Travers revealed new details of the infighting that took place this year under acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, who served from February to May, when he was replaced by John Ratcliffe. Travers’s complaint, as he outlined it, portrays an intelligence community foundering under mismanagement and political backbiting.
One chilling example: Travers described an NCTC so weakened by budget and personnel shortages that it couldn’t adequately collate information into what’s known as its Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, leaving the country potentially vulnerable to undetected attackers. Travers and other experts said this data analytics problem could be handled by private companies with adequate resources that are lacking at the NCTC.
“I was ostensibly the ‘mission manager’ for terrorism, but I had no authority to compel anyone outside of NCTC to do anything,” Travers told me.
Travers said he met March 5 with Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, to “express concerns” about the “chronic inability” of the NCTC to obtain resources, including a hiring freeze imposed by Grenell. Then, on March 13, Travers told Grenell’s then-chief operating officer, Deirdre Walsh, about the conversation with Atkinson. Travers was fired five days later, on March 18.
Grenell’s spokesman claimed that Travers, a career intelligence officer, hadn’t been sacked. But Travers told me such reports were “inaccurate.” Travers was replaced by Christopher Miller, a Trump loyalist, who last month was elevated to become acting defense secretary after Mark T. Esper was “terminated” by President Trump in a tweet.
Behind this year’s game of musical chairs in the intelligence community lies a vexing question about how best to organize counterterrorism intelligence efforts. Terrorism is seen as a receding threat these days, and even Travers agrees that overall resources devoted to it should “shrink.” But how?
Some history is useful here: The NCTC was created in 2004 “to serve as the primary organization” in the U.S. government for analyzing and integrating terrorism intelligence. That was part of a broader reorganization that created the DNI’s office to coordinate the CIA, FBI and other agencies that had failed to “connect the dots” before 9/11.
But from the NCTC’s first day, some questioned whether the government needed a second counterterrorism clearinghouse when the CIA was still maintaining its own Counter-Terrorism Center at Langley. The CIA was supposed to provide analysts and other personnel to the NCTC as “detailees,” but this support was always grudging, increasingly so under Director Gina Haspel.
Travers said that by 2019, the NCTC was suffering a 35 percent decline in detailees from its 2012 level, “undermining the notion of an ‘interagency joint venture.’ ”
Travers and his predecessor at the NCTC, Joseph Maguire (promoted to acting DNI in August 2019 and fired in February 2020 for riling Trump) pressed for an interagency review of the NCTC’s sagging status. Travers told me the basic question was simple: “If the country no longer needs a National Counterterrorism Center, then change the law.”
DNI Dan Coats launched a broad review before he was fired in August 2019. The panel of senior intelligence officials concluded in October 2019 that while the NCTC still had statutory responsibility for overseeing counterterrorism, its technical and other capabilities suffered from “diminishing resources,” especially in its ability to process information, one member explained in an interview this week.
The panel proposed a second phase of the review to assign resources and responsibilities more clearly. But that recommendation was ignored by Ratcliffe, and the NCTC has continued to languish. As terrorism databases grew thinner, it’s lucky the country didn’t face a concerted attack.
The NCTC saga illustrates why the Biden administration requires strong leadership in intelligence matters. Terrorism has probably been over-weighted as a priority for the intelligence community in recent years, but the shift needs to be managed carefully. If NCTC has become redundant, then laws need to be rewritten.
Avril Haines, the proposed DNI, must reimagine intelligence for the digital age. But she’ll need a strong CIA director as a partner, and a willingness to confront hard problems honestly. That’s precisely what didn’t happen in the sad case of the NCTC.