CIA’s Stealthy Starbucks

WaPo's Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reports that, "At CIA Starbucks, even the baristas are covert."


WaPo’s Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reports that, “At CIA Starbucks, even the baristas are covert.”

The new supervisor thought his idea was innocent enough. He wanted the baristas to write the names of customers on their cups to speed up lines and ease confusion, just like other Starbucks do around the world.

But these aren’t just any customers. They are regulars at the CIA Starbucks.

“They could use the alias ‘Polly-O string cheese’ for all I care,” said a food services supervisor at the Central Intelligence Agency, asking that his identity remain unpublished for security reasons. “But giving any name at all was making people — you know, the undercover agents — feel very uncomfortable. It just didn’t work for this location.”

This purveyor of skinny lattes and double cappuccinos is deep inside the agency’s forested Langley, Va., compound.

Welcome to the “Stealthy Starbucks,” as a few officers affectionately call it.

Or “Store Number 1,” as the receipts cryptically say.

The baristas go through rigorous interviews and background checks and need to be escorted by agency “minders” to leave their work area. There are no frequent-customer award cards, because officials fear the data stored on the cards could be mined by marketers and fall into the wrong hands, outing secret agents.

It is one of the busiest Starbucks in the country, with a captive caffeine-craving audience of thousands of analysts and agents, economists and engineers, geographers and cartographers working on gathering intelligence and launching covert operations inside some of the most vexing and violent places around the world.

“Obviously,” one officer said, “we are caffeine-addicted personality types. ”

Because the campus is a highly secured island, few people leave for coffee, and the lines, both in the morning and mid-afternoon, can stretch down the hallway. According to agency lore, one senior official, annoyed by the amount of time employees were wasting, was known to approach someone at the back of the line and whisper, “What have you done for your country today?”

This coffee shop looks pretty much like any other Starbucks, with blond wooden chairs and tables, blueberry and raspberry scones lining the bakery cases, and progressive folk rock floating from the speakers. (There are plans to redecorate, possibly including spy paraphernalia from over the decades.)

But the manager said this shop “has a special mission,” to help humanize the environment for employees, who work under high pressure often in windowless offices and can’t fiddle with their smartphones during downtime. For security, they have to leave them in their cars.

Given the concentration of “caffeine-addicted personality types” and the long lines, the solution seems obvious: Starbucks Store Number 2. Then again, getting up from their chairs and wasting some time in line talking to other people who work on campus might well be a good thing.

The security protocols might seem over-the-top but are unavoidable and apply to all contractors who work in secure facilities. Baristas have no need to access classified materials, so aren’t eligible for a security clearance.  I’ve got a security clearance but still require an escort at Langley.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Quick Takes, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    Perhaps I missed something, but wouldn’t just taking a number, the way you do at the deli line, suffice?

  2. JKB says:

    Well, yeah, who’s going to spend $30,000 (cost quoted me 12 years ago) for a barista to have Secret clearance. And at that level, the only information the CIA would give them access to is the location of the Starbucks in the overall context of the building.

    And having a clearance at one agency doesn’t mean much at another one, unless they decide to adjudicate your file and grant access.

  3. ernieyeball says:

    Spy vs. Spy
    (Spoiler Alert! Cat lovers may be offended…)

  4. Janis Gore says:

    @ernieyeball: It’s so lovely to see a commenter with a memory, Ernie.

  5. ernieyeball says:

    Mad Magazine was my first political journal.
    Spy vs. Spy is directly responsible for my adoption of anarchy as a godless, dope smoking, hippie freak in the 60s.

  6. Mikey says:

    @JKB: $30K for a Secret? Someone was bullshitting you. All you need for a Secret is an NCALC which costs about $200.

    Even the SSBI required for a TS is only about $4K.

  7. DC Loser says:

    Must be a slow news day at the Post. The Starbucks aren’t that interesting in the CIA, or the NSA for that matter. What I found really interesting was that in both agencies there were many older Cantonese speakers working in their respective cafeterias.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @DC Loser: I have failed to find a clip from The In-Laws of Alan Arkin and Peter Falk taking off in a Lear Jet flown by two of Falk’s Chinese CIA buddies. The bit where the co-pilot turns around facing only Alan Arkin and does the whole stewardess spiel, complete with safety card, seat belt buckle, and overhead mask, in Chinese.

  9. roger says:

    If I worked at the CIA and could afford to buy Starbucks coffee and they asked my name for the cup, I’d say Kim Philby and see how many heads turn when that is called.

    Definitely wouldn’t use Aldrich Ames though. Too soon.

  10. DC Loser says:


    That would be Wong Airlines, with Bill Hong as Bing Wong (?), the former KMT TV announcer who did the entire scene with a straight face in Cantonese. That I could understand everything he said made it even more hilarious. The original “In-Laws” is my favorite comedy of all time.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @DC Loser: Doesn’t beat out Blazing Saddles or A funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for me, but right up there. I still crack up any time I hear the word “serpentine”.