At the Crossroads of Terror

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Courtesy CIA

Signs point the way within the Counter-terrorism Center's maze of offices

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.

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.

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