The Eye of The Storm
In a secret, high-tech spy hub near Washington, the war on terror is 24-7
Every weekday at 8 a.m., Kevin Brock hefts a thick white ring binder onto a sleek, oval conference table. Labeled "Read Book," the deceptively plain folder houses the "Threat Matrix," a top-secret compendium of the most troubling reports of possible terrorist activity, drawn from the nation's 16 intelligence agencies. It is thicker than usual on a recent Monday morning, packed with 66 separate items that came in over the weekend. Brock, the principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is about to brief some of the government's most senior officials on the latest threat information.
First, though, he must sort through the reports, most of which are vague-and sometimes little more than anonymous tips. Many are false alarms. ("If we could eliminate all the jilted lovers and ex-spouses," Brock says later, cracking a smile, "we would greatly reduce the number of threats we receive on a daily basis.") But some of the nuggets-coming from CIA operatives, FBI sources, or reliable foreign spy agencies-must be taken seriously. Brock, after meeting with the leadership of the counterterrorism center, decided to present 18 of the threat reports at the 8 a.m. videoconference.
Facing a wall of secure video feeds, Brock watches top leaders from a dozen key players gather-the CIA, the FBI, the eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency, even the White House. A briefer from the center, running through the 18 items, discusses possible terrorist action in south Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, even inside the United States. Brock raises the recent release of a videotape showing two of the September 11 hijackers smiling for the camera. He pays particular attention to overseas threats that have a possible domestic angle. "NCTC was created to ... ensure the handshake occurs between international intelligence collection and the FBI or others within the country to take action," says Brock, a career FBI agent. "And we're seeing that take place on almost a daily basis."
"No boundaries." Housed in an unmarked office complex in Northern Virginia, the National Counterterrorism Center has become the centerpiece of reform efforts to integrate the far-flung intelligence community. The NCTC was created in the wake of the September 11 attacks to reduce the gulf between America's spy agencies and domestic law enforcement. With more than 30 separate, highly classified government networks pumping information into NCTC headquarters, it has unfettered access to the crown jewels of the U.S. intelligence community-including raw cables from CIA spies and detailed FBI case files. One congressional staffer with knowledge of intelligence matters calls it a "miracle," only half joking. "We're the only place in the U.S. government where all that information comes together," says retired Vice Adm. Scott Redd, the center's director. "There are no boundaries in this business."
Inside and outside the intelligence world, however, people are still confused about what the two-year-old organization is supposed to do-and what it's not. U.S. News was granted unprecedented access to the senior leadership of the NCTC, which is supposed to become the primary hub for tracking and analyzing the terrorist threat. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte calls it the single biggest change during his 18 months in office. "The center is really looked to as the principal source of analysis of these kinds of developments," Negroponte tells U.S. News. The NCTC is still building up its ranks, but already it is butting up against the other agencies that work on terrorism, particularly the CIA, which has run its own CounterTerrorism Center since 1986.