Burgeoning complexes of intelligence-gathering federal workers and contractors are transforming many communities. The most notable such change is taking place in and around Fort Meade, Md.

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The brick warehouse is not just a warehouse. Drive through the gate and around back, and there, hidden away, is someone’s personal security detail: a fleet of black SUVs armored up to withstand explosions and gunfire.

Along the main street, signs in the median aren’t advertising homes for sale; they’re inviting employees with top-secret security clearances to a job fair at Cafe Joe, anything but a typical lunch spot.

The new gunmetal-colored office building is a kind of hotel where businesses can rent eavesdrop-proof rooms.

Even the manhole cover between two low-slung buildings is not just a manhole cover. Surrounded by cement cylinders, it is an access point for a government cable. An official whispers, “TS/SCI,” abbreviations for “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information.” That means few people know what information the cable transmits.

These places exist just outside Washington, D.C., in what amounts to the capital of an alternative geography of the United States, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them. This Fort Meade cluster is the largest of a dozen such U.S. clusters that are the nerve centers of Top Secret America and its 854,000 workers.

Other locations include Dulles-Chantilly, Va.; Denver-Aurora, Colo.; and Tampa, Fla. All are traditional military towns: economically dependent on the federal budget and culturally defined by their work.

The difference, of course, is that the military is not a secret culture. In the clusters of Top Secret America, a company lanyard attached to a digital smart card often is the only clue to a job location. Work is not discussed. Neither are deployments. Debate about the role of intelligence in protecting the country occurs only when something goes wrong and the government investigates, or when an unauthorized disclosure of classified information turns into news.

Don’t bother with GPS

The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS in their car suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.

Once this happens, it means that ground zero — the National Security Agency — is nearby. But it’s not easy to tell where. Trees, walls and a sloping landscape obscure its presence from most vantage points, and concrete barriers, fortified guard posts and signs stop those without authorization from entering the grounds of the nation’s largest intelligence agency.

Beyond all those obstacles loom huge buildings with row after row of opaque, blast-resistant windows. Behind those are an estimated 30,000 people, many reading, listening to and analyzing an endless flood of intercepted conversations.

From the road, it’s impossible to tell how large the NSA has become, even though its buildings occupy 6.3 million square feet — about the size of the Pentagon — and are surrounded by 112 acres of parking spaces. As massive as that might seem, documents indicate the NSA is only going to get bigger: 10,000 more workers over the next 15 years; $2 billion to pay for just the first phase of expansion; an overall increase in size that will bring its building space throughout the Fort Meade cluster to nearly 14 million square feet.

The NSA headquarters sits on the Army’s Fort Meade, which hosts 80 government tenants in all, including several large intelligence organizations.

Together, they inject $10 billion from paychecks and contracts into the region’s economy every year — a figure that helps explain the rest of the Fort Meade cluster, which fans out about 10 miles in every direction.

Beyond the NSA perimeter, companies that thrive off the agency and other intelligence organizations begin. In some places, they occupy entire neighborhoods. In others, they make up mile-long business parks connected to the NSA campus.

The largest is the National Business Park — 285 tucked-away acres of wide, angular glass towers that go on for blocks. Occupants are contractors, and they understate their presence in more publicly known locations. But in the National Business Park, a place where only other contractors would have reason to go, their office signs are huge, glowing at night in bright red, yellow and blue: Booz Allen Hamilton, L-3 Communications, CSC, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, SAIC.

Strict, intrusive rules

More than 250 companies — 13 percent of all the firms in Top Secret America — have a presence in the Fort Meade cluster. Some have multiple offices.

Inside 681 locations are employees who must submit to strict, intrusive rules. They routinely take lie-detector tests, sign nondisclosure forms and file lengthy reports when they travel overseas. They are coached on how to deal with nosy neighbors and curious friends. Some are trained to assume false identities.

If they drink too much, borrow too much money or socialize with citizens from certain countries, they can lose their security clearances, the passport to a job for life at the NSA and its sister intelligence organizations.

Chances are they excel at math: The NSA relies on the largest number of mathematicians in the world. The agency needs linguists and technology experts, as well as cryptologists, known as “crippies.” Many know themselves as ISTJ — “Introverted with Sensing, Thinking and Judging,” a basket of personality traits identified on the Myers-Briggs personality test and prevalent in the Fort Meade cluster.

The old joke: “How can you tell the extrovert at NSA? He’s the one looking at someone else’s shoes.”

“These are some of the most brilliant people in the world,” said Ken Ulman, executive of Howard County, one of six counties in NSA’s geographic sphere. “They demand good schools and a high quality of life.”

Teaching kids early

The schools, indeed, are among the best, and some are adopting a curriculum this fall that will teach students as young as 10 what kind of lifestyle it takes to obtain a security clearance and what kind of behavior will disqualify them.

Buses deliver those children to neighborhoods that are among the wealthiest in the country; affluence is another attribute of Top Secret America. Six of the 10 richest counties in the United States, according to Census Bureau data, are in these clusters.

Loudoun County, Va., ranked as the wealthiest county, helps supply the workforce of the nearby National Reconnaissance Office headquarters, which manages spy satellites. Fairfax County, Va., the second-wealthiest, is home to the NRO, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Arlington County, Va., ranked ninth, hosts the Pentagon and major intelligence agencies. Montgomery County, Md., ranked 10th, is home to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Howard County, Md., ranked third, is home to 8,000 NSA employees.

Throughout the Fort Meade cluster are examples of how the hidden world and the public one intersect. A Quiznos shop has the familiarity of any other restaurant in the national chain, except for the line that begins forming at 11 a.m. Those waiting wear the Oakley sunglasses favored by people who have worked in Afghanistan or Iraq. Their shoes are boots, the color of desert sand. Forty percent of NSA’s work force is active-duty military.

Elsewhere, Jerome Jones, one of its residents, is talking about the building that has sprung up beyond his backyard. “It used to be all farmland, then they just started digging one day,” he said. “I don’t know what they do up there, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t worry about it.”

The building, sealed off behind fencing and Jersey barriers, is larger than a football field. It has no identifying sign. It does have an address, but Google Maps doesn’t recognize it. Type it in, and another address is displayed, every time. “6700,” it says.

No street name. Just 6700.

In the Washington area, 4,000 corporate offices handle classified information, 25 percent more than last year, according to one Defense Department supervisor. All existing buildings have things that need to be checked, and new buildings have to be gone over from top to bottom before the NSA will allow occupants to even connect to the agency via telephone.

More growth looms

Soon, one more will be in the Fort Meade cluster: a four-story building, near a quiet, gated community of upscale town houses, that builder Dennis Lane boasts can withstand a car bomb.

Lane, senior vice president of Ryan Commercial real estate, has become something of a snoop himself. At 55, he has lived and worked in the NSA’s shadow all his life. He collects business intelligence using a personal network of informants.

Lane notices when the NSA or another secretive organization leases a building, hires contractors and expands its outreach to the business community. He follows construction projects, job migrations, corporate moves. He knows local planners are estimating 10,000 jobs will come with an expanded NSA and 52,000 from other intelligence units moving to Fort Meade.

Lane knew months before it was announced that the next giant military command, U.S. Cyber Command, would be run by the same general who heads the NSA. “This whole cyber thing is going to be big,” Lane said. “A cyber command could eat up all the building inventory out there.”

At night, the cluster hums along. In the National Business Park, the 140-room Marriott Courtyard is sold out, as usual.

Inside the NSA, workers flow in and out. The ones leaving carry a plastic bar-coded box. Inside is a door key that rattles as they walk. To those who work here, it’s the sound of a shift change.

As employees starting their shifts push the turnstiles forward, those leaving push their identity badges into the mouth of the key machine. A door opens. They drop their key box in, then exit through the turnstiles. They drive slowly through the barriers and gates, passing a stream of cars headed in. It’s almost midnight in a sleepless place growing larger every day.

Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.