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A Deeper Dive into the Swamp

November 22, 2019 | By: Lindsay Isler

“The suburbs” often evoke a cookie-cutter picture of Americana: kids playing in fenced green yards, ice cream trucks rumbling around cul-de-sacs, neighborhood barbecues, mature trees, homogeneous houses, and space. But as we’ve illustrated in our #embracetheswamp campaign, most things are more than what they seem. Two weeks ago we took a closer at Vienna’s Foxstone Park. We discovered much more than could fit in an Instagram post, so we decided to elaborate on our findings here. 

Turns out the suburbs are home to more secrets than they initially let on. 

Two parks located within the Virginia suburbs of DC—Foxstone and Nottoway—served as dead drop sites for the notorious spy Robert Hanssen in his exchanges with the KGB (the Soviet Union’s primary intelligence service). 

Beginning in 1989, Hansen utilized Foxstone Park seven times and referred to it as “ELLIS” in communications with the KGB. It was conveniently located a mile from his family’s residence on Talisman Drive.

Hanssen’s drop site in Foxstone Park near Vienna, Virginia. (FBI)

In the four years prior to Foxstone, Hanssen relied on the cover of Nottoway Park’s towering tree canopy for his espionage activity. He lived in the neighborhood across the street from the park and used it as a drop site so frequently—17 times to be exact—that the KGB dubbed it “PARK/PRIME” in communications with Hanssen.

Who could have known the man responsible for trading thousands of classified document pages to the KGB and for the execution of two undercover FBI officials lived and operated in these seemingly mundane suburban neighborhoods?

Eventually the FBI did turn their gaze towards the suburbs. They moved in on the right neighborhood but the wrong house, the wrong man. By the late 1990s, the Bureau was closely monitoring undercover CIA officer Brian Kelley. Kelley reports the Bureau’s relentless interrogations of him and his family in the years leading up to Hanssen’s arrest in 2001. 

Beginning in the Reagan Administration, Robert Hanssen spied for the Russians for over twenty years. (FBI/Wikimedia)

There is a scene in Breach—a 2007 cinematic rendition of Hanssen’s final six weeks of operation—where the nameless CIA officer under suspicion is briefly mentioned. Kelley recalls what it felt like to watch this scene saying, “As the innocent CIA officer alluded to in that dialogue, I felt chills through my body when I saw that scene, and it triggered immediate flashbacks to that two-year period in my life, when the FBI intimated to me, my family, and friends that I would be arrested and charged with a capital crime I had not committed.” The FBI suspected Kelley until 2000 when the Bureau purchased an audio file for $7 million from a KGB officer. They anticipated Kelley’s voice. They heard Hanssen’s. The following February, the Bureau arrested Hanssen at Foxstone Park. 

The juxtaposition of quiet, suburban parks with espionage of so great a scale is jarring. It brings into focus the myriad of realities and histories that swirl around us everyday, unknown and unseen. Until we employ some empathy for the places we frequent and intentionally look for these hidden histories, they will continue to wait within the shadow of the familiar.