Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Today's Reading Assignment

Retired Navy Vice-Admiral John Scott Redd, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Photo by Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press

At MSNBC.com, Newsweek's Mark Hosenball and Jeffrey Bartholet have posted an exclusive interview with retired Navy Admiral John Scott Redd, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

It's an interesting read, although many of Admiral Redd's answers are hardly surprising:

On bin Laden's desire to hit the U.S. (and other western targets): "We have very strong indicators that Al Qaida is planning to attack the West."

The difficulty of tracking down the Al Qaida leader: "If we knew where he [Osama bin Laden] was, he'd either be dead or captured."

His thoughts on a developing terror threat to the United States: "We’ve got this intelligence threat; we’re pretty certain we know what’s going on. We don’t have all the tactical details about it, [but] in some ways it’s not unlike the U.K. aviation threat last year. So we know there is a threat out there. The question is, what do we do about it? And the response was, we stood up an interagency task force under NCTC leadership."

Are we in a better position to deal with the terrorist threat? We are better prepared today for the war on terror than at any time in our history. We have done an incredible amount of things since 9/11, across the board. Intelligence is better. They are sharing it better. We are taking the terrorists down. We are working with the allies very carefully. We are doing the strategic operational planning, going after every element in the terrorist life cycle. So we have come a long way. But these guys are smart. They are determined. They are patient. So over time we are going to lose a battle or two. We are going to get hit again, you know, but you’ve got to have the stick-to-itiveness or persistence to outlast it.

Unfortunately, the lines of questioning offered by Hosenball and Bartholet followed the "typical" MSM template. The Newsweek correspondents repeatedly asked about possible connections between Iraq and global terrorism, asserting that our military operations have created a breeding ground for new terrorists. Readers will note that the team from Newsweek failed to asked how many terrorists who've been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan might have otherwise been assigned to missions in Europe and the United States.

But we digress. Fact is, Hosenball and Bartholet missed a golden opportunity to inquire about the organizational "health" of Admiral Redd's organization, one of the most important links in our defense against terrorism. Just last week, the long-awaited CIA IG report described the organization's predecessor, the counter-terrorism center (CTC) as a dysfunctional agency in the years leading up to 9-11, an organization engaged in a running battle with the National Security Agency (NSA) over sensitive terrorist communications intercepts. When NSA finally agreed to share the information, the CTC implemented a lazy response, detailing only one officer to NSA headquarters (for a limited time), to review transcripts of terrorist conversations. As a result of those (and other) failures, the CIA Inspector General has recommended Accountability Boards for two former Directors of the CTC.

It's one of the most damning indictments of senior intelligence leadership in U.S. history. And, in light of those revelations, the Newsweek correspondents should have pressed Admiral Redd on his efforts to ensure that the NCTC doesn't fall into the same, sad shape. While much of the NCTC's work is classified, the director should be able to furnish recent examples of inter-agency teamwork and cooperation (under his leadership), proving that the center can perform its assigned mission. Given the opportunity, we'd also ask Admiral Redd if the problems identified by the IG report were still evident when the new organization stood up in 2004.

Clearly, the Newsweek reporters missed a golden opportunity. While Admiral Redd is a proven leader, it's very easy for any senior government official to talk about "inter-agency task forces" with "all the players" working together. Fact is, we had the same type of structures in the old CTC before 9-11, and they failed miserably, thanks to bureaucratic distrust and squabbling, among other reasons. And, many of the players from that era are now working in the NCTC. Has the organizational climate really changed?

With terrorists concocting new plots against the CONUS, Americans need to know if the NCTC represents the "way ahead" or if the new organization is simply papering over long-festering problems. While Admiral Redd's comments sound reassuring, they are predictably vague, and that's why Hosenball and Bartholet should have pushed for more specific answers. But, if you're locked into a particular theme or template in covering terrorism--or any other issue--it's difficult to ask the right questions, at the right time.


Unknown said...

How could the NCTC be dysfunctional before 9/11? Didn't this organization begin in August 2004?

Unknown said...

While the NCTC is "technically" a new organization, it inherited many of its staffers from the old CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC), and reps from other organizations are vets from that same period, when the CIA fought with other agencies over control of information and other issues.

In other words, the organization may be new, but it's a direct descendant of its troubled predecessor, and that's why Newsweek should have pressed Adm Redd on why the NCTC "isn't" the CTC, and won't wind up in the same, sad shape.