As 23,000 Defense Department employees leave Arlington — driven out by new security standards that are forcing defense offices to relocate — lawmakers held a town hall meeting at George Mason University Monday to get local perspective on the coming exodus.
"Hell no, I won't go," said Tom Hafer, a local business owner who contracts with the Defense Department. "I will flip burgers in Arlington before I move to Bethesda."
Business owners and government contractors like Haffer said that although large corporations have the resources and manpower to follow their Defense Department clients, smaller operations do not. Defense contractor Tom Sawner said the real consequences will be to national security once his company and those like it refuse to go.
"We're not going to move," said Sawner. "We're going to do other things and that will be a loss to the nation."
Sawner added that the closing of defense office space through the Base Realignment and Closure Committee (BRAC) is improper. BRAC, he said, is tasked with closing bases, not offices.
"Security is a very, very legitimate concern but this shouldn't be under BRAC guidance when it doesn't serve BRAC needs," said Sawner.
The meeting drew more than 100 Arlingtonians, many sporting buttons and stickers reading "Save The Brains! Keep DOD Staff in Arlington!"
The closure of 140 Arlington buildings, totaling 8 million square feet or about 60 percent of the county's leased office market, comes at the request of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who enacted the new security standards in 2004.
AMONG THE REGULATIONS is a requirement that all buildings housing more than 50 defense workers be "setback" from nearby streets at a minimum distance of 148 feet. This step, according to the Defense Department, is designed to safeguard personnel from bombing attacks. The buildings in question do not fit that mold.
"This is a very important challenge that we have ahead of us," said Rep. Jim Moran (D- VA). "We don't have a lot of time to address the secretary's recommendations."
Moran said that the amount of people, money — including an estimated $2 billion in government contracts — and resources forced to move because of the standards is equal to the closure of 4 full fledged military bases.
But appears there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it, according to Sen. John Warner (R-VA), a member of the Armed Services Committee. The BRAC process, he said, is designed in such a way to prevent any interference from outside the Defense Department. Congress, he added, can only vote up or down on the recommended list of closures.
"None of us can secretly, quietly, go to the White House and cut a deal," Warner said.
This round of BRAC closures, said Warner, marks the first time office space has been part of the equation.
"This particular situation in Northern Virginia is unlike any other in the state," said Warner.
Warner added that questions surfaced during the last BRAC process that closures were motivated by politics instead of practical defense needs.
"This time, everyone wants to make sure that politics plays no role," said Warner.
TO MEET THE SETBACK STANDARDS, defense agencies are moving to rural areas to work on secured bases or new, fenced-off facilities. The Missile Defense Agency, housed near the Pentagon, is moving to Red Stone Arsenal in Alabama. The Army Installation Management Agency, the Army Environmental Center and the Army Family Liaison Office are all moving to Fort Sam Houston, in Texas. The Defense Intelligence Systems Agency, also in Arlington, is moving to Fort Meade, Maryland.
"I remember the words of President Bush after 9-11," said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. "He said that the purpose of terror is to kill some and inflict fear on many more. One concern I have about defense agencies leaving for security reasons is what message that sends symbolically to other federal agencies and to the private sector."
Aside from the message the pull-out sends, others questioned the rationale for the Defense Department's departure given that the Pentagon building itself is too close to Washington Boulevard to meet the new regulations. The Defense Department has also signed several new leases, according to Moran and others, that do not meet them. The federal laws guiding BRAC on the office closures, Warner said, need to be examined.
"There are clearly some instances of variance between what Congress intended and what the law says," said Warner.
According to Joe Reeder, a former under secretary of the Army, the Navy has only just moved into a building on Virginia Square, a move that cost a substantial sum, and will now be forced to spend more to relocate.
But, Reeder said, the real tragedy of the mass move out is upheaval it will cause in the lives of defense workers.
"We don't have an armed forces if we don't take care of the people, the outstanding people, devoted to making them work," he said.