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Jeffrey D. Ratner Headshot

National Counterterrorism Planning: Who's Calling the Plays?

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What if someone told you that your favorite football team's offensive coordinator, charged with designing offensive strategy and calling plays during the game, could only talk to some of the players some of the time and every player on the team could choose to ignore his directions at will? You would probably conclude that the team's offense was in disarray.

You might be surprised to know that this scenario describes the current state of our nation's counterterrorism planning.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, it was clear that significant gaps in U.S. counterterrorism structures had left us vulnerable to attack. The 9/11 Commission found that no one was firmly in charge of managing government-wide counterterrorism operations and no one could amass all relevant intelligence; no one was connecting the dots. To address this problem, the Commission proposed in its 2004 report, a civilian-led unified joint command for counterterrorism that would connect the dots and coordinate counterterrorism operations. Subsequently, Congress created the National Counterterrorism Center ("NCTC") to integrate all counterterrorism intelligence and activities.

The establishment of NCTC was a step in the right direction; however, it left some gaping holes. Though Congress tasked the NCTC with assigning roles and responsibilities to agencies, Congress required that they be consistent with applicable law, ensuring that agencies could continue their stove-piped operations. In addition, Congress expressly forbade the NCTC from directing the execution of counterterrorism operations, safeguarding agencies' autonomy. These caveats have helped to derail the intent of the law and have stymied the NCTC's ability to integrate counterterrorism activities.

The success of NCTC planning hinges on the amenability of departments and agencies to its planning -- a coalition of the willing is required. A recent study by the Project on National Security Reform, which I helped prepare, found that many government actors were unaware of the NCTC's role; of those who were informed, several refused to cooperate with the NCTC. In one example, a NCTC plan was criticized for not incorporating CIA operations. This was because the CIA refused to participate in the process. Since each agency pursues its own mandates by way of its own authorities, there is little incentive for an agency to cooperate.

The establishment of the NCTC preserved other agencies' conflicting authorities - creating gridlock. For instance, though Congress gave the NCTC primary authority for coordinating counterterrorism planning, it also gave the State Department "overall supervision ... of international counterterrorism activities." So who does what? It's unclear, even to those who are doing it. This conflict has real-world consequences. In one example, a regional NCTC plan lacked critical substantive expertise because the State Department refused to take part in the planning. When agencies read their own authorities as conflicting with those of the NCTC, there are few incentives for that agency to participate in the planning process.

Though the NCTC's strategic planning arm has done commendable work under considerable constraints, if it is to succeed in integrated planning, it must pursue a new course.

The NCTC can vigorously pursue additional authorities to help fulfill its original mandate as the sole coordinator for integrated counterterrorism planning. For this to occur, the NCTC must be given authority over other departments so that it can incentivize them to participate in and implement the planning. This authority may take the form of budget certification, a power which the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy uses to review agency budget allocations, or it may take the form of a new statutory counterterrorism regime to deconflict various agencies' overlapping authority.

Alternatively, the NCTC can narrow its scope and focus only on providing long- term strategic and contingency planning to the President and his National Security Staff. The NCTC has been successful at overarching strategic planning, such as the National Implementation Plan for the War on Terror, and at "what-if" contingency planning. Cordoning off NCTC planners from day-to-day operations allows them to focus on providing detailed plans to respond to potential terrorist attacks and to provide long-term plans to achieve strategic objectives. Providing this type of support to policymakers will allow the NCTC to capitalize on what it can do well and eliminate what it cannot.

The 9/11 Commission's finding that an integrated counterterrorism planning unit is critical to our national security is no less true today than it was in 2004. Countering the threat of terrorist attacks requires an integrated and effective strategic planning capability that spans the entire government. Regardless of which track the NCTC pursues, a new course will focus its mission and eliminate weaknesses inherent in its statutory mandate.