The Eye of The Storm
In a secret, high-tech spy hub near Washington, the war on terror is 24-7
Liepman's most active analysts work in the Al Qaeda and Sunni Affiliates group. One team in the group is dedicated solely to al Qaeda's plotting inside the United States. "Most of the [homeland] plots we believe are credible have in their ancestry an al Qaeda brain," says Liepman. Other groups look at all the other terrorist organizations, as well as their interest in weapons of mass destruction. A fourth tracks the logistical aspects of terrorism, including travel, financing, and communications. "You can't just disrupt the attack," says Redd. "You have to go after every element of that life cycle."
Critics have faulted the NCTC for weak analysis on longer-term strategic topics, such as which factors in Islamic societies help generate more terrorists. Part of it is a staffing problem-there is just so much demand for the tactical work of chasing terrorism suspects. "We have not been able to work the long-term strategic issues to our satisfaction," says Dawn Scalici, a veteran CIA officer who is the deputy director for mission management at the NCTC. "We're stretched pretty thin." Eventually, NCTC officials plan to double the number of analysts. For now, more than half of the 200 analysts have less than three years' experience working on counterterrorism issues. "The fact is that they don't have the culture of analysis that the CIA has built up over decades," says a recently retired intelligence analyst. "They need to develop the analytic tradecraft."
The NCTC's analysts do have one tremendous advantage-wide access to both domestic and foreign raw intelligence traffic. But their physical isolation from the bulk of the CIA's regional and cultural experts could make it more difficult to detect emerging threats. "The analysts are further away from many of the specialists in the intelligence community," says Paul Pillar, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who once served as the deputy chief of its CounterTerrorism Center. "Consultation with them would be essential to help have early warning." Liepman counters that much of that contact is already happening in secure online forums these days. "There is a very good, very healthy, substantive discussion going on now between people who follow Hezbollah and people who follow Iran," he says. "Just because they are not at NCTC or in the counterterrorism community, it doesn't mean they don't have a voice."
The technological challenges have been daunting. When U.S. News visited the Terrorist Threat Integration Center three years ago, then director Brennan had five different computers under his desk to access all the different agencies' networks. That problem remains, and, if anything, is even worse now that the NCTC has even greater access to data. In fact, with more than 30 computer networks wired into the NCTC, analysts in the operations center have to use multiple desks to access them all-the switching equipment they use to toggle between networks can accommodate a maximum of only nine systems. Also, analysts cannot yet search all the networks at the same time with a single command. That technology, says Chief Information Officer Bill Spalding, is still "a couple of years away."