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Threat Analysis: Decoding The Chatter

4 minute read
Timothy J. Burger

Most of America is sleeping, but deep within CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, officials pulling overnight duty are scarfing junk food, soft drinks and coffee as they surf mountains of intelligence reports for the latest potential threat to Americans. These are the men and women of the year-old Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). As they sit at gray, modular workstations equipped with secure computer terminals and phones, their toil is long and arduous but never dull. “It’s day right now in half the world, so this shift’s pretty fast paced,” says an official. “In another hour, it’s morning prayers in East Africa. It’s morning already in Kabul.”

In an unprecedented tour of TTIC’s interim quarters as well as the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the pipeline that leads to the site of President Bush’s top-secret daily intelligence briefings, TIME correspondents got an inside look at the nerve center of America’s efforts against terrorism. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie mixed with urgency. Asked how often a night goes by without any potentially alarming intelligence reports coming in, an official replies, “I haven’t had a night like that. There’s always something.”

Each day, officials at TTIC (pronounced tee-tic) examine 5,000 to 6,000 pieces of intelligence, trying to assemble the best picture of what’s out there. Staffed by representatives of about a dozen government entities, TTIC strives to address the failure of agencies to share vital intelligence before 9/11. “We have an FBI analyst who’s sitting next to a CIA analyst who’s sitting next to a Secret Service analyst who’s sitting next to a Coast Guard analyst,” says TTIC chief John Brennan, a senior CIA officer. “They take information from their different systems and say, ‘Hey, have you seen this?’ or ‘Is this something that affects what you’re doing now?'”

Brennan insists TTIC doesn’t run spy operations inside the U.S., which the CIA is prohibited from doing. But, he says, as TTIC chief he can quickly get the FBI to do so to fill “gaps in our knowledge.” The center is helping to monitor “a lot of folks who have acquired U.S. citizenship or green cards that are engaged in international terrorism,” says Brennan. A well-placed source says the FBI now keeps tabs on about 400 individuals in the U.S. who are thought to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda or somehow connected to Sunni extremism. The FBI has also tried to co-opt some of them as informants.

Toward midnight, in an interview in a nondescript office in the Counterterrorist Center, a senior official describes a mission that is much closer to the Hollywood image of spy work: intense, often risky covert action against terrorists abroad. “Our job is to capture them and kill them,” the official says. That means, he explains, taking action “at the direction of the President, by formal decree, clandestinely. Sometimes you’re acting at his direction to change the world.”

But even at the Counterterrorist Center, the official notes, much of the work is “so goddam nitty-gritty it’ll turn your mind numb.” Some of the best intelligence comes from interrogating captured terrorists. The Counterterrorist Center helps direct and analyze those sessions. It’s all about “who knew who five years ago,” says the official. “Where did they go after that? How did the network expand? What were they plotting then? Where did they live? Who did they live with?” But the adrenaline really gets pumping after an attack like the one in Madrid. The Counterterrorist Center will immediately run through a checklist of questions: What’s the first take from the local intelligence service? What kind of evidence was found? Did anyone get a license plate? Was there any known operational terrorist cell there before? Are there satellite intercepts of telephone conversations? If the local authorities arrested someone, is that person known to the CIA?

In another part of the CIA complex, President Bush’s briefer is on her way in. The thirtysomething, nine-year agency veteran is winding up a year-plus rotation in the job, which requires her to get to work around 2 a.m., six days a week. “Everything [the CIA] has produced in the past 24 hours crosses my desk,” she says. That’s plenty. To determine what intelligence the President should hear at around 8 a.m., along with his standard daily reports, she will zoom through a stack of fresh intelligence as tall as three phone books.

By Timothy J. Burger. With reporting by Viveca Novak and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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