The Eye of The Storm
In a secret, high-tech spy hub near Washington, the war on terror is 24-7
The 2004 law that formalized the NCTC also gives it a "strategic operational planning" role, which has taken some time to define. In some ways, it's easier to explain what it isn't. Redd is quick to say that, unlike in the popular TV spy show 24, they don't go after any terrorists themselves. "Jack Bauer doesn't live here," he says.
NCTC officials might not be prowling dark alleyways in Cairo or camping out in Pakistan's lawless borderlands. But the NCTC is, for the first time, trying to make sure that all the operational agencies don't unwittingly trip over one another in the field. "NCTC is not directing operations," says Brock. "We're here just to kind of act as the air traffic controller and make sure everybody is talking." Most of this work is so highly classified that it is difficult to discuss, but Brock tries to describe a recent example in general terms. During the daily 8 a.m. videoconference earlier this year, one intelligence agency announced that it had an imminent opportunity to capture a key terrorist suspect in a Middle Eastern country. Another agency piped up, warning that a productive source of intelligence might be lost if the suspect were nabbed. Brock asked the two agencies to work it out themselves, which they did (although Brock declined to describe how).
Disney-esque. NCTC officials also monitor unfolding plots and investigations, producing continually updated reports called Threat Threads on the most dangerous cases. There are as many as a dozen Threat Threads at any given time; on a recent Monday, the NCTC was tracking 11 different threats. A Thread report came in handy when, for example, the NCTC was coordinating the fast-moving investigation into this summer's alleged plot in Britain to blow up as many as 10 aircraft using liquid explosives. At first, officials had been following the investigation from a distance, because it appeared to be a largely U.K. plot.
But after receiving what officials call "a very specific piece of intelligence" that the suspected plotters were targeting airplanes heading for the United States, the NCTC swung into high gear. Redd was at the White House every day as the investigation built to a climax. At the same time, his aides were helping to coordinate how much information was released to officials at key government agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration. "They don't need to know what we know about what's going on in Pakistan," says Redd. "But they very much want to know what data we have to be on the lookout for and how does this change our screening procedures."
The NCTC's showpiece is its 24-hour operations center. Designed with input from, among others, Walt Disney's Imagineers, it looks like a film director's version of a high-tech government command post. Giant screens dominate the front of the room, displaying anything from broadcast of an Arab satellite news channel or the radar map over New York City to a highly classified live feed from an armed Predator drone over Afghanistan. An NCTC watch team of at least a dozen people is on duty at all times, while the FBI and the CIA each maintain their own independent terrorism watch centers in the same space. "We are getting paid to say who knows about this information we've just come across, who needs to know about it, and what are they doing about it," says Don Loren, a retired naval officer who runs the operations center.