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Meeting the Cyber Threat: The National Counterterrorism Center Model

By Jessica Michek

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thirteen years ago, the 9/11 attacks spurred the most significant reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community since 1947. This seismic shift saw the creation of: an entire Cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); a new coordinating agency for the U.S. intelligence community, the director of national intelligence (DNI) and a center designed to combat terror threats, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

Creation of the NCTC

In February 2002, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence established the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. The Joint Inquiry concluded that there were several intelligence failures related to the 9/11 attacks, primarily resulting from inadequate interagency coordination. To that end, the committees recommended that, within DHS, there be “an effective all-source terrorism information fusion center that will dramatically improve the focus and quality of counterterrorism analysis and facilitate the timely dissemination of relevant intelligence information.”

Subsequently, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), a precursor to the NCTC, was announced by President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address. “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, to merge and analyze all threat information in a single location,” Bush declared.

TTIC was established on May 1, 2003 as a joint venture between DHS, the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Defense. TTIC was tasked with closing the “seam” between analysis of foreign and domestic intelligence on terrorism. Reporting to the director of central intelligence, TTIC had no independent authority to collect intelligence but instead analyzed intelligence collected by component agencies.

In its final report in July 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended “the establishment of a NCTC, built on the foundation of the existing TTIC. Breaking the older mold of national government organization, this NCTC should be a center for joint operational planning and joint intelligence, staffed by personnel from the various agencies.”

As a result of the commission’s recommendation, Executive Order 13354 of August 27, 2004 established the NCTC to:

  • “Serve as the primary organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States Government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism, excepting purely domestic counterterrorism information;
  • “Conduct strategic operational planning for counterterrorism activities, integrating all instruments of national power, including diplomatic, financial, military, intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement activities within and among agencies;
  • “Assign operational responsibilities to lead agencies for counterterrorism activities that are consistent with applicable law and that support strategic plans to counter terrorism;
  • “Serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups, as well as their goals, strategies, capabilities and networks of contacts and support; and
  • “Ensure that agencies, as appropriate, have access to and receive all-source intelligence support needed to execute their counterterrorism plans or perform independent, alternative analysis.”

In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which created the position of the director of national intelligence along with the office of the DNI (ODNI) – and created the NCTC as an agency within the ODNI.

It set out the mission of the NCTC (IRTPA Sec. 1021), which covers a broad set of functions:

  • Analysis:
    • “To serve as the primary organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States Government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism, excepting intelligence pertaining exclusively to domestic terrorists and domestic counterterrorism.”
  • Planning:
    • “To conduct strategic operational planning for counterterrorism activities, integrating all instruments of national power, including diplomatic, financial, military, intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement activities within and among agencies.”
    • “To assign roles and responsibilities as part of its strategic operational planning duties to lead Departments or agencies, as appropriate, for counterterrorism activities that are consistent with applicable law and that support counterterrorism strategic operational plans, but shall not direct the execution of any resulting operations.”
  • Information Sharing:
    • “To ensure that agencies, as appropriate, have access to and receive all-source intelligence support needed to execute their counterterrorism plans or perform independent, alternative analysis.”
    • “To ensure that such agencies have access to and receive intelligence needed to accomplish their assigned activities.”
    • “To serve as the central and shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups, as well as their goals, strategies, capabilities, and networks of contacts and support.”

The NCTC partners with agencies across the intelligence community, as well as agencies with more specialized functions, including: the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice and the Treasury; the CIA; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the FBI; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the National Security Agency; the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Capitol Police.

The director of the NCTC is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Operationally, the NCTC director reports both to the DNI and the president. The NCTC is staffed by personnel from across the intelligence community, with a sizable percentage on detail from other agencies.

An NCTC Model for the Cyber Threat

“A growing chorus of national-security experts describes the cyber realm as the battlefield of the future,” wrote 9/11 Commission Co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton. To meet this growing threat, Kean and Hamilton suggested the creation of a National Cyber Center, modeled after the NCTC, noting that “[t]here is no counterpart to this proven model for information-sharing in the cyber realm—a major gap in America’s cyber defenses.”

“One lesson of the 9/11 story,” they wrote, “is that, as a nation, we didn’t awaken to the gravity of the terrorist threat until it was too late. We must not repeat that mistake in the cyber realm.”

To further explore what a cyber NCTC might entail, join BPC on November 19 from 10-11:30 at 1225 Eye St. NW Suite 1000 for “Can a Cyber NCTC Prevent the Next Catastrophic Attack?”  The event will feature an expert panel including Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Director of the NCTC Matt Olsen and former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission Philip Zelikow.

 

KEYWORDS: 9/11 COMMISSION, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, LEE HAMILTON, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, TOM KEAN