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A fight against terrorism — and disorganization

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, homeland security efforts continued to be plagued by turf battles and missed deadlines.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Early this summer, a new strategy for combating terrorism, described by its authors as "revolutionary" in concept, arrived on President Bush's desk. The highly classified National Implementation Plan for the first time set government-wide goals and assigned responsibility for achieving them to specific departments and agencies.

Written by officials at the National Counterterrorism Center, under a directive signed by the president last winter, the 160-page plan aspires to achieve what has eluded the Bush administration in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: bringing order and direction to the fight against terrorism.

In the years since Bush stood atop the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center and pledged retaliation against "the people who knocked down these buildings," the federal government has undergone an unprecedented expansion and reorganization.

Yet the counterterrorism infrastructure that resulted has become so immense and unwieldy that many looking at it from the outside, and even some on the inside, have trouble understanding how it works or how much safer it has made the country.

Huge amounts of money have been spent -- $430 billion so far on overseas military and diplomatic counterterrorism operations, according to the U.S. comptroller general, a tripling of pre-9/11 expenditures for domestic security programs to an estimated $50 billion to $60 billion this year, and untallied billions more in state and local money.

Institutions historically charged with protecting the nation have produced a new generation of bureaucratic offspring -- the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) and Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism (JITF-CT), the Treasury Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), and the FBI's National Security Service (NSS), to name a few -- many with seemingly overlapping missions.

New laws have broadened domestic enforcement powers, and the Justice Department has been radically restructured to emphasize counterterrorism. The FBI, where counterterrorism now accounts for half of all investigations, has nearly doubled its budget to $6 billion since 2001 and added 7,000 new employees. Twenty-two domestic agencies have been combined under the new Department of Homeland Security, while separate counterterrorism divisions now exist in virtually every nook and cranny of the federal government, from the Transportation Department to the Food and Drug Administration.

‘Fusion centers’
Outside Washington, 42 states have established intelligence "fusion centers" -- centralized locations where local, state and federal officials operate joint information-gathering and analysis operations.

The proof that it is all working, White House officials often say, is that there has been no attack on U.S. soil since 2001.

But critics say that after nearly five years, the fight against terrorism often seems like a chaotic work in progress.

"It's as if we're at 2002 and not 2006 in terms of where we are," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview.

The ad hoc construction, adding layer upon layer with none taken away, has left intelligence and security agencies competing for turf. Deadlines for priorities have been missed. DHS, for example, has repeatedly delayed supplying a congressionally mandated list of the nation's critical infrastructure, and a blueprint for information-sharing among federal, state and local entities has been slow to get off the ground.

Continuity and coherence have been undercut by rapid turnover among top officials, particularly in the institutions responsible for domestic security and preparedness.

DHS's cybersecurity division has been run by an acting director since the last full-time appointee -- the third person to leave the post in a year -- resigned in October 2004. In April, the FBI's sixth counterterrorism chief since 2001 tendered his resignation after 10 months on the job. Many with government training and security clearances resign or retire, only to sign on at far higher salaries with the burgeoning private-sector security industry.

At the state and local front lines, officials complain of limited input in the development of homeland security policies and impenetrable layers of federal secrecy -- including as many as 90 categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information -- that limit the usefulness of terrorism alerts they receive from Washington, according to separate surveys this spring by the National Governors Association and the Government Accountability Office.

On paper, at least, the man in charge of much of the counterterrorism effort is Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte. His office was created last year under the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act to fix two widely acknowledged problems. The first was the intelligence community's pre-9/11 failure to collect and share information that might have warned of the al-Qaeda attacks. The second problem was the confusion and competition spawned by post-9/11 attempts to fix the first.

Negroponte supervises the 16 agencies that make up the federal intelligence community and is the president's chief intelligence adviser. Directly under him, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is the central repository for terrorism information collected throughout the community. Its several hundred analysts integrate intelligence, figure out what it means and redistribute it across the government. The center's strategic planning division provides what NCTC Director John Scott Redd has called "the missing piece" between White House policy decisions and the operational departments and agencies that carry them out.

"We've done a great deal" in the years since 9/11, said one of a number of counterterrorism officials interviewed for this article, all of whom agreed to speak only if their names were not used. "There's a lot more we need to do. A lot more."

The official added: "The American people ought to have some faith that we're working on it."

Beyond the military approach
It was only natural that the military would take the lead in fighting terrorism after Sept. 11. In Afghanistan and other al-Qaeda locales, U.S. forces produced victories that were substantive and quantifiable, as well as politically useful to the administration.

Other parts of the government had important roles. But the Defense Department, buttressed by its intrinsic organizational skills, its traditional role as the recipient of the lion's share of the intelligence budget, and the zeal and policymaking influence of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, quickly grew to dominate much more than the war-fighting effort.

The Pentagon has clashed repeatedly with the CIA and the State Department as it has sought to expand its counterterrorism mission. Last year, both protested a secret Pentagon program that sends Special Forces units in plain clothes on intelligence-gathering missions to countries where no war is in progress and with which the United States has friendly diplomatic relations.

The Pentagon argued that troops report to their commanders and the defense secretary, not the secretary of state or the CIA director, and do not need to seek permission from or even to inform local U.S. ambassadors or CIA station chiefs. And, it said, the military needs its own "situational awareness" of possible future combat areas.

When the level of animosity peaked last summer, Rumsfeld and then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss were prodded by Michael V. Hayden, then deputy director of national intelligence, to negotiate an agreement to delineate intelligence-gathering responsibilities. Under a separate memorandum of understanding, the Pentagon and the State Department agreed that ambassadors would be informed of all military activity in their countries and given the opportunity to object.

Beyond the turf battles, however, counterterrorism officials grew concerned that U.S. strategy needed to expand beyond what one called the "whack, capture, interrogate and whack again" approach of the military. "Our thinking has matured radically since 2001," he said. "Then, it was looked at as the al-Qaeda network. Now, it is seen as looser, more diffuse, and also in our own country, in Western Europe and Canada."

"The military can't be the big hammer" anymore, he said, because al-Qaeda and its affiliates "are not the nail."

"You'll never win unless you can get to the sources of radicalization," he added. ". . . As the threat has changed, we've tried to adapt. But it's taken some time. As an American taxpayer, I wish we could have gotten it right in October 2001."

The "changing paradigm" applies at home as well as overseas, said a senior FBI official. The FBI operated on the assumption that "al-Qaeda was 'The Sopranos,' with a boss, an underboss, the consiglieri and the captains who ran the cells," the official said. "It was comfortable for us to understand."

New initiatives such as the National Implementation Plan were launched to eliminate overlap and set priorities for what the administration now calls the "long war." Beyond drawing sharper lines of responsibility, officials said, the plan is designed to drag the nation's counterterrorism strategy back from military dominance, better balancing the military "whack" with diplomacy and the "hearts and minds" campaigns that are now seen as critical to long-term victory.

‘War of ideas’
Bush was briefed on the plan on June 26. A White House official said the plan reflects Bush's feeling that the terrorism fight is "all-encompassing," including military attacks but also "the war of ideas and the softer side, the long-term battle."

Within half a dozen broad objectives, the document designates lead and subordinate agencies to carry out more than 500 discrete counterterrorism tasks, among them vanquishing al-Qaeda, protecting the homeland, wooing allies, training experts in other languages and cultures, and understanding and influencing the Islamic psyche.

Achieving agreement among more than 200 department and agency representatives over 10 months of often-torturous negotiations was "a heroically ambitious exercise," said a senior administration official who participated in the process. "A couple of months ago, everybody was still shaking their heads."

The plan is expected to prompt a rewrite of the president's February 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, which emphasized the physical elimination of terrorist networks while making largely symbolic bows to international partnerships and addressing the "underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit."

Eventually, officials acknowledged, it will also require a reconfiguration of the intelligence budget, now heavily weighted toward the military. No one expects that to happen overnight -- early proposals to shift spending brought a sharp protest from Rumsfeld.

But even at the Pentagon there are signs of turf-war fatigue. "Two years ago, we didn't have anything," said Brig. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., who until June was the Joint Chiefs of Staff's deputy director for the terrorism fight. "Every department of government had its own idea on who was the enemy. Now we have a strategy and a plan that gives specific tasks and responsibility," he said.

Others are guardedly optimistic that the plan can be implemented. "It's going to alleviate a lot of the turf tensions and the growing pains," said one senior counterterrorism official. "But they're not going to go away."

Overlaps persist
In the lead-up to this year's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, eight of the 16 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community independently produced assessments of possible terrorist threats to the Games. The "finished intelligence products," a counterterrorism official said, all concluded exactly the same thing -- that the threat was minimal.

"They posted them internally to their own organizations and sent them out to share" with other community members as the authoritative bottom line, the official said. "They would all argue, 'We had to do it for our principal, our Cabinet member' or whatever." Watching the competing agencies, he said, "is like watching 7-year-olds play soccer -- you've got 20 kids all following the ball."

Avoiding such duplication and wasted effort, he said, "was the whole point" of setting up the NCTC as the sole provider of integrated intelligence analysis. Yet neither congressional mandates nor presidential directives have been enough to eliminate the overlap.

Before the Intelligence Reform Act, the CIA was in charge of bringing together "all-source" intelligence and analyzing it for the larger intelligence community, the White House and policymakers. It was the CIA that chaired the daily interagency meeting at 5 p.m. to discuss real-time terrorism information and what to do about it. The agency drew up the daily "threat matrix" and the CIA director briefed the president each morning.

Analysis not pooled
But the Sept. 11 commission found that long-standing tensions within and among the CIA, the FBI and the rest of the community, along with institutional firewalls constructed during the Cold War, meant that "information was not shared" and "analysis was not pooled" that might have warned of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

The CIA's responsibilities for integrating and analyzing all-source intelligence have now been transferred to the DNI and the NCTC. All members of the intelligence community -- including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and other Defense Department agencies and the FBI -- are restricted to analyzing only what they need to accomplish the "tactical missions" specific to their own assignments. For the CIA, that means concentrating on building the clandestine network and human resources that Congress and a series of outside studies have found lacking, especially in the Middle East.

But the DNI-NCTC structure remains vastly outweighed in power, personnel and tradition by the growing bureaucracies it hopes to tame. While the number of NCTC analysts is scheduled to double to 400 by 2008, the FBI alone has tripled its analytic staff since 2001 to more than 2,700. The DIA has nearly 8,000 employees collecting and analyzing intelligence, and the CIA has twice that many.

On July 11, Negroponte signed an internal document titled "Analytic Framework for Counterterrorism" for distribution among the 16 agencies. In a cover note, he pointedly wrote that while he recognized each "must continue to support its agency leadership and unique operational activities, as well as to provide a robust analytical capability and reliable steam of diverse viewpoints," both Congress and the president had given him the authority and "fully empower the NCTC" to "reduce unnecessary duplication of effort."

The framework, said one counterterrorism official, directs operational agencies such as the CIA "to focus their analytical resources" on "penetrating and eliminating known terrorist organizations," leaving the NCTC to provide comprehensive threat analyses for the government as a whole.

Although Hayden's appointment as CIA director in May is likely to hasten the agency's acceptance of what is known in the community as "the lanes in the road," intelligence officials have not been shy about expressing skepticism and resentment.

Many see themselves as demoted to mere intelligence-gatherers, stripped of their rightful roles as strategic analysts and forward-looking policy advisers. An internal CIA study, declassified last month a year after it was written, criticized the NCTC model as promoting "watered-down analysis, duplication, confusion, and misuse of scarce resources." Separating those who collect intelligence from those who analyze it would result in a weaker product, the study said, and was likely to lead to more strategic failures like those in Iraq.

The addition of new non-operational layers to integrate, analyze and share information "has made the organizational picture more, not less, confusing," Paul R. Pillar, a former national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia, said recently. The question of "who's in charge of intelligence, when it comes to counterterrorism, is harder to answer now than it was before."

Teamwork at the NCTC
Three times each day -- at 8 a.m., 3 p.m. and 1 a.m. -- representatives from across the intelligence community meet to update the nation's threat matrix. The meetings -- held most days via videoconference -- are chaired at NCTC headquarters, a nondescript, unlabeled office building in Northern Virginia, around a massive, football-shaped wooden table. The table, designed as neutral ground, has 16 seats, pop-up computer terminals and ceiling-mounted screens that can show al-Jazeera broadcasts as well as highly classified graphics.

Participants include representatives of the CIA and FBI; the Defense Intelligence Agency and others under the Pentagon umbrella; the departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury and Energy; and other subsidiary agencies such as the Drug Enforcement and Transportation Security administrations. Topics include individual suicide bombers, movements of groups and people, potential targets, reliability of information on specific threats, and actions being planned or already taken.

Material for the meetings is gathered by the 24-hour operations center deep within the ultra-secure building. The room is dark, with a high ceiling, drop-down video screens and sound-muffling walls; its carpeted floor is covered with desks where integrated intelligence teams examine and share incoming data from their separate agencies in 12-hour shifts. At opposite ends of the room, the CIA and FBI counterterrorism divisions have satellite offices representing their own headquarters.

The thrice-daily meetings are the substantive and symbolic core of NCTC's melding of the intelligence community. But most of the center's activities take place in offices and cubicles where officials plumb 28 separate databases of both raw and processed intelligence from across the community.

The analysts turn out reports, adding context and information about response actions already taken, that are disseminated to more than 5,500 policy and intelligence officials with the security clearances required to read them.

Access to info not easy
Even within the NCTC, however, access to information is not easy. Most desks are stacked high with half a dozen or more computer processing units connected to various intelligence agencies that still cannot, or will not, communicate with one another electronically.

Negroponte deputy Dale Meyerrose, a retired Air Force major general and expert in creating and integrating communications systems architecture, is charged with breaking down the technological barriers among what he calls intelligence "tribes" with a built-in reluctance to divulge their secrets.

Meyerrose, a recent addition to the DNI's office, does not dispute or defend the slow pace of information-sharing. "My government's had five years," he acknowledged in a recent interview behind a code-locked door inside the high-security DNI headquarters at Bolling Air Force Base. "I'm very sympathetic to that. But you know what? I've had four months, and there's nothing I can do about the 4 1/2 years that went before me."

Technology is important, but "it's the transparency of the process that people are griping about," Meyerrose said. Feuding intelligence agencies don't argue about a lack of computer interface, he said, they talk in terms of "The FBI wouldn't tell me this." Rather than imposing new computer systems from the top down, he has started from the human end, bringing representatives from different agencies to the same table to work on specific intelligence issues.

The NCTC operates on the same principle of "co-location," fashioned under the 2004 intelligence reforms, that pulled the branches of the armed forces into a combined structure designed to end decades of destructive and expensive rivalry.

The Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 created unified regional commands under a single general or admiral directly answerable to the nation's civilian leadership and named the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the principal military adviser to the president. By making assignments to the joint staff from across the military a prerequisite for most high-level promotions, it created a cadre of senior officers with perspectives beyond the narrow confines of their individual branches.

Negroponte, a former Foreign Service officer who most recently served as ambassador to Iraq and to the United Nations, is the intelligence community's equivalent of the chairman, and the NCTC is his joint staff. NCTC Director Redd is a retired vice admiral, and everyone else in the structure is on temporary duty from somewhere else in the intelligence community, usually for two-year stints. "Everybody still belongs to their other agency," a senior official said. "We're trying to tell them that the NCTC is them."

The idea is that familiarity will breed cooperation and that personal relationships formed through shared tasks will carry through once individuals return to their home offices. "We are diverse cultures, working to form habitual relationships," the official said. "It takes time."

Staff writers Walter Pincus, Spencer S. Hsu, Dan Eggen and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.