U.S. Intelligence Community Changes with Sept. 11

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Much has changed in the U.S. intelligence community since the Sept. 11 attacks. Agencies have been restructured, and a new agency — the National Counterterrorism Center — was founded. Progress has been made. But the job does not appear finished.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To thwart al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. spy efforts in 60 years after September 11th. The centerpiece of those reforms was the creation of a new office, the Director of National Intelligence; and reporting to him, a high-tech counterterrorism center.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly recently paid a visit to both. She found signs of progress but also skeptics who question whether the reforms will help prevent another attack.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Drive to McLean, Virginia, to a gleaming office building, past the security barriers, up the elevators, and you arrive at this door. It's the gateway to the new hub of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

(Soundbite of door closing and electronic keypad)

KELLY: We're in an antechamber now. On the wall are the words Never Forget. Turn the corner and we're inside the command center of the NCTC, the new National Counterterrorism Center.

WESLEY (NCTC Official): Now, across the room you can walk directly into the FBI's counterterrorism watch and then underneath us is an element of the CIA counterterrorism center.

KELLY: This is Wesley, an NCTC official who asked us to use his first name only. He's gesturing towards several dozen workstations spread around a darkened two-story chamber. Clocks displaying the time in Tehran and Karachi float overhead. The walls are ringed with enormous flat-screen TVs.

There are red lights flashing up here. What's that?

WESLEY: The red lights are for you. And that just tells everyone here in the operation center that we're operating at an unclassified level now.

KELLY: To allow a civilian to visit, the NCTC has had to, as they put it, take down operations. You can see many computer screens are wiped blank and while Wesley says the giant TVs often display classified data, just now they're showing cable news.

WESLEY: The systems are designed so that we might have a news program on that large screen right next to some of the most sensitive intelligence information we have, because oftentimes what we do depends on being able to put that information together.

KELLY: We're going to make a quick exit so these people can get back to work.

WESLEY: Hi, it's Wesley. You can bring it back up to top secret. Great. Out here.

(Soundbite of handset being hung up)

KELLY: All together about 300 analysts now work at NCTC. They're drawn mostly from the CIA, also from FBI, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and other agencies. Kevin Brock is their boss. He's the Counterterrorism Center's number two official and the electronics in his office down the hall aren't quite so impressive. Here's the problem. To fulfill NCTC's key mission of sharing intelligence across all U.S. spy agencies, Brock and his staff need access to 28 different computer networks.

You can pull all of those up on your computer by doing what?

Mr. KEVIN BROCK (NCTC Official): On one single screen. We've got a little...

KELLY: Hitting these buttons?

Mr. BROCK: See the little switchbox under there? And you can bounce from network to network to network. That's the good news. The bad news is you still have to bounce from network to network to network.

KELLY: Because none of the 28 networks talk to each other. So if Brock wants to search for the latest threat information on, say, Osama bin Laden, he has to search each network separately. Here's some perspective on how stubborn a problem this is. When we visited NCTC's predecessor, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, more than two years ago, then-director John Brennan was grappling with the exact same headache. Brennan told us he hoped to have an integrated database within a few months. That was in April, 2004.

Today Kevin Brock says he believes a solution is still a year or two away. But Brock also points to areas where progress has been made, and quickly. The Center now produces a daily terrorism bulletin for top policy makers and it makes sure the big spy agencies are talking to each other.

Mr. BROCK: Each day at eight o'clock I chair a secure video conference with the leaders from each of the intelligence communities. We sit down and we go over what's happened over the last 24 hours. CIA, can you shed light on this? FBI, what are you doing in this regard? NSA, what are you reporting on? This wasn't being done before.

KELLY: The National Counterterrorism Center also contributes to the president's daily briefing, a task now managed by National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

Negroponte's job was created as a remedy after 9/11. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the attacks, concluded that U.S. intelligence desperately needed a quarterback, someone with the authority to call the plays across all 16 agencies. Lee Hamilton was co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. He has mixed feelings about how things are working out.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Co-Chair, 9/11 Commission): Well, it's one thing to pass a law, and it's another thing to make it work. And so the focus shifts now from creating the law to implementing the law. And the game is in doubt.

KELLY: That sentiment was echoed in a progress report this summer from the House Intelligence Committee. The report judges that Negroponte is succeeding at whipping the FBI into shape, and that the budget process is going better, but it also warns about an overall lack of urgency, and it characterizes progress in intelligence reform as, quote, neither even nor all encompassing. We put these concerns directly to Mr. Negroponte a few days ago during an interview in his sunny office overlooking the Potomac River.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (Director of National Intelligence): I think that we've made some important institutional reforms. They don't think that we've moved fast enough. What I would say to your listeners is, look, we're moving with all deliberate speed here. Some of this is a bit like watching the grass grow. You don't necessarily see results overnight. But I can assure you people are working extremely hard and with a real sense of urgency and dedication.

KELLY: Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has another criticism to level at Negroponte: that he's adopted too low a public profile.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): I personally believe that John Negroponte should be out there more explaining what his mission is. That would do two things. First of all, it would send a message to the American people that we, the government they pay for, is trying to do its best job.

KELLY: And second, Harman argues, a more visible intelligence chief would raise morale among case officers out in the field.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well, I mean first of all I think it's the results; I think we all believe that it's the results that count.

KELLY: John Negroponte.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Secondly, it may be a bit of a matter of personal style. Certainly I've encouraged my colleagues to be out there, so I have them out explaining what they are doing in each of their areas of responsibility. So I think if you take my office as a whole, I would say we're probably as visible as the intelligence community has ever been.

KELLY: There's no doubt the job Negroponte has taken on is gargantuan, managing a roughly $44 billion budget and 100,000 people. The question is, even with all those resources, have U.S. spy efforts improved enough to detect and stop another attack? The matter is complicated by the profound disagreements among terrorism experts over what form the next attack may take.

Daniel Benjamin, author of the book The Next Attack, believes al-Qaida leaders will try to pull off another spectacular.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Author): They are acutely aware that something smaller than 9/11 or even just a run-of-the-mill car bomb or something like that would communicate to the United States that it's a group in distress. So there is a sense that when America is taken on it has to be hit as hard as possible.

KELLY: Other experts believe a smaller scale attack is more likely. But there is one point of agreement. Almost everyone who studies terrorism believes it's not a question of if the U.S. is hit again, but when.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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