At the crossroads of terror
Inside the clandestine operations center where the CIA tries to anticipate what al-Qaeda will do next
With reporting by Christopher Preston/Washington
It consumes acres of space in the CIA's Langley, VA., headquarters, with computers whirring, phones jangling and TV sets turned on 24 hours a day, not only to cnn--the favorite in military command centers--but also to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network that's usually the first to broadcast videos from Osama bin Laden. The warren of offices and cubicles that make up its main section has grown so large that street signs named after terror purveyors have been erected to guide newcomers. The intersection that draws the most smiles is Saddam Street and Usama Bin Lane.
The Counterterrorism Center, or CTC, as veteran hands call it, has become the CIA's busiest outfit. Organized in 1986 to coordinate America's effort to foil terrorists overseas, the center has doubled its manpower since the Sept. 11 attacks to more than 1,100 analysts and clandestine agents. Some 2,500 cables pour into the CTC every day from CIA stations around the world, from interrogators interviewing al-Qaeda prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and from foreign intelligence services that have tips on terrorists. The CIA's main cafeteria has expanded its hours to feed the center's workers at night and on weekends, so they no longer have to truck in pizzas as they did in the months just after Sept. 11.
The CIA agreed to talk to TIME about the center's operation. While it battles bin Laden's al-Qaeda network abroad, the agency has been fighting a ferocious rearguard action at home to keep the CTC independent of the new Department of Homeland Security. Critics complain that the agency failed to piece together information that might have led the FBI to the Sept. 11 plotters. "The failure of the intelligence agencies to share information with each other was one of our government's most egregious lapses leading up to Sept. 11," charges Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman. The CIA and the FBI have promised Congress they will send the new department their "finished" intelligence reports, but they resist divulging raw data and sensitive sources and methods. The two organizations also insist the bureaucratic war between them is over. "The FBI and CIA are working together," says Jim Bernazzani, an FBI agent detailed to the CTC and one of its deputy directors. "Anybody who promotes the notion that we are not is wrong. Period." But many in Congress aren't convinced and believe the two agencies can still improve coordination. While the number of FBI agents at the CIA center has doubled since Sept. 11, they still total only 14.
The center grinds out 500 terrorism intelligence reports a month, many of which are distributed to 80 other U.S. government agencies. A video conference is held with the White House's National Security Council three times a day. Every afternoon at 5, CIA Director George Tenet summons 40 senior officers from the CTC, the agency's Intelligence Directorate and its clandestine Operations Directorate--a team jokingly called the small group--to the conference room just off his seventh-floor office for a grilling on the day's terrorism intelligence. Washington's A-list is no longer the Georgetown party roster but rather the 200 top officials who get their own copy of the daily "Threat Matrix" report the CTC prepares for President Bush. The top-secret matrix is a running tab of the terrorism threats the CIA and the FBI are receiving or investigating. On busy days, it can be 30 pages long.
The center is trying to do what it could not do before: pluck obscure bits of information from the flood of often irrelevant or insignificant data and connect the dots to foil a major new attack. CIA scientists are investigating exotic supercomputer programs and artificial intelligence that might help analysts link hundreds of thousands of names, places and bank accounts. Teams have even been sent to pick the brains of Hollywood scriptwriters who dream up far-fetched terror spectaculars. When the analysts return to Langley, they comb their databases to see if al-Qaeda has the capability to carry out such attacks. The CIA has found evidence in seized al-Qaeda documents that bin Laden's operatives watch action-adventure movies for ideas.
The biggest prize the CTC has captured since Sept. 11 has been Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's chief of operations and recruiting. At the beginning of the year, the CTC formed a special Abu Zubaydah Task Force, manned with 100 covert operatives, CIA analysts, technicians and even agency rookies who had agreed to interrupt their spy training to mine data banks. Working around the clock for six weeks, sifting through thousands of agent reports, spy-satellite photos and signal intercepts, the task force finally pinpointed the 31-year-old Saudi-born Palestinian in a villa near Faisalabad, Pakistan. On the evening of March 27, Tenet and as many of the task-force members as could fit into the ground-floor conference room crowded around speakerphones that were patched into a team of CIA, FBI and Pakistani intelligence agents raiding the villa.
When the agents finally reported back that Abu Zubaydah had been captured in a gun battle, wounded but still alive, only quiet smiles went around the room. Everyone was too exhausted from the ordeal to cheer. Besides, there was no time for celebration. The approximately 10,000 pages of documents seized in the villa had to be translated quickly and analyzed. An interrogation team had to be organized for Abu Zubaydah, who when he had healed began giving CIA and FBI agents tantalizing hints of future strikes.
More than 2,000 al-Qaeda suspects have been arrested around the world, many because of tips the center fed to foreign police. A country-by-country scorecard is kept of the people nabbed, and periodically a chart of top al-Qaeda operatives is sent to Bush, color-coded to highlight the ones put out of action. So far, 10 of the 24 men the CIA considers bin Laden's senior lieutenants are dead or in custody. Pakistani forces, with the help of intelligence from the center, last week raided an al-Qaeda hideout near the Afghan border. The four-hour gun battle killed 10 Pakistani soldiers and at least two al-Qaeda fighters. The CTC has assembled a task force to try to find bin Laden's other top aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who the agency believes is still alive and on the run.
The final prize, of course, is bin Laden, who the CIA thinks is hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Since 1995, the center has had a special station devoted to bin Laden, made up of more than 50 CIA officers who have studied everything they could find on the man. Even though his top command has been cut almost in half, the CTC's officers know that bin Laden remains a powerful enemy. His 14 senior lieutenants still at large are on the run, but according to the CIA, they are plotting and sending out orders to a terrorism network that may still number in the thousands. The CTC, fearful of another strike around the July 4 holiday, is "on a heightened state of alert," says Bernazzani. Its members live each day worried that the next attack will come tomorrow.
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