Last month, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced its plan to spend $1.7 billion in taxpayer dollars to build a new headquarters in St. Louis.
According to NGA, they chose St. Louis because they need a pipeline of millennials flowing out of college and into the agency. As a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, I understand this is a problem not only for NGA, but for the entire intelligence community. NGA struggles with recruitment because of limited university partnerships and the high rate of recreational drug use and illicit cyber activity among millennial applicants, not because the agency lacks a shiny new headquarters.
NGA’s only university partners are located in downtown St. Louis. If the agency is struggling to establish a recruitment pool, they should consider expanding their partnerships beyond two St. Louis universities. An intelligence agency that our warfighters rely on should expand its reach when searching for the nation’s best talent. I recommend University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) as key partners in the effort. In fact, SIUE is the only school in the St. Louis region that offers degrees in geographic information systems and cartography, skills critical to NGA’s primary mission.
The struggle to recruit a quality workforce is not a problem NGA faces alone. This problem is well documented throughout the intelligence and national security community. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey, his agency struggles to recruit cyber experts because so many of the candidates have a history of marijuana use. Meanwhile, other intelligence agencies struggle to recruit millennials because many have a history of illegally downloading music and the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in particular, struggle to match the salaries offered in the private sector.
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As Chairman of the subcommittee that will provide the funding for the construction of this project, I want to insure the $1.7 billion tax dollars for this project are an investment and not a gamble.
The proposed site in St. Louis is located squarely within the controversial Northside Regeneration Project. This project has been granted more than $400 million in tax breaks by the City of St. Louis and has been a pet project of the White House since 2014, which gave it privileged access to additional federal tax dollars. Despite the various tax subsidies and grants, the project to date has failed to provide significant benefit for the residents of St. Louis.
Not only does NGA’s proposal continue to throw good money after bad, it puts their roughly 3,100 employees in danger.
The City of St. Louis claims their site provides a 500-foot security buffer. However, the St. Louis proposal does not account for vehicle access points. A vehicle access point is the location a vehicle is screened for explosives or other weapons within the initial fenceline. A recent security study concluded that the vehicle access points to the St. Louis site could reduce the true standoff distance from 500 feet to 50 feet and consequently the St. Louis site would require a waiver from the Department of Defense to proceed with inadequate anti-terrorism standards.
These inadequate security measures threaten NGA’s mission. Twenty-one years ago, America saw the destruction a large truck bomb can cause in Oklahoma City. The 4,000-pound bomb set off by Timothy McVeigh claimed 168 lives and wounded another 680. A simulation of that very same bomb on the North St. Louis site predicts deaths, injuries and severe glass wounds over a significant portion of the North St. Louis site. An explosion of that magnitude within such close proximity to the NGA headquarters would not only be devastating for the employees who work there and the surrounding neighborhood, but also to the warfighters abroad who depend on real-time intelligence.
Recruitment and security are NGA’s most important criteria for choosing their new home. I agree that these items should be kept at the forefront of the process but disagree with the subjective reasoning in each category that supports the St. Louis decision. Relocating NGA to North St. Louis is a shortsighted gamble of taxpayer dollars. Choosing to do so will not fix their recruitment problems and it will not keep their employees or mission safe.