Is US intelligence so big that counterterrorism is failing? 'Yes' say insiders

When might you consider quitting your job to be a “win”? When you work for the CIA and “the Company” tries to block the publication of your dissertation about the National Counterterrorism Center.

Bridget Rose Nolan, a sociology PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, worked as a counterterrorism analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from 2010 – 2011. Basically she worked as an analyst while also conducting “ethnographic observations” by interviewing 16 female and seven male analysts for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer explained, “She set out to explore the culture of the terrorism center and how it, and its counterparts, share information – or fail to.” After three years of “fighting” the CIA over the right to publish, she won, but the “win” meant she had to resign.

Instead of too big to fail, in essence, counterterrorism may be failing in some areas because it is too big, because counterterrorism analysts suffer from so much information overload that they are not effective in stopping terrorism. “Fewer people in the system could help to streamline the bureaucracy and reduce the number of emails and documents that make the analysts feel overwhelmed with information.” Other contributing factors that make terrorism harder to fight include sabotage among co-workers, stove-piping, confusion, bureaucracy that might make your head explode, and agencies that don’t play well together. Several people working in counterterrorism suggested that the solutions to be more effective include cutting out the bloat and making the intelligence community smaller, much smaller.

NCTC was formed as a “knee-jerk reaction to 9/11.” The continuing War on Terror leads to more databases, more information which creates more stove-piping. There is no Google-like search to find information from one agency to the other, and each intelligence agency hoards the good secret stuff for itself. One analyst suggested that NCTC was “never intended to be real. That all along, it’s just been a CYA [‘cover your ass’] political maneuver.” Another CT analyst suggested that if NCTC were to continue, then it “should be about one-tenth its current size.”  

When it comes to intelligence information, analysts must “publish or perish;” but it’s more about quantity than quality. There are endless “turf battles” complete with paper ownership battles as well as “strategies of deception and sabotage.” Even analysts working for the same agency might try to stall in order to “scoop” another analyst; they also might try to “kill” the piece. That’s before the six months to two years for official reviews of the papers, “layers and layers of soul-crushing review.” There is also “a lack of faith in management both as qualified reviewers and as unbiased supporters.” One analyst said, “Information sharing is when YOU give ME your data.”

You might think Nolan’s “Information Sharing and Collaboration in the United States Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study of the National Counterterrorism Center” [pdf] would be fairly boring, but you’d be wrong. Because “intelligence officers are taught to react to reporters with extreme suspicion and reticence,” her dissertation provides a rare look into the shadowy world of counterterrorism (CT). There were many eye-openers, insights other than CIA agents forward Gawker articles and The Onion, the biggest of all was the humor. CT analysts have a very funny, very dark humor.

Highlighting that humor

Secrecy News and Privacy SOS covered CT analysts’ ideas of shrinking the intelligence community so it could be more effective. Gawker covered the weird but funny The Hunt for Red October: The Untold Story, a CIA parody of Tom Clancy’s most famous novel. But if you read Nolan’s dissertation, 206 pages with all appendixes and bibliography, there’s plenty of humor to be highlighted.

CIA NCTC analyst humor

Did you know analysts describe other agencies in clothing brand metaphors and snarky descriptions? The CIA are “cool kids,” but analysts were described as “cut-throat, passive-aggressive,” “back-stabby” and “go-getters” who would “give up their first-born for certain opportunities.” Overall, it is considered the “best” and “most respected” agency when it comes to intelligence. But that superiority is also a “turn-off” to analysts from other agencies. The clothing brand to describe the CIA is Burberry.

CIA is “the greedy institution.” Nolan wrote:

To underscore the point, I frequently heard references to the Agency as the “CIA mafia,” “the mob,” the “mothership” (Headquarters), and the “Borg” (a reference to the fictional Star Trek species that forces other species to assimilate to a collective “hive mind,” and against whom “resistance is futile”). These terms are usually used in jest, but are only funny because there is some truth behind them.

Next on the intelligence community status totem pole is NSA who is “military-esque in the sense of making sh*t happen.” Again, there was lots of humor about the geeky group including an Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s summary: the “NSA is like the Hotel California—people go there and they never leave. Sometimes they do but don’t know why.” The NSA’s clothing brand is Sharper Image.

The FBI has a “low status” among other intelligence agencies, most especially FBI analysts. “If you’re not an Agent, you’re furniture.” The FBI’s total information integration is a “national joke.” The metaphor brand to describe the FBI is London Fog. One CIA analyst said of the FBI, “They actually have an excellent mission—it’s too bad they suck so much.”

The brand to describe the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is Kmart. DIA analysts are “not very good,” “hippos,” “dimwits” and the “blond” version of the CIA; they are also are copycats of CIA intelligence papers.

The most “hated” of all work-overloaded analysts are from the “little known” NCTC who “has to coordinate everyone” before completing a paper. One analyst complained, “It’s difficult when DHS thinks they can call the editors personally and hold your piece because they think it interferes with their business project.” NCTC is most especially hated by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). “We were actually encouraged to block stuff from NCTC…There’s lots of corruption in CTC. Like they’d make a report look like a source had been terminated just so NCTC would stop following it.”

NCTC is supposed to be a “melting pot of intelligence agencies, but instead the organization is more aptly described with the salad bowl metaphor.” The “CIA and FBI have become closer because they have a mutual hatred for NCTC”—because “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

On the CIA’s Sametime chat program, NCTC have “TT” after the analyst’s name, clearly denoting that they are inferior to the CIA. So it might be of little surprise that NCTC’s favorite emoticon is “a smiley face that smiles, then starts to frown, and then shoots itself in the head.” But they did feel better being able to anonymously vent their anger and air their secret dirty laundry.

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