The Architecture Of Spying

Artist Trevor Paglen shoots aerial photographs of three of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies.

Even as as new information continues to emerge about the National Security Agency’s activities collecting metadata on citizens’ phone and online activities, much U.S. intelligence remains shrouded in secrecy. Including what the agencies that watch us look like.


In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the scope of the NSA’s domestic spying, artist Trevor Paglen undertook the task of providing a visual reference for the expansive secret agencies, commissioned by the art publication Creative Time Reports. The photos also appeared on journalist Glenn Greenwald’s new site, The Intercept, today.

Paglen rented helicopters and shot aerial photos at night of three of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies: the NSA; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs and operates spy satellites; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a map-based intelligence agency. In effect, he’s letting us spy on those who spy on us.

Photo by Trevor Paglen

“My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community,” Paglen writes. “If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure.”

This is the architecture of expansive U.S. surveillance, foreboding office parks near the nation’s capital where billions of dollars support activities that we may still be unaware of (the budgets are classified, though Snowden leaked some of that information). Or at least, this represents a small part of that architecture. The Central Intelligence Agency denied Paglen’s requests to take aerial photographs of its headquarters.


These buildings don’t look so different from any large corporation’s suburban headquarters. They might easily pass for an outpost of a giant research company like IBM. Yet from above, they all have a distinctly fortress-like appearance. They’re monolithic, imposing, and isolated from nearby roads and communities by immense parking lot seas that seem to be both security–like pavement moats keeping prying eyes at a distance–and tell-tale signs of a vast enterprise that hundreds of employees arrive at each day.

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

These photos tell us barely anything about what goes on in these places, but at this point, even seeing them is a bit of a revelation. Paglen’s three aerial photos add to a sparse canon of intelligence imagery. This shot of the NSA’s headquarters, provided by the agency itself, pops up everywhere from NBC to Al Jazeera to NPR–it’s virtually the only image we see of the NSA. Paglen writes at The Intercept that the photo may date as far back as the 1970s. Zoom in on the cars surrounding the parking lot, and you’ll see far more Volkswagens than are driving around Washington today. It underscores the limits of what we know about our intelligence agencies that the image most associated with the NSA’s recent activity isn’t even from this century.

It’ll take far more than a new few photographs from hundreds of feet away to be able to evaluate what kind of classified activities our taxpayer dollars are funding, but for the public to really take ownership over the federal agencies involved in collecting intelligence, it helps to at least know what they look like.

[H/T: The Intercept]


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.