Why the U.S. has not had an attack after 9/11
Given the turf wars and lack of coordination among the police and intelligence agencies in India, the National Counter Terrorism Centre will not enhance security
The debates on the proposed Rs.3,400 crore National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) have seen extreme views from both sides. Its protagonists claim that it is a “Batman” who will swoop down on terrorists anywhere. Those opposing it feel it is a “Joker Villain” who will trample upon State autonomy.
Doubts about the Home Ministry’s scheme surfaced when a senior official, who was in office during Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s 2009 visit to the United States to study its NCTC system, wrongly told a national daily in February 2012 that the American NCTC worked under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As a matter of fact, USNCTC, which is under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in the White House, is one of three new instruments that has kept the American mainland comparatively safe from terrorism since 9/11. By itself, the NCTC could not have achieved that. Although the CIA has had a Counter Terrorism Centre (CTC) since 1986, it was felt by the 9/11 National Commission that more coordinated intelligence efforts were needed.
The idea of a national office under the President for combating terrorism was mooted earlier by a U.S. Congressional advisory panel known as the “Gilmore Commission,” which commenced its work from 1999. Until 9/11, broad security intelligence integration in the U.S. was done by the National Security Council’s three-tier “Inter-Agency Groups”. The 9/11 Commission suggested the creation of a Director, National Intelligence (DNI), and under him a multi-agency NCTC. The “Intelligence Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act” of 2004 (PL 108-458) codified this scheme. The DNI’s charter was coordinating with the 16-member national intelligence community, establishing priorities, resolving conflicts in collection process and sharing intelligence.
Section 119 (d) (3) specified that the NCTC “shall not direct the execution of any resulting operations.” This follows the traditional NSC philosophy of not directly conducting any operations from the White House, after the disastrous Iran-Contra Affair of the 1980s. One important component of NCTC is its Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), a team of State and local civil and law-enforcement officials posted by turn. They examine intelligence which would be of interest to the local authorities. They also seek what local “first responders” want to know.
It is thus clear that the charter envisaged in 2009 by our former Home Minister for our NCTC with investigation and operations responsibility besides intelligence integration did not exist in the U.S. model. That job is done by the DHS and the FBI with the help of State and local authorities. The Deputy Director of the American NCTC, who was present during an Oxford Counter-Terrorism Conference in October 2010, where I was one of the speakers, told me that anything beyond intelligence integration would be unworkable. Former DNI Mike McConnell had told the Council on Foreign Relations (June 29, 2007) that American agencies collected one billion pieces of information daily.
Thus, the onerous task of intelligence integration and interpretation is kept separate from operations. Even with this, the November 2009 CIA alert on the Nigerian “Underwear Bomber” (Abdulmutallab) was not converted into a “no fly notification” and he was able to attempt igniting a liquid bomb on 25 December 2009. How then could we expect our version to succeed? Where is the need for special powers when the NIA, which is supposed to work under NCTC, and which was specially created after 26/11, has been duly empowered under the NIA Act in December 2008?
It would appear that our government wants to follow the U.K.’s version of “Joint Terrorism Analyses Centre” (JTAC), which is under the MI-5 (IB’s counterpart). This might have been based on Mr. Chidambaram’s 2010 visit to the United Kingdom. According to media reports, the head of our proposed NCTC has to report to Director Intelligence Bureau (IB) whose office, however, has no legal backing. But MI-5 has a legal basis under the Security Service Act 1989 and it was also clarified that JTAC would be bound “by the provisions of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and subject to the oversight of the Parliament’s Intelligence & Security Committee”.
Terrorism is no longer an intelligence issue. It is inexorably tied to reviews by courts with the concept of “Intelligence-led policing.” This has happened in several countries where the courts insisted on perusing the exact intelligence that led to the arrests. The U.K.’s Intelligence & Security Committee’s special report dated May 6, 2009 (“Could 7/7 have been prevented?”) gives details of the “Executive Liaison Group” (ELG) for sharing secret MI-5 intelligence with the police. Those interested in further studying this should access the court judgments in Maher Arar (2004-05- Canada), Izhar ul- Haque (New South Wales Supreme Court-2007) and “Operation Crevice” (U.K.-2007). Are we sanguine that such an eventuality will not arise in India and the IB would not be called to testify?
The other two instruments which have been successful in preventing attacks in the U.S. are the FBI led multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) and 78 “Fusion Centers” under the DHS, both involving non-police investigators, analysts and private persons. As many as 106 teams of JTTF with about 4,400 officers pursue intelligence leads from various intelligence agencies and investigate. Each JTTF has representatives from federal agencies, local police and other departments. New York JTTF has 500 investigators with only 130 from NYPD. They are coordinated by the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF). Such joint operations are beneficial in compensating for others’ laxity as in the case of the Times Square bomber Shahzad. Couldn’t we have tried this out at least in New Delhi or Centrally administered territories?
The objective of Fusion Centers is to channel NCTC intelligence to local “stakeholders,” including private bodies. Fusion Centers “translate” possible national or international happenings to the local authorities to make them aware of the possibility and nature of the attack. The 26/11 Committee found that the Mumbai Police were not aware of even open source information on two incidents, which if studied could have prepared them better . In March 2007, there was a media report that two suspected LeT terrorists, arrested by Rajauri Police, had revealed that their boat was intercepted off the Mumbai coast by the Coast Guard but let off. The second case was an attack on Serena Hotel, Kabul, on January 14, 2008 similar to 26/11. That was the period when repeated Central alerts were being received (although not date specific) on multiple targets, including hotels in Mumbai. During our 26/11 enquiry, we did not get an impression that our Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and State MACs worked like Fusion Centers.
The biggest achievement of the DHS is the nationwide alignment of anti-terrorist methodology through constant dialogue among the “Homeland Security State and Local Community” with about 1,000 key members from the States, the national capital and six federal departments who collaborate through secure conference calls. If we have some such arrangements, the constant bickering between our State police departments on terror cases investigation could have been resolved.
Integrated network in U.K.
The U.K. also follows the concept of “integrated national network of dedicated policing resources” through four Regional Counter-Terrorist Units (CTU), besides the London-based Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC). A July 2011 report to Parliament said that more than 7,700 officers were on CT duty in the U.K. The regional Counter-Terrorist Intelligence Units (CTIU) have a large presence of non-police officials. In addition, a senior officer designated as Senior National Coordinator Counter-Terrorism (earlier known as National Coordinator Terrorist Investigations) coordinates investigations into terrorist crimes. Compare this with ours where even within a State conflicting conclusions are arrived at by State police teams.
The hallmarks of effective terrorism prevention and CT operations as experienced by others who have done better research are two-way intelligence flow through multi-agency structures, local fusion units to interpret possible situations, joint operations and active participation by the public as “stakeholders.” Setting up our present version of NCTC which is neither Batman nor the Joker, but only an ornamental “Nutcracker” that might occasionally dance, would not enhance public security. It will only end up in employment opportunities for some chosen superannuated officials.
(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and member of the two-man High Level Committee appointed by Government of Maharashtra on 26/11 attacks. Vappala.firstname.lastname@example.org)