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.
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Everyone laughed, except the photographer, a civil-service veteran named Vicki Wood. She didn't flinch. "Not my commander in chief," she said stoically. "It was clearly digitally enhanced." Then she smiled.Skip to next paragraph
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Afterward, Ms. Wood warned, "Put your badges back on, because if you don't, they'll draw their guns on you!" Asked how long she'd been working there, she responded, "100 years," and then winked. It was also, she informed us, her last day on the job. She was retiring.
Overall, more than 400 people work at the facility. Many spend 12 hours a day, four days a week sifting through information that reflects in some cases the worst of human nature. Occasionally, they get to see evidence of good, when an informer or citizen tips them off – often at great risk – about something terrible that might be coming.
It's too early to know if the center will help make the country safer. The war on terror involves more than just rounding up billions of bits and bytes. The material has to be analyzed, the threats recognized and communicated, and all the various departments have to work together in responding – something that hasn't always happened in the past.
In fact, that's one thing that worries some intelligence experts. The center doesn't have direction operational authority. "They don't have a roomful of buttons where they push things to make things happen," says John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA. Instead, they have an office of strategic planning – a sort of "halfway house" that was the result of compromise, he says, so there would be no conflict with the CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon. So when the NCTC detects a serious threat, it draws up a plan and "recommends" actions for the other agencies.
Later in the tour, Louise Lief, the deputy director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, which organized our visit, asked the question we all really wanted to know: Did Disney really help design the center?
"We don't discuss our contractual relationships," said Wesley, our latest tour guide. (For security's sake, he asked that his last name not be used. Turns out, even his neighbors don't know what he does.) Even so, a quick Google search confirms that, sure enough, Walt Disney "Imagineers" were tapped to help configure the operations center, presumably because they know something about building workspaces that foster creativity and man-machine interaction, not because of their expertise with Snow White.
After passing through two more secure doors, we were led onto a balcony above the dark cavernous auditorium. Below, big and small computer screens blinked from the top of a dozen amoeba-shaped desks. Three huge video displays dominated the front of the room. On the ceiling, a red light flashed ominously. "That's to alert them that people who don't have clearance are present," said Wesley.
It turns out that Wesley wasn't the only one who didn't want to be identified. As we entered the operations room, many of the intelligence analysts walked out. Another, strolling in after a break, saw us and vanished.
Nothing personal. They just don't want to be known. They live with the knowledge that they and their facility are prime terror targets.
And, despite the government's best intentions, the NCTC is not that hard to locate. The receipt for the jacket with the really neat NCTC logo that I bought at the gift shop yields a few clues. It contains the name of the complex and the city where it's located. But I won't tell, promise.