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Near Washington, D.C., construction crews watch for mystery 'black' wire

A Metrorail extension risks hitting communications lines, including some used for top-secret government intelligence operations.

June 07, 2009|Amy Gardner | Gardner writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — This part happens all the time: A construction crew putting up an office building in the heart of congested Tysons Corner in McLean, Va., hit a fiber-optic cable no one knew was there.

This part doesn't: Within moments, three black SUVs drove up, half a dozen men in suits jumped out, and one said, "You just hit our line."

Whose line, you may ask? The guys in suits didn't say, recalled Aaron Georgelas, whose company, the Georgelas Group, was developing the Greensboro Corporate Center. Georgelas assumed that he was dealing with the federal government and that the cable in question was "black" wire -- a secure communications line used for some of the nation's most secretive intelligence-gathering operations.

"The construction manager was shocked," Georgelas recalled about the incident in 2000. "He had never seen a line get cut and people show up within seconds. Usually you've got to figure out whose line it is. To garner that kind of response that quickly was amazing."

Black wire is one of the risks of the construction that has come to Tysons, where miles and miles of secure lines are thought to serve such nearby agencies as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center and, a few miles away, the CIA. With work underway on a Metrorail extension, crews are stirring up tons of dirt where the black lines are located.

"Yeah, we heard about the black SUVs," said Paul Goguen, the engineer in charge of relocating electric, gas, water, sewer, cable, telephone and other communications lines to make way for Metro.

"We were warned that if they were hit, the company responsible would show up before you even had a chance to make a phone call."

So far, so good, Goguen added. But the peril remains for a project that will spend $150 million moving more than 75 miles of conduit along a three-mile stretch.

The Tysons corridor is also home to part of MAE-East, one of the nation's primary Internet pipelines installed years ago by the government and private companies. Most major telecommunications carriers link to the pipeline, meaning there's a jumble of fiber-optic wire under the new rail route.

Moving utilities quickly and cheaply is a big part of any construction work. But the $5.2-billion rail project, which will extend service to Dulles International Airport, is particularly complex.

Construction crews have been digging for more than a year to shift the wires of more than 21 private utilities out of the path of the rail line -- and they have another year to go.

And they have snapped, accidentally, dozens of those carriers' lines, because even not-so-secret commercial lines sometimes don't show up on utility maps. Goguen, the utility manager, estimates that the rail project has already hit three dozen lines.

Such issues are likely to resurface this summer, when tunnel construction is scheduled to begin. Above the tunnel's path is a giant microwave communications tower operated by the U.S. Army. And if you want to know what the 280-foot tower is for, too bad. "The specific uses of the system to which this particular antenna is attached" are classified, Army spokesman Dave Foster said.

Other government agencies near Tysons also had little to say. A CIA spokeswoman would not comment. And Mike Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, would say only that if a communications line used by the agency was cut, the nation's intelligence-gathering would carry on uninterrupted.

"No particular project puts us at risk -- highway construction, building construction," Birmingham said. "We don't have a single point of failure. Our systems are redundant."

Georgelas, the developer whose company was overseeing the work when the Chevy Suburbans drove up, said he figured the government was involved when an AT&T crew arrived the same day to fix the line, rather than waiting days. His opinion didn't change when AT&T tried to bill his company for the work -- and immediately backed down when his company balked.

"These lines are not cheap to move," Georgelas said. "They said, 'You owe us $300,000.' We said, 'Are you nuts?' "

The charges just disappeared.

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