History of the CIA: Essay on the agency's canoe commute club.

The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.

The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 19 2014 12:08 PM

The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.

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“We have become connoisseurs of sunrises,” writes CIA employee Robert Sinclair in this 1984 reflection on his 14 years of commuting by canoe across the Potomac. Sinclair describes biking three miles from Bethesda to the river, meeting a small group of colleagues to pick up canoes at a clubhouse on the Maryland side, paddling across to the Virginia side, tying their canoes to trees, hiking a short way through the woods up to the George Washington Memorial Parkway, crossing the parkway on foot (!), and arriving at the CIA offices. The trip, he writes, took about an hour. (Here’s a map of the area.)

Sinclair writes that the tradition began in the 1960s, as CIA employees suffered the pain of commuting before the Beltway was finished. A group of staffers realized that Sycamore Island, located in the river across from the agency’s new offices, held a canoe club, and began taking advantage of what Sinclair calls its “ancient” fleet of canoes to cut time off of their commute.

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The article appeared in Studies in Intelligence, the in-house CIA journal that the agency uses to dissect past triumphs and failures, review new literature, and mull over current approaches to intelligence gathering. CIA historian Nicholas Dujmovic writes in his overview of the journal’s history that the 1980s was a boom time for this kind of offbeat article: “One speculates that, after the travails of the 1970s, Studies served as a therapeutic outlet by becoming a vehicle for those who sought refuge in humor.”

While the item was included in this week’s FOIA release of a batch of articles from Studies in Intelligence, and I found out about it via a tweet from Politico writer Garrett Graff, the piece appears to have been available through the National Archives beforehand. Dujmovic used Sinclair’s name in his history, and the Sycamore Island Club’s website even has a version of the article on its website that carries Sinclair’s byline; nonetheless, it’s redacted in this FOIA’d version.  

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