Two years ago, John Brennan got the nod to build a new kind of intelligence organization. But to do it, he had to persuade the most powerful, turf-conscious agencies in government to donate staff and money.
On May 1, 2003, the top echelon of the U.S. intelligence community gathered to cut the ribbon on a warren of new offices on the fourth floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Intelligence chief and CIA Director George Tenet was there, along with FBI Director Robert Mueller III. John Gordon, President Bush's homeland security adviser, was present, as well as top intelligence officials from the Homeland Security, Defense and State departments.
The offices behind the ribbon held a dismal surprise: a mere 30 analysts, mostly novices, working furiously in temporary space tracking a flood of data on terrorist money, movements and identities. Between their desks, haphazard tangles of cable fed classified and unclassi- fied information to their computers. It was the new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, charged with keeping the president informed. And it could barely fly.
"It wasn't fun," says Deborah, who served the center's chief of staff in the early days. She declined to be identified by her full name for this article. Most of the analysts had less than a year of experience, and only five or six could be counted on "to dig into something, understand it and . . . come to the right conclusions," she says.
Later expanded and renamed the National Counterterrorism Center, the program today is markedly more able. In a shiny new Northern Virginia facility, more than 130 analysts read traffic from nearly 30 classified and unclassified networks, including operational details of ongoing counterterrorism operations. The center hosts three video teleconferences a day to update the executive branch on recent threat information and maintains a 24-hour watch center. In addition to fusing terror intelligence, it recently has been charged with coordinating the U.S. government's counterterrorism strategy.
TTIC was the nation's first permanent joint center, intended to harmonize the efforts of various agencies rather than become a locus of power in its own right. The men cutting the ribbon were only grudgingly part of history: Each had to sacrifice money, staff and authority to create the center.
Key to the historic effort was John O. Brennan, a longtime Tenet aide and confidant. Brennan was deputy executive director for Central Intelligence when he left; before that he served as Tenet's chief of staff. Together with a hand-picked team of senior managers, Brennan scrapped with some of the biggest, strongest, most entrenched bureaucracies in the federal government to build his center to the specifications of the White House edict that created it.
The idea grew out of meetings of a group of high-level national security officials. The team was convened in late 2002 by the White House to address the information-sharing problem that hindered U.S. intelligence efforts leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Brennan was a part of the group, along with Pasquale D'Amuro, the FBI's executive assistant director for counter-terrorism and counterintelligence; Richard Haver, special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; and Richard Falkenrath, senior director for policy and plans and special assistant to the president in the White House Office of Homeland Security. The chairman was Winston Wiley, then Tenet's top official for homeland security.
In six weeks, the group hashed out the basic idea for the center. The sum of the many counterterrorism efforts of the U.S. government, it would fall under the Director of Central Intelligence but get its information from all relevant agencies and be staffed by analysts from those agencies. "There was a lot of jockeying at the time to try and protect turf," recalls Falkenrath, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution. It was clear, however, that the White House wasn't going to let one agency handle the job. With legislation, Congress had assigned the task to DHS, but the White House disregarded that. By mid-January, the plan for TTIC was forwarded with approval from all parties.
At that time, the president's staff was preparing his State of the Union speech. "They wanted to incorporate [the idea] into the [speech]," Brennan recounts. "Officials felt the idea had merit, even though it wasn't fully formed and no one knew what it was going to look like." But a strong idea absent a strong plan was good enough for Bush; he inserted a fateful line. "Tonight, I am instructing the leaders of the FBI, the CIA, the Homeland Security and the Department of Defense to develop a Terrorist Threat Integration Center," he told the world on Jan. 28, 2003, "to merge and analyze all threat information in a single location."
At the time of the announcement, major questions still had not been answered. Where would the center be located? What were its specific responsibilities? Who would pay for it? The White House was mum. "It was left intentionally vague," says Brennan, "because the details, the engineering, was not done." That would quickly change. The White House gave the project a May 1 deadline.
In March, Tenet tapped Brennan to head the center. In six weeks, he was expected to have staff, an office, computers and access to enough information to produce a credible analysis of the terrorist threat for the president. With the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still fresh in American's minds, failure was not an option.
The easiest problem was finding space. There were offices on the fourth floor of the CIA's headquarters that fit TTIC's needs-they were secure and had good network connectivity. Moreover, he didn't have to go far to request them. "I was chair of the [CIA office] space board," Brennan recalls, chuckling. "I knew what space might be available."
A bigger challenge was building a team. As a joint center, TTIC would rely on its partner agencies-the CIA, the FBI, Defense, Homeland Security, State and others-for analysts. Brennan wouldn't get to cherry-pick his experts; he would get whomever the agencies decided to send over. Given the lack of warm feelings among his center and those agencies, he wasn't expecting their best people.
"I knew I was going to get a bell curve that was on the left side of the experience spectrum," Brennan recalls tactfully from his office at The Analysis Corp., a private intelligence consulting firm in Northern Virginia, where he is president. He joined the company after retiring from NCTC in August 2005. "I wanted to have stars in the management positions. I knew I was going to be putting a lot of responsibility on them. They were the ones who were going to be the quality control."
He brought over his chief of staff, Deborah, whom he trusted implicitly. He also stole away the CIA's deputy chief financial officer, Cindy Bower. He plucked a senior technologist from the Defense Intelligence Agency. By design, he had deputies from DHS and the FBI. "It was important to have an ecumenical leadership," Brennan says.
One major unknown was the source of the center's funding. Congress had appropriated the budget for that year. Already the center was usurping the authority of its "partner" agencies and stealing their staff. Could it pass the hat for contributions, too? The White House said yes. "[The Office of Management and Budget] ended up taxing each of the partners," recalls Bower. "It did not go over well."
"Anytime an organization is 'taxed,' they don't like it at all," says Brennan. "A lot of organizations dragged their feet. . . . Sometimes we had to keep knocking on certain doors," he remembers. "[But] it was something OMB had decided."
To make the case, Brennan's team used reason and openness. "We built a pretty responsible, realistic budget," says Bower. "It [included] training and travel, desks and phones." Then they offered to brief each of the partner agencies on what their money would pay for. That way, "They would at least feel comfortable with what we were going to do, and see that we weren't asking for unrealistic things."
When that didn't work, Brennan says, he swapped the carrot for the stick. "If I needed to, I raised it with George [Tenet]. He would have his meetings, and it would be one of the agenda items." In the end, the center got the money.
The biggest challenge to making TTIC a success, Brennan says, was establishing it as the primary integrator and analyzer of terrorist threat information. The squabbles over territory that started when the White House first convened a working group never dissipated. Homeland Security had a congressional mandate to consolidate terror intelligence that arguably trumped the center's presidential direction. The FBI always had primacy over domestic terror threats; how could it be sure constitutional protections for Americans would be respected?
Perhaps the most aggressive competitor was the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. It had done TTIC's job, and officials there saw no reason to give up turf.
The bureaucratic battle escalated. Despite having several hundred of the most qualified counterterrorism analysts in the government, CTC refused to give TTIC an adequate number of assignees, according to a 2004 White House inquiry. Instead of building a joint capacity to share and analyze terror intelligence, each player was developing its own intelligence capabilities, undermining TTIC's ability to succeed.
"We kind of just showed up in three months out of nowhere," says Deborah, Brennan's one-time chief of staff. "We spent a lot of time talking with partner agencies, trying to deconflict things." The threat integration center struggled to explain that instead of becoming a new power site, it sought to meld existing capabilities. "We want to do this in a complementary fashion," she says, "as a joint venture, an orchestration of effort. This isn't about NCTC grabbing all the glory."
Ironically, despite the conflicts with the CIA, some partners suspected the new center was really a CIA operation. After all, Brennan had spent most of his career with the CIA, the center was housed in CIA headquarters, and most of its staff and budget came from the CIA.
"I spent lots of time on the phone with [FBI Director] Mueller, explaining to him I don't fall under the CIA," Brennan recalls. Even on Capitol Hill, Brennan says he was accused of being CIA. Despite pressure from senior CIA officials, however, Brennan says he refused to give them preferential treatment. He went out of his way to create an image of the center as independent, going so far as to create identity badges that sported the center's logo, not the CIA's. "A lot of times people got stopped at the gate because [the guards] didn't recognize it," he says.
He also laid down to his staff a rule of the road: Being at the center of terrorist intelligence, you have access to information your home agency doesn't. Don't share unauthorized intelligence with your buddies back at the FBI or Customs or the CIA. We're only trusted with agencies' secrets because we can keep them. "I had two instances in the first year of [analysts'] unauthorized sharing with their home organizations," Brennan recalls. "I dismissed them immediately." That sent a strong message to partner agencies, he believes.
While conflicts between the center and its partners appear to have subsided, they have not disappeared. "That never goes away," says retired Navy Vice Adm. John "Scott" Redd, who has held the reins at NCTC since Brennan resigned in August. "Even today . . . the natural reaction of an agency is, 'Wait a minute, we've got a dog in this fight.' Sometimes there is [an] issue of authorities." With the CIA in particular, Redd admits his center's relations aren't strong. "I won't tell you that everything's rosy." While he says he has a good relationship with current CIA Director Porter Goss, "We're still working through how to do this the right way."
Asked about the joint center's progress since its first days, Russell Travers, a former Defense official who is now NCTC's deputy director for information sharing, waxes philosophic. "This is a revolutionary change for the community," he says. "We've got to crawl, walk, [then] run." Right now, "we're jogging."