Spending a day at the National Counter Terrorism Center
Reporters tour the secret intelligence agency and find computers, intense security, and a touch of Walt Disney.
Somewhere in Virginia
We weren't blindfolded, but we were asked to forget where we were going. There were 15 of us. All reporters from different parts of the country on a small bus speeding out of Washington toward the nation's new counterterrorism nerve center.Skip to next paragraph
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We'd already been told that tape recorders, cellphones, Blackberrys, and other communications devices had to be left behind in the bus when we got there. And if we referred to the locale at all, we were supposed to identify it as an "undisclosed location in northern Virginia," according to our tour leader, wielding a microphone in the front of the bus.
Within a fairly short time (we won't say how much: 15 minutes, a half hour, maybe 2 hours – you know Washington traffic), we arrived at the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), where we went through a cordon of security checks. A gleaming new complex nestled in a wooded area (somewhere in northern Virginia), the center was designed to help surmount the intelligence communication lapses that led up to the 9/11 tragedy. Congress created it in 2004. It is the highest high-tech cerebellum that the nation's best engineers and creative minds – think Disney (more on that later) – could come up with.
Or, in the very official words of Mike Leiter, the principal deputy director of the NCTC, "We are the primary analytic agency for counterintelligence in the nation. We inform policymakers and support counterterrorism operations around the world."
More than anything, it is a sophisticated junction of human synapses and electronic circuit boards. More than 30 separate computer networks here and abroad feed a river of intelligence into the NCTC's central operations center, which is staffed 24/7 by at least a dozen analysts. They sit in a cavernous auditorium equipped with multiple computer stations and huge overhead screens, a la Dr. Strangelove (again, think Disney.)
The Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and 15 other federal agencies funnel information through the center. The data include government briefings, satellite photos, classified cables, phone conversations, even gossip and routine threats – tens of thousands of potential intelligence bits a day. Most of it is nonsense, called "noise" by the spies. But somewhere, amid all the chatter, there's the occasional "signal" – something of import or interest. And when they find it, the NCTC thrums to life.
The center is the Bush administration's attempt to prove that in the aftermath of 9/11, top officials got it: They need to "connect the dots" between national and international intelligence. And that's where the dichotomy lies. This secret intelligence facility also turns out to be a tourist attraction of sorts – at least for reporters, lawmakers, law enforcement, and counterintelligence officials from around the world. It's the public face of the nation's "secret" counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, the NCTC comes complete with tour guides, photographers, and a gift shop full of the latest counterterrorism memorabilia – mugs, T-shirts, jackets, and even NCTC memorial coins.
Visitors evidently come through so frequently that an electronic sign in one of the entrance hallways warns: "Foreigners Present." (We journalists weren't sure if that referred to intelligence officials from other countries or us.) After our briefing by Mr. Leiter, we were stopped on our way toward the operations center by the press staff and a photographer. They asked if we'd like to have our visit memorialized in a photo. Sure.
A stout, cheerful woman told us to take off our security badges, line up as if we were in a high school glee club, and smile. "Umm, I think your lens cap is on," said one of the journalists. "Did you see the photo in Newsweek of Bush looking out of binoculars with the lens cap on?"