The Eye of The Storm
In a secret, high-tech spy hub near Washington, the war on terror is 24-7
"Historic baggage." Every watch officer can, in theory, access any piece of counterterrorism intelligence in the entire U.S. government. "We're pretty much the cutting edge," says an air marshal from the TSA assigned to the watch center for the past 18 months. "We're the first ones to see it, and we push it to wherever it needs to go." There are limits, however: To send a piece of raw intelligence from an agency's operational files out to the rest of the community, an NCTC official must first secure the permission of the agency that issued it.
The bulk of the NCTC's work remains on the analysis side. But the road to becoming the hub for U.S. counterterrorism analysis has been rocky. The NCTC (and its predecessor organization, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center) got off to a slow start. "Initially, there was a reluctance on the part of government agencies to let people from other agencies have access to their networks," says John Brennan, who founded the Threat Integration Center and ran the NCTC for its first year. "A lot of people didn't understand what NCTC's mission was."
Getting enough experienced analysts was another problem, and the NCTC had several early tussles over personnel with the CIA's CounterTerrorism Center. Officials insist the wrinkles have largely been ironed out. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, took the first big step last year when he ordered some 90 CIA analysts to move over to the NCTC. Gen. Michael Hayden's arrival as CIA director (after a stint as the deputy DNI) helped to further cement NCTC's status. Almost immediately, Hayden dispatched an additional 28 analysts to NCTC, and he has pledged to send over 50 more in the next year.
Some critics worry that taking analysts from the CIA could harm the ability of its own CounterTerrorism Center to use analysis to target operations aimed at capturing or killing terrorists. But officials insist that, if anything, the new structure frees up the CIA's center from much of the broader analytical work. "I actually think that NCTC may offer us better opportunities to support all the elements of national power because an awful lot of our activity here, quite legitimately and quite naturally, was focused in on supporting our operations," Hayden tells U.S. News. "We can't take all of America's analytic expertise and hard-wire it to any kill or capture operation. So I was willing to take the risk of shifting some of the weight of our analytic force from here to NCTC." Another factor is the civil liberties concern of giving the CIA, which is barred from domestic spying, access to law enforcement case files. Hayden says that it is better to bridge that gap "in a new location, without any historic baggage to worry about."
This summer, the CIA and the NCTC also agreed to adhere to what officials call "lanes in the road," which lay out who is responsible for reporting on which general areas. It's a tough balancing act, between reducing overlap on one side and ensuring competitive analysis on the other. "The worst thing in the world would be to have one gigantic organization that did all the thinking on counterterrorism for the entire government because the 'groupthink' syndrome comes into play," says Andy Liepman, a career CIA official who now manages the 200 analysts inside the NCTC.