An Ethnography of the National Counter-Terrorism Center

A sociology grad student at UPenn has published a dissertation analyzing the internal culture of the Intelligence Community.  Ms. Nolan spent a year in the Radicalization and Extremist Messages Group of the National Counter Terrorism Center at Liberty Crossing, VA. Her dissertation explored the daily life of the counterterror analyst, the wider status inequities in the Intelligence Community, office humor at LX (as Liberty Crossing is abbreviated) and the prime output of Intel analysts:  written reports for politicians.  The full title:

wasd

INFORMATION SHARING AND COLLABORATION IN THE UNITED STATES
INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY OF THE NATIONAL
COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER
Bridget Rose Nolan
A DISSERTATION
in
Sociology
Presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania
in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
2013

The publication has been written about widely already in the press, but I have not seen it subject to critical review. I wanted to share the paper as I begin my review – it is a relatively long dissection at some 215 pages, uploaded here [Nolan_Dissertation].

An initial impression: while I’m sure it must be a mistake, as the paper’s author ought very well be expected to know the basic history and structure of the post-9/11 Intelligence Community, the dissertation begins with the 9/11 Report and its found defects in the US spy infrastructure.

from the text, “Background,” pg 3

The 9/11 Commission Report, formally known as the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is the official record and best-known analysis of the attacks. Of its many conclusions, a main one is that a primary cause of the attacks was that the 16 intelligence agencies had failed to share information in a proper and timely manner. These 16 agencies are listed below:

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA, part of the Department of Defense [DOD])
National Security Agency (NSA)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)
Department of the Treasury
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
Department of Energy
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
Department of State (INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research])
United States Army Intelligence
United States Navy Intelligence
United States Air Force Intelligence
United States Marine Corps Intelligence
United States Coast Guard Intelligence

Before September 11th, each of these intelligence agencies functioned more or less independently. It was presumed agencies would share information when necessary to achieve the relevant mission and that interagency collaboration would occur as a natural outcome of any task in which more than one agency was or should be involved. In practice, however, isolation and even open hostility has characterized the relationships among intelligence agencies, with the CIA-FBI and CIA-NCTC relationships being two of the most contentious.

The Department of Homeland Security was not among the agencies subjected to scrutiny, as it was formed along with the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence as part of the Commission’s recommended reforms (absorbing many other agencies including cabinet-level entities, and the USCG Intelligence above).

Some choice excerpts, anecdotes from the section examining analyst humor:

The first example of Agency folklore I will discuss is the Hot Dog TDY story. This is a true story that occurred during my second summer as a Graduate Fellow at the Agency, so I was able to track down the actual story and reproduce it below. A real TDY (Tour of Duty) is essentially a business trip in the IC, and whenever an employee is traveling somewhere, a cable is written to document the trip. The Hot Dog TDY is a satirical cable someone wrote upon hearing a rumor that there is a hot dog vending machine in the basement of the Old Headquarters Building (OHB) at CIA. I have already described the oblique language of cables and the difficulty people have in deciphering them; cables about domestic TDYs are considerably easier to read, but still follow a certain pattern, rhythm, style (all capital letters, for instance), and, of course, acronyms (e.g. NFI, which means “no further information” or “not further identified”). Someone adapted the language of cables to describe this hot dog vending machine, and other analysts found it so funny that it still was making the email rounds years after it was written. Here is the “cable” in its entirety, from my field notes:

OBSERVATIONS OF OHB HOT DOG MACHINE
1. LOCATION: OHB APPROX. GF45 NEAR THE ELEVATORS AND GREEN
JACKET HIVE
2. APPEARANCE: STANDARD VENDING MACHINE APPEARANCE WITH
THE WORDS OSCAR MAYER AND A LARGE WIENER FEATURED ON
FRONT.
A. ALSO INCLUDES OBSERVATION WINDOW
3. FEATURES: CHOICE OF 3 WIENERS, STANDARD BUN
A. OSCAR MAYER WIENER
B. SOME GERMAN THING
C. PREMIUM WIENER WITH CHEESE CORE
4. COST:
A. OSCAR MAYER $2.00
B. THE GERMAN $2.50
C. PREMIUM CHEESE CORE $3.00
5. EXTRAS: KETCHUP, MUSTARD PACKETS FOR MANUAL ASSEMBLY. NO
RELISH
6. OPERATION: THE HOTDOG VENDING MACHINE APPEARED TO
OPERATE CORRECTLY SERVING A WARM WIENER ASSEMBLED WITH A
MOIST, SLIGHTLY HEATED BUN. MULTIPLE ROBOTIC MECHANISMS
WERE OBSERVED THROUGH THE OBSERVATION WINDOW. ROBOT 1
CAPTURED SELECTED WIENER (OSCAR MAYER) FROM THE WIENER BAY
AND POSITIONED WIENER IN FRONT OF ROBOT 2. ROBOT 2 WAS
LABELED WITH MANY HAZARD INDICATORS SUGGESTING IT TO HAVE A
HEATING FUNCTION (FIELD COMMENT: HEATING COULD BE POWERED
BY LASERS). ROBOT 2 THEN OPENED ITS PORT TO RECEIVE THE
WIENER. ROBOT 1 THEN INSERTED THE WIENER INTO ROBOT 2 FOR
HEATING. ROBOT 1 THEN PROCEEDED TO AGITATE THE WIENER IN AND
OUT OF ROBOT 2 UNTIL DONE—PRESUMABLY WHEN WIENER HAD
PLUMPED. ROBOT 1 THEN ASSEMBLED WIENER WITH A WARM BUN
(NFI) APPEARING TO REST IN A ROBOT 3. ROBOT 3 THEN DELIVERED
ASSEMBLED HOTDOG THROUGH THE SERVING PORT.
7. TASTE: WIENER HAD INDEED PLUMPED—CHARACTERISTIC SPLITTING
OF WIENER WAS OBSERVED. WIENER WAS THOROUGHLY COOKED AND
WARM TO THE CENTER. BUN REMAINED COOLER AND HAD NOT
BECOME SOGGY. QUALITY EQUALED THAT OF AVERAGE BALL PARK.

And:

Screenshot from 2013-10-08 17:13:53

The photos below are posted to cryptome, they show the NCTC/DNI campus in McLean, VA.

pict17

pict18

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One thought on “An Ethnography of the National Counter-Terrorism Center

  1. It’s very difficult to counter terrorism because it’s planned and day by day it’s continuously attacking public places. I agree with this center because it will make us feel safe and get fast response whenever terrorism attack is coming.

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