Secret Buildings You May Not Photograph

Secret Buildings You May Not Photograph, Part 643

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher/2007/07/secret_buildings_you_may_not_p.html

(Washington Post) – If you happen by 3701 N. Fairfax Drive in Arlington and decide you have a sudden craving for a photograph of a generic suburban office building, and you point your camera at said structure, you will rather quickly be greeted by uniformed security folks who will demand that you delete the image and require that you give up various personal information.

When Keith McCammon unwittingly took a picture of that building, he was launched on an odyssey that has so far involved an Arlington police officer, the chief of police and the defense of the United States of America.

McCammon could not have been expected to know when he wandered by the building that it houses the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a low-profile wing of the Defense Department that conducts all manner of high-tech research that evolves into weapons systems and high-order strategery.

DARPA’s presence at 3701 N. Fairfax is hardly a government secret--Google finds nearly 10,000 pages listing the agency’s use of the building. But there’s no big fat sign on the building, so how was McCammon to know that this was a building he dared not photograph? And why would the government care if anyone took a picture of the exterior of an office building? This is as silly and hypersensitive as the now-common harassment of people who innocently take pictures of random federal buildings in the District.

McCammon decided to fight back. He demanded to know why he had been stopped, why the government needed his personal information, and why any record of the incident should be kept in government records. He got quick, polite responses from Arlington officials.

"I hope that you would agree that the security of any such building is of great importance and every law enforcement officer is duty bound to investigate all suspicious activity," wrote Arlington Acting Police Chief Daniel Murray. "I am certainly not implying that a person taking photographs is inherently ‘suspicious,’ but when the appearance is that the subject of a photograph is a government installation, officers have a duty to ensure the safety of the occupants of this structure."

Hmmm. Any government installation? This overly broad approach to security is why we end up with ridiculous horror stories about innocent tourists getting hassled for taking photos of the Lincoln Memorial or the Department of the Interior. The good news here is that Arlington police didn’t take a report or create a file on McCammon. The bad news is that they did pass his information along to "the internal security agency for this installation." Which means that somewhere in the vast security apparatus that we have constructed since 9/11–utterly ignoring the fact that the Soviet empire collapsed under the weight of its own paranoid security apparatus–there is now a report on Keith McCammon, photographer.

The bottom line is that McCammon was caught in a classic logical trap. If he had only known the building was off-limits to photographers, he would have avoided it. But he was not allowed to know that fact. "Reasonable, law-abiding people tend to avoid these types of things when it can be helped," McCammon wrote. "Thus, my request for a list of locations within Arlington County that are unmarked, but at which photography is either prohibited or discouraged according to some (public or private) policy. Of course, such a list does not exist. Catch-22."

The only antidote to this security mania is sunshine. Only when more and more Americans do as McCammon has done and take the time and effort to chronicle these excesses and insist on answers from authorities will we stand a chance of restoring balance and sanity to the blend of liberty and security that we are madly remixing in these confused times.

By Marc Fisher |  July 17, 2007; 7:25 AM ET

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