Analysts Question Al-Qaeda Efforts at Counterterrorism Center
President Barack Obama (WDCpix)
The National Counterterrorism Center is in for a brutal week. Its director, Michael Leiter, faces a battery of Capitol Hill hearings next week on what President Obama has described as a systemic intelligence failure ahead of the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. But if lawmakers look beyond the immediate circumstances of how would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to board a Detroit-bound jet despite a number of warning signs, there is evidence that NCTC has a host of structural problems, raising questions about its contributions to the effort against al-Qaeda.
[Security1]According to interviews with several veteran NCTC analysts, the five-year-old center, meant to be a hub for pulling together terrorism information from across the 16-agency U.S. intelligence community to better anticipate future attacks, has a cumbersome bureaucratic structure and a questionable set of institutional values. Only half of NCTC’s roughly 300 analysts focus directly on al-Qaeda — with some analyzing terror groups that do not threaten the United States, like the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka or the Hamas radicals of the Gaza Strip. Analysts are valued by the volume of writing they produce for policymakers, not the impact that analysis has on counterterrorism operations. Analysts entering NCTC from the partner agencies are assigned to areas where NCTC has vacancies, regardless of their particular specialties. And the managers who preside over analysts seeking to connect the dots — as Obama chastised the intelligence community for falling short on the Christmas would-be attack — are often inexperienced in intelligence analysis themselves.
“What counts over all in terms of promotion, recognition, etc., is the number of papers published,” one NCTC veteran said about the center’s standards for success. “It’s a numbers game.” Another added, “Publishing is the goal, not the effect of your paper.” All NCTC veterans interviewed for this piece spoke only on condition of anonymity due to their ongoing involvement in the intelligence community. Their goal in speaking out, they said, is to strengthen U.S. counterterrorism efforts by shining a light on aspects of the center’s apparent malaise.
Steve Aftergood has heard these criticisms before, particularly about agencies that value publication above impact. “That’s kind of the default mode for an intelligence bureaucracy,” said Aftergood, an intelligence-policy analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s the characteristic decline of bureaucracies. Unless there’s someone on the inside pushing them to perform, they’re going to settle into a pattern of comfortable compliance.”
It was that pattern, in part, that the NCTC was created to fix. Worried about the compartmentalization of crucial fragmentary clues about terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission in 2004 recommended creating the NCTC to serve as “a center for joint operational planning and joint intelligence,” with its analytic component tasked with developing “net assessments (comparing enemy capabilities and intentions against U.S. defenses and countermeasures)” and to “provide warning” of imminent attacks. A major intelligence reform bill passed by Congress in December 2004 formally created the center and placed it on a campus in northern Virginia under the authority of the new head of the intelligence community, the Director of National Intelligence. Its budget is classified, and its operations have attracted very little press coverage.
As a result, very few on the outside know much about the organization or its structure. The 300 analysts of NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence are organized into five groups, each of which is run by a chief and a deputy. Each group compiles analysis from across the intelligence community on one of five topics: al-Qaeda’s overseas operations; al-Qaeda’s efforts targeting the U.S. homeland; weapons of mass destruction; an International Terror Group division looking at non al-Qaeda terror groups and their impact on various nations; and the capabilities, both known and developing, of all other terrorist groups. The two al-Qaeda-centric groups are the largest, with 75 analysts each. Each group contains a varying number of smaller branches, from which most of the specific analytic work originates. The Middle East Branch — composed of eight or nine analysts that look at al-Qaeda’s operations in the Middle East, as first reported last week by TWI — falls under the al-Qaeda Overseas Group.
U.S. intelligence officials told TWI last week that NCTC is able to surge analytic capabilities to the branches as necessary in a crisis. Two NCTC sources told TWI this week that it is far easier to surge capabilities within Groups than it is to bring analysts across them. Surprisingly, the non-al Qaeda-focused groups “are not permitted to [study] al-Qaeda,” one said. The roughly 150 other NCTC analysts focus from areas like weapons of mass destruction, weapons that al-Qaeda has shown greater interest than capability in acquiring, to country analysis in places of marginal al-Qaeda interest at best, like Australia. Analysts — those who have worked on al-Qaeda and on other threats — describe themselves as “drinking from a firehose” of information shared with NCTC by the partner intelligence agencies.
Analytic studies produced by NCTC rarely result in the killing or capturing of specific terrorists. By the time a counterterrorist operation gets “closer to that stage,” according to an NCTC veteran, the intelligence community or the military has “mobilized already. It’s never [the result of] something a single analyst puts together.” Instead, analysts’ merit is measured by the number of studies they produce for policymakers — chiefly, the president. “The customer is POTUS, that’s the only one [NCTC is] concerned about,” the veteran said. “Impact” on counterterrorist operations “is secondary.”
In response to a detailed list of questions for this article, Carl Kropf, a spokesman for NCTC, told TWI: “Our Directorate of Intelligence staff is comprised of regional experts, technical subject matter experts, and persons possessing in-depth understanding of terrorism, terrorist network operations and their affiliations, a capability that is unequaled in the U.S. Government.” While Kropf said that he could not disclose information about the NCTC’s organizational structure or operating practices, he added, “The majority of the NCTC staff is comprised of intelligence analysts and officers from multiple departments and agencies who operate in an atmosphere and environment that promotes collaboration and initiative, and one that recognizes and rewards outstanding performance.”
The agency that has played perhaps the most important role in shaping NCTC has been the CIA, the country’s largest and most prestigious intelligence service. Senior CIA officials occupy most of the NCTC’s Group Chief positions. All incoming NCTC analysts must take a weeks-long remedial course that principally teaches students how to write analytic product according to CIA style. CIA provides its analysts at NCTC with on-site management to ensure their CIA career development during their tours at the center. And it often brings junior analysts or recruits straight out of college to NCTC, where they can relatively quickly become managers or even Branch chiefs. Some experienced intelligence professionals find the track frustrating. “You can’t hire kids out of Georgetown,” one said. “You need people with 25 years in the [CIA] or 25 years in Army intel to say ‘This [information] is bullshit; this is the good stuff.’” Some speculate — cynically, perhaps — that CIA’s career track allows the agency to keep its most experienced analysts for itself.
CIA denies the charge. “The CIA has sent–and continues to send–seasoned and senior officers to NCTC,” said CIA spokesman George Little in an email. “That’s as it should be. The partnership between the two organizations is vital.”
Once inside NCTC for the typical two-year rotation, analysts are not necessarily assigned to their core specialties. If NCTC has a particular vacancy, “you could be analyst of the Russian or Baltic militaries, and you’re thrown into al-Qaeda,” said an NCTC veteran. While the intelligence community did not have a corps of al-Qaeda specialists before 9/11 to jump into senior positions afterward — the CIA created an Osama bin Laden Unit in 1997 within its Counterterrorist Center and staffed it with a handful of employees — it remains the case, said the NCTC veteran, that “suddenly you can be a senior manager” for a branch.
Branch leaders are responsible for green-lighting analytic products and sharpening analytic focus, much as editors do for writers. Several NCTC analysts described their branch leaders as saying — sometimes for good reason — “Let’s sit on it awhile until we have more information” and “We don’t want to go to POTUS with something we’re not sure about.” While several analysts describe that role as providing important pushback and preventing faulty intelligence analysis from reaching senior administration officials, one questioned whether that focus prevented analysts from piecing together information connecting Abdulmutallab to terrorism before the Christmas attempt. “That never would have been published, because it would have been too speculative” for the president to read, the analyst said — even though President Obama said on Jan. 5 that the intelligence community “failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.” Information compiled and reviewed by an interagency process helmed by NCTC contributes significantly to the process that leads to someone’s inclusion on the no-fly list.
No NCTC veteran interviewed for this piece placed any blame on Leiter, who has run NCTC since 2007. Several described him as dedicated and competent, though they questioned whether the bureaucratic structure of the center is optimized to confront the threat of terrorism. The Federation of American Scientist’s Aftergood, however, said that NCTC needed “an agency head who is capable of leading & motivating his analysts to get out of their own rut.”
iAftergood did not have a fixed judgment on Leiter, who won crucial political support last week from White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. But he said that he would gain a “better sense of what Leiter’s capabilities and intentions are” during the NCTC leader’s congressional testimony next week.
“The most useful [structural] changes could be identified by NCTC leadership itself — if it’s willing to go out on a limb of self-criticism,” Aftergood said. “If it’s in a defensive crouch, then the hearings are not going to be worth much, except as a confirmation that this is not a healthy organization.”