President Obama is scheduled to meet on Tuesday afternoon with 20 of his security advisers to receive the results of two inquiries into how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab snuck a bomb onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. One of those advisers is Michael Leiter, the Bush-appointed director of the National Counterterrorism Center, a hub created after 9/11 for the intelligence community’s voluminous data about terrorist plots and ambitions. While NCTC, as it’s known, has taken much criticism in the media over the past two weeks for failing to flag Abdulmutallab as a threat, NCTC has so far evaded criticism over a structural problem it still faces five years after its creation: of the 300 analysts working at the center, fewer than a dozen focus full-time on the Middle East.
[Security1] According to NCTC veterans, the NCTC’s Middle East Branch consists of eight to nine analysts at any given time. Those analysts are responsible for integrating and analyzing millions of pieces of fragmentary data relevant to terrorism in the Middle East provided by partner intelligence agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency. They disseminate their synthesis throughout the intelligence community and into the law-enforcement and policymaking worlds, to ensure officials perceive previously hidden connections that might reveal the next al-Qaeda plot and act accordingly. And they’re responsible for analysis of a region central to the organization: Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Osama bin Laden and ancestral home of most 9/11 hijackers; Iraq, rocked by years of war and occupation; the restive Levant, Israel and the Palestinian territories, a decades-long hotbed of extremism; and Yemen, where the Nigeria-born Abdulmutallab received his explosive device from a growing al-Qaeda presence.
“There’s limited manpower and finite resources,” said a former NCTC analyst who, like several colleagues in the intelligence community, described the state of the Middle East Branch on condition of anonymity. Longstanding and government-wide shortfalls in language resources afflict the branch as well, the analyst said: “Very few people speak Arabic, and very few have ever been to the region.”
An individual familiar with NCTC’s current operations did not dispute the number of Middle East Branch analysts. But the individual said focusing on the number was misleading, because NCTC can shift analysts around from across the center to surge attention and resources to deal with an emerging problem. “There might be eight or nine people that are deemed those particular experts, but across the Center, there’s a heck of a lot more that can be drawn upon,” the individual said, citing more-experienced supervisors and additional NCTC branches and groups working on related issues that can contribute as needed.
But several NCTC veterans, none of whom would agree to be identified because of their ongoing involvement with the intelligence community, discussed chronic shortfalls of manpower at the agency. One NCTC veteran described a single analyst — “yes, singular,” a different former NCTC analyst emphasized — who until recently was responsible for analysis of terrorism on the entire Arabian Peninsula, apparently during the time when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged as what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday termed a “global threat.”
A different U.S. intelligence official pushed back on the importance of that seeming shortfall. “Yemen has been an area of significant focus by this organization and others around the government,” the intelligence official said. Pointing to the eight or nine analysts on the Branch is “wholly misleading,” because others in NCTC work on aspects of terrorism analysis for al-Qaeda not specifically related to Yemen or the Middle East that assist understanding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the official continued, “Now, there may be one primary person who’s looking at a particular area or has particular expertise or is a regional expert or is a country expert, OK, let’s say that’s ‘The Person.’ But with all that’s been going on in that country” — a reference to U.S. intelligence-assisted strikes on the terrorist organization — “it is totally wrong to think that there is just one person that’s watching Yemen.”
Since passengers and crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 prevented Abdulmutallab from detonating a device hidden in his underwear, overwhelming media and political attention has focused on how NCTC synthesized fragmentary bits of data acquired about Abdulmutallab and the organization that outfitted him, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based franchise of the terrorist network. The most specific piece of information NCTC received came from officials at the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, after the would-be bomber’s father told embassy staff on Nov. 19 that Abdulmutallab might be an extremist. An interagency process led by NCTC determined that the information did not meet an agreed-upon standard of “specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion” necessary to place Abdulmutallab on a terrorist database maintained by the FBI, a precursor to placement on the no-fly list. Frustrated intelligence officials have wondered what they were really supposed to do with those data fragments, and have expressed bitterness over becoming a media scapegoat — and having other government departments blame them for the Christmas Day near-attack.
John Brennan, Obama’s senior White House counterterrorism adviser and the first director of NCTC, said on ABC’s “This Week” that a positive sign in the Abdulmutallab case was that unlike before 9/11, there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the various intelligence agencies with information on Abdulmutallab or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were “reluctant to share” with each other. The trouble, Brennan said — and will likely report to Obama on Tuesday afternoon — was that “there are millions upon millions of bits of data that come in on a regular basis. What we need to do is make sure the system is robust enough that we can bring that information to the surface that really is a threat concern.”
Yet some experts question NCTC’s organizational configuration for such synthesis. Staffing the Middle East Branch with eight or nine full-time analysts is “a baffling management decision” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence-policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. “Other than South Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, what is more important than the Middle East from a counterterrorism point of view? Where are the other several hundred [NCTC] analysts focused?”
Much of NCTC remains outside public view. Its budget is classified, a component of the budget allocated to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — which is also not publicly disclosed.
NCTC veterans described a situation where the requirements of preventing terrorist attacks outweighed the resources provided to NCTC. “The sheer volume of intel is amazing,” one said. “The word ‘jihad’ is on the Internet every single day, it’s like [several] billion hits. And there’s no way you can track every email or cellphone conversation.”
Compounding the challenge is the questionable experience of many NCTC analysts, about 60 percent of whom are on loan from other intelligence organizations on two-year rotations. One of the former NCTC analysts described eager and dedicated colleagues being assigned to areas of expertise they did not come to NCTC possessing; as well as analysts reassigned from their areas of focus to assist with the latest crisis.
“You’re assigned to Yemen? Great, but you don’t know who the players are, what the [country's] resources are, and you don’t know where al-Qaeda fits into the whole process,” the former analyst said. Analysts will often be asked to be brought up to speed by their colleagues or predecessors. The two-year rotations are meant to encourage a culture of intelligence sharing within the 16 intelligence agencies of the U.S. government. Some intelligence professionals believe that those rotations ultimately give CIA or Defense Department analysts a broader perspective about an intelligence question. Others lament that their acquired expertise rotates back from NCTC to their partner agencies. “The nature of this organization is that people leave their jobs every two years,” the ex-NCTC analyst said.
The center’s hundreds of analysts are organized into units looking at extremist groups, various regions of the world where they operate, and questions about the groups’ capabilities and intentions. “There’s staffing that’s re-prioritized all the time. None of this is set in stone,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “People are put on particular groups and task forces that examine issues closely as they emerge. The numbers themselves are not really telling you the story of how much can be put against a particular issue or topic or threat that’s emerging.”
But with Brennan talking about an accelerated need to “bring [terrorism] information together so when a father comes in with information and we have intelligence, we can map that,” some in the intelligence community are concerned that the already overtaxed NCTC will be asked to synthesize even more fragmentary data from its contributing intelligence agencies. “What you’ll end up doing is opening up the firehose to full blast,” said one. “They’re barely able to handle what they have right now.” Indeed, Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic reported Tuesday that before the attempted Christmas attack, Leiter and the NCTC’s leadership were preparing for 2010 budget cuts. The U.S. intelligence official who defended NCTC added, “Clearly, if people believe more resources have to be applied against something, it’ll be identified” for Congress to approve, although the official said that conclusion was premature.
Aftergood, however, questioned whether NCTC’s performance merited giving the center additional funding or manpower. “There’s a tendency to say if organization fails in its mission we should give it more resources, and if it succeeds in mission we should give it more resources,” he said. “There are some other questions we need to examine first, such as: is this organization properly structured to accomplish its mission? Maybe there’s an explanation for the surprisingly small allocation of Mideast analysts, but it’s not at all obvious.”