“Hey, wait a minute”, you say. “Is this a put on? What does the latest patchwork California budget, slapped together a hundred days late, have to do with national security?”
Rising seventeen floors above the heart of downtown Sacramento is the building that houses the California Department of Justice. If and when Attorney General and Governor-elect Jerry Brown ventures outside Oakland, he has a suite atop that building.
His office, like the rest of the building, is literally For Sale.
Actually, it’s virtually been sold, together with 10 other prime pieces of State-owned real estate. A private investment consortium, based, according to press reports, in Houston and Los Angeles – and, Mumbai, India – has agreed to buy the 11 properties and then lease them back to the State for 20 years. This brainstorm, pushed by outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is yet another imaginative accounting gimmick designed to plug a one billion-dollar hole within the much larger shortfall of the annually deficient State budget.
Critics of the deal, including California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and State Controller John Chiang, have pointed out that selling such valuable property at the bottom of the real estate market may not be in the best financial interests of the people of California who paid the taxes and the interest on the bonds that got these buildings built in the first place.
Such financial issues are beyond me. But I was struck by seeing the Justice Department headquarters on the block because it reminded me of a funny thing that happened, forty years ago, during the Cold War, when I was working in Washington as a very junior CIA paper-pusher. One morning, I had a package dumped on my desk. It had been sent, through the diplomatic pouch, from a US Embassy abroad. When I opened the package, out fell a heap of – garbage. Not, you understand, Coke bottles and cigarette butts and used condoms. The contents were entirely paper, crumpled, ripped up, shreds of paper. They had been lifted from a garbage can used by bureaucrats in some Soviet Russian Consulate, pilfered by what old British spy novelists used to call a “charwoman”, in Yankee parlance, a janitor. An adept thief on the Intelligence payroll.
I learned more about Garbage in the CIA. As the youngest officer at the Agency’s crisis center, my nightly duties included tiptoeing into the suite of the Director of Central Intelligence, hoping the Big Boss had gone home for the day, to empty his special “Classified” trash can. I diligently poured the contents into a custom shredder that obliterated every thread of paper in a way that would defy even the best modern reconstructive skills of CSI Miami.
This was an elementary first lesson in espionage: Garbage Talks.
Which leads me now to wonder about all the crumpled paper and discarded computer disks at that State high-rise in Sacramento soon to be under new ownership. Mostly dull legal stuff, no doubt, but maybe with a few good reads on narcotics and even terrorist investigations, peppered with helpful Secret documents sent over from the FBI and DEA.
After most of the civil servants have gone home, this refuse of bureaucracy becomes the domain of night-shift guards and maintenance people who have undergone careful background checks. Once ownership of the building has changed hands, the new owners may choose to employ these same workers, or they may hire others, perhaps for lower wages, who will have to be “cleared” anew.
But who will “vet” the owners themselves?
I don’t intend to cast the slightest aspersion on foreign investors in India or China or Dubai or any other nation who find attractive real estate opportunities in America. India, in particular, seems to be edging toward a “special relationship” with the United States on national security matters, akin to our past alliances with the British and Israelis. But even the closest alliance with a foreign power doesn’t suggest an absolute congruence of national interests. If an American company which makes missile components or cryptographic software were up for sale to a multi-national consortium, somebody in Washington would surely come to attention and put the deal under a microscope. Even if a federal building that housed some law enforcement agency were to be “privatized”, Washington would take note.
But we’re talking here about State buildings and I’m guessing that no one in Sacramento has given even one second of thought to whether there is any security issue at stake in hocking the Attorney General’s digs.
All the parties to the current State building fire sale are undoubtedly fine upstanding global citizens. But once a government property has been sold to private interests, it can be sold again – and again – for the sake of profit. And who will bother to assure that all new future landlords of the State Justice Department are entirely above reproach?
With Washington’s minions now fanatically searching for terrorist devices hidden in the bras of women air travelers, maybe it wouldn’t be too much to ask that somebody in Sacramento should re-think a deal that someday, conceivably, might present a threat to the security of the people of this State.
Especially if that threat results from a lousy business deal triggered by political desperation.