as well as expanding to accommodate growth among its cyber-security operations"

"The group that will occupy the space, known as Special Technologies and Application Office (STAO), was reportedly drawn to the space for several reasons, such as security features including setbacks and blast resistant construction and floor plates that allowed for efficient and flexible space planning The FBI’s STAO group will be relocating from several nearby buildings within Westfields, which is located adjacent to the National Reconnaissance Office, a major driver of demand in the area"

So nothing about the NCIJTF. It mentions the STAO which was already in Chantilly and is now moving over to a new building. The non-mention of NCIJTF might be by design.

The FBI didn't lease all of the square footage inside the two buildings. In fact, they really only leased one building and a small part of the other. So other companies followed quickly behind the FBI and lined up leases inside Mission Ridge. The second biggest tenant is Integrity Applications Incorporated. Plus a bunch of smaller leases.
Mission Ridge Tenants

Some weird things

We can see the original lease document and it's kind of weird. First of all, the owners are listed as I&G Mission Ridge, but the address for those owners is 200 East Randolph Street #4500 Chicago, aka Jones Lang LaSalle Headquarters. I&G Mission Ridge seems to be a holding company.

Again, I don't know if this is fishy or not, just pointing it out.

Another weird thing is, you can't find any lease payments from GSA to I&G Mission Ridge anywhere. Look here, and scroll through all the lease payments made by the federal government in Fairfax county. Nothing that would apply here.

One final weird thing. Right after the lease contract was awarded, JLL's competitors filed Freedom of Information Act requests to see what happened. Maybe they wanted to see who bested them in trying to get the contract. So two FOIA's are filed on the same day, November 7, 2011.

One from Grubb & Ellis:


And another from Colliers:

They are asking for documentation related to lease. And in fact, are asking for the exact same documents, yet get different responses. Grubb & Ellis gets 5-Non-Applicable, while Colliers gets 2-Partial Denial.

The next year, Grubb & Ellis, who got the least useful FOIA response, tries again. They file a FOIA request once again asking for the documentation on Mission Ridge.

This time they get 2-Partial Denial, which is what Colliers got the first time.

Conclusion

The Mission Ridge buildings were not built for the FBI yet they ended up there anyway. The collision took a long time. The involvement of an Obama buddy in the process is very curious but there is no determination of funny business at this time. There seems to be a lot of secrecy and misdirection around the whole thing, which is unsurprising I suppose for a facility which handles classified information. But through putting together scraps of info, we can get a clearer picture of what happened.

GSA awarding the lease was just the starting line of the NCIJTF in Chantilly. The next couple years brought more twists to be covered in a separate article.

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