Every day, analysts from 15 different intelligence agencies collect data on terrorism threats inside and outside of the U.S. But each bit of information is useless without context. That's where the National Counterterrorism Center comes in. There, analysts take data from all of the various agencies, work to recognize patterns, and fill in the entire picture.
But simply having access to the information isn't enough. Analysts need to be able to find the data quickly and securely. The technological complexities of organizing so much data is formidable, to say the least (see BW Online, 5/11,05, "The Terror Watch List's Tangle").
BusinessWeek Online staff writer Burt Helm recently spoke with Bill Spalding, the NCTC's chief information officer, about the current state of information technology at the center and his team's efforts at modernizing the system. Edited excerpts of their interview follow:
Q: What are the duties of the National Counterterrorism Center?
A: It's a role that is just now changing -- we have not realized all the things we are supposed to do. The Intelligence Reform Act hasn't been executed, the new intelligence director has just been confirmed. We haven't really become all that we can be yet -- which is really being the center point for all analysis on the topic of counterterrorism.
We work with all the agencies to bring together very concise conclusions, and pass them to senior policymakers. The Terrorist Screening Center relies upon us for all of the watch-listing information. We have a lot of partner organizations, many of which are as young as us. In simple terms, we're really the center of the intelligence web (see BW Online, 5/10/05, "The Terror Watch List's Tangle").
Q: What is an NCTC analyst's work like?
A: At each desk is basically a certain number of different networks that a person can connect to, based on their specific job. The person will have five or six different computers they will connect to -- it's across all different types of classification.
For example, they could be connected to a couple of different CIA networks, a couple of different military networks, the open Internet -- it pretty much covers the whole waterfront of agencies playing in terrorism.
Q: And all these networks are completely separated?
A: We've already allowed the ability to move information more automatically between some of our networks -- they aren't all (isolated). But many of them are on very, very separate networks. What we'd like is for an analyst to be able to query all of the databases at once, with data updating on the different databases automatically, so the analyst doesn't have to log on to 20 different things. That's the nirvana state.
We've been negotiating these agreements with all of these [intelligence] providers. There's a misnomer out there that nobody is "sharing." They are sharing -- it's just a very complex topic, and I'm not aware of data integration being done before on such a grand scale.
Q: How are attitudes in U.S. intelligence changing?
A: For all of us, it's funny to have this kind of stuff in print. For the first 15 to 20 years of my career here, it would have been verboten for an agency officer to be talking to you on the phone about our technical approach.
The nature of this is no longer just an intelligence game. From all the attention intelligence sharing has been given, our partners across the board are showing a degree of openness, really letting people know how they're doing this stuff.