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Yes, We Do Have a Clue

By John Scott Redd
Friday, July 13, 2007 12:00 AM

In her recent Outlook article, Amy Zegart asserts that the United States' counterterrorism intelligence community is as ill-prepared to defend the nation as it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Although it is heartening to see Zegart address an issue as important as our ability to detect, deter and disrupt terrorists' plots, it is disappointing to see how out-of-date someone of her stature remains. Although the intelligence community faces continuing challenges, our progress since 9/11 has been nothing short of revolutionary. Today we collect, analyze and share counterterrorism intelligence within and among agencies vastly more effectively than Zegart claims.

Rather than addressing each of Zegart's arguments, I will instead focus on those areas into which, as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), I have the clearest insight -- particularly her assertion that the U.S intelligence community continues to suffer from the "organizational deficiencies" that hampered "the CIA and the FBI and prevented all 15 U.S intelligence agencies from working as a unified team" before 9/11.

The very existence of my organization, the NCTC, is testament to how the intelligence community no longer views terrorism as it did before 9/11, when it was separated into foreign (the CIA) and domestic (the FBI) realms that were distinct from one another. Today, as a result of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, there is one place -- the NCTC -- where all terrorism information comes together. Here we have insight into the most sensitive of CIA and FBI intelligence. Put simply, it is one team and one fight. And it goes to the heart of a changing organizational culture.

This interagency cooperation is further highlighted by NCTC's composition. Within our ranks sit counterterrorism experts from every part of the U.S. counterterrorism community -- most notably the CIA and the FBI. Sitting side by side, our specialists ensure that terrorism information, regardless of its source, gets to those who need it. And when they return to their "home agency" they will espouse an organizational view that promotes the very unity of effort which we once arguably lacked.

But these changes are not just about organizational theory; they are about the daily grind of counterterrorism intelligence. Three times a day, every day, the NCTC chairs a video teleconference at which more than 17 intelligence and operations offices within the government come together to discuss breaking intelligence. Whether events occur in Kansas or Cairo, the information is shared so it can be analyzed and, most importantly, acted upon. Thus not only is Zegart's assessment that the FBI's culture won't vigorously pursue critical terrorism leads flatly inconsistent with what I see every day, but the larger interagency counterterrorism community is organized to avoid this potential flaw -- whether domestically or overseas.

So what of Zegart's specific examples of pre-9/11 "screw-ups" and her claim that the same deficiencies still plague us? Her first example is well known: that the CIA, FBI, and others didn't communicate in a way that might have allowed for the "watchlisting" of a 9/11 hijacker, Khalid Almihdhar.

Regrettably, this observation fails to recognize the radical change in U.S. watchlisting procedures since the attacks. Prior to 9/11, the U.S. government indeed maintained six or more "watchlists" to identify suspicious actors. Today, there is a single list for all those suspected of associations with terrorists. Thus whether it is a consular officer in a U.S. embassy, a border patrol agent or a police officer in the United States, all of their work is supported by a single database of suspected terrorist-related individuals. And while I make no claim that this system is perfect, any argument that serious and material flaws have not been corrected belies reality.

Finally, Zegart notes that "even our successes aren't cause for celebration," citing the recent disruption of plots to attack Fort Dix and New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, among others. On this point, we can at least partially agree. We should not -- and cannot -- celebrate these successes because the larger challenge continues. The terrorist threat the United States faces includes both al-Qaeda-directed plotting as well as al-Qaeda-inspired, "homegrown" terrorists. Both are tangible and dangerous, and both require government-wide cooperation. What Zegart fails to recognize is that this is just what occurs today. And the recent events in London and Glasgow remind us that, contrary to the implied arguments of some critics, there is no magic organizational bullet (such as replacing the FBI with a domestic security service like Britain's MI5) that will make us safe.

Over the past almost six years, the U.S. intelligence community and the counterterrorism community have taken significant strides to remedy past failures and better protect our country. I believe it is no accident that the United States has not been attacked since 9/11. And while there is no guarantee of perfection, our aspirations are closer to reality than many of our critics suggest. Less focus on theory and more on fact makes this readily apparent.

John Scott Redd, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

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