The National Counter Terrorism Center gave 15 journalists, including one from the Christian Science Monitor, a tour of its facility in an “undisclosed location in northern Virginia.” The center was designed to help surmount the intelligence communication lapses that led up to the 9/11 attacks. More than 30 computer networks feed a river of intelligence into the 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. The FBI, CIA, Defense Department, and 15 other federal agencies funnel information through the center. The data include government briefings, satellite photos, classified cables, phone conversations, 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.
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. One thing that worries some intelligence experts: the center doesn’t have 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. When the NCTC detects a serious threat, it draws up a plan and “recommends” actions for the other agencies.