CVC Watch

Posted January 28, 2008 at 6:55pm

It’s not even open yet, and already the Capitol Visitor Center is serving as the centerpiece of a best-selling novel.

“Stone Cold,” the New York Times best-seller and latest thriller by author David Baldacci, tells the story of Oliver Stone, an ex-CIA assassin and leader of a secretive group of Washington, D.C., residents known as the Camel Club.

As the novel opens, Stone (who takes his name after the real-life conspiracy-loving director, Oliver Stone) is trying to help friend and con artist Annabelle Conroy escape the grasp of casino tycoon Jerry Bagger, from whom she has just stolen $40 million.

Meanwhile, family man Harry Finn is busy at his job as a patriotic consultant to the Department of Homeland Security, finding holes in security at airports, the Pentagon and other important sites.

[IMGCAP(1)]In his free time, however, Finn is murdering ex-CIA assassins who he believes played a role in the death of his father, a former CIA agent who improperly has been labeled a traitor.

Eventually (be warned — spoilers ahead!) Stone is targeted on Finn’s list, along with a corrupt Senator and even more corrupt former leader of America’s intelligence community, and everything comes together in a dramatic shootout finale that takes place in the CVC’s main hall.

Baldacci had been interested in using the CVC in a novel ever since working on “The Collectors,” the second in the Camel Club series and the predecessor to “Stone Cold,” he said.

“The facility wasn’t open yet and no one had written about it before, at least in a thriller context,” Baldacci said. “It seemed an intriguing location because of its size, complexity and proximity to important buildings … it worked well with the demands of the plot for Stone Cold.”

The CVC is referenced throughout the novel, as Finn visits the facility’s construction site in his role as a security consultant.

On one official CVC tour, he asks a CVC a guide several questions “subtly designed to elicit information that the guide would never have knowingly revealed.”

“Once all was put together, the unsuspecting tour guide had given them nearly enough information to take down the Capitol and everyone in it,” Baldacci writes.

At one point, Finn dons a Capitol Police uniform and studies the tunnels that connect the CVC, Library of Congress and Capitol. The CVC tunnels, Finn believes, provide the best way for a terrorist to cause serious damage on Capitol Hill.

But instead of Finn turning in a detailed report to authorities on those security flaws, he and the others wind up taking part in a violent shootout in the CVC’s main hall. (It should be noted that a mock terrorist attack also is taking place on Capitol Hill during the shootout, making it possible for the violence to occur with little notice from the Capitol Hill community.)

CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said Baldacci never got in contact with the Architect of the Capitol for the book. Fontana declined to comment on its contents since it is a work of fiction.

But even without the AOC’s help, Baldacci does a pretty good job describing the CVC — its theaters, gift shops, exhibition areas, etc. — and he also manages to include some of the criticisms the project has received over the years.

“In keeping with Washington’s stellar reputation for efficiency and integrity, the project was only years behind schedule and only several hundred million dollars over budget,” Baldacci writes. (In real life, the CVC is $321 million over its original budget and is expected to be finished about four years after it was first slated for completion.)

That opinion aside, there are some things included in the novel — which has spent 11 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and is currently No. 13 — that no longer are accurate.

For one, the CVC in the book is described as rough and unfinished; in real life, CVC construction is now basically complete, with officials focusing on conducting fire- and life-safety tests on the site.

And there is another change that has emerged since the novel’s November 2007 publication.

In the book, the characters refer to the CVC’s centerpiece room as the “Great Hall.” But earlier this month, that room officially became “Emancipation Hall,” named in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

“Stone Cold” is listed at $26.99 and published by Grand Central Publishing.