President Trump’s nomination of Vice Admiral (Ret.) Joe Maguire to become the country’s next Director of National Intelligence both elevated the profile of the decorated Navy SEAL and the organization he currently leads, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The nomination comes in the wake of the El Paso Attack that claimed 22 lives and the acknowledgement that NCTC had started analyzing domestic terrorism, a departure from the first fifteen years of the organization’s history.
Established in 2004, and in response to a recommendation from the 9-11 Commission, NCTC is designed to assemble analytic and policy expertise in one organization and build a comprehensive, national-level approach to counterterrorism. The model has not always worked, and there are intentional limits to NCTC’s mission, but NCTC’s intelligence analysis is likely as strong as any other segment of the Intelligence Community (IC), NCTC is an integral part of the President’s Daily Brief process, and NCTC’s Directors have exerted real influence over national-level decision making.
Despite these successes, analyzing domestic terrorism is not a perfect fit for NCTC. First, the IC orients its intelligence collection activities towards international threats. This means that the reporting NCTC professionals use to shape their understanding of the world is going to be less robust for domestic terrorism analysis than for Lebanese Hizballah or al-Qa‘ida, for example. Next, the IC is insular by nature, by Executive Order, and by statute. Sharing information within the IC is dramatically better now than in 2001, but the requirements of security clearances and secure facilities and computing keeps IC reporting and IC analysis primarily within the federal government, and information shared with state, local, and tribal authorities is often so sanitized that it is not operationally useful. NCTC has structures in place, like Domestic Representatives, to help address this challenge, but classification remains a serious structural issue that will prevent local law enforcement from taking day-to-day advantage of NCTC’s new domestic terrorism analysis.
These obstacles acknowledged, no new domestic terrorism laws, updated classification guidelines, or other wide-ranging reforms are necessary to provide NCTC’s domestic terrorism analysis to a willing and interested audience, however. NCTC, like other elements of the IC, can use the so called “Five Eyes” agreement among the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to share certain forms of intelligence reporting with key allies with much greater ease than sharing the same reporting with state or municipal police. Additionally, NCTC has a pre-existing network of international partners it can rely upon, like the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre in the UK or the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre in Canada, to employ NCTC’s new domestic terrorism-oriented analytic products.
Dylann Roof, while clearly a domestic terrorist, was not purely American in his ideological origins. He mixed nostalgia for the Confederacy with images of the Rhodesian and apartheid-era South African flags, indicating an interest in committing violence on behalf of white nationalism internationally, not just in Charleston, SC. More recently, the attacker in Christchurch, NZ specifically cited Roof in his written manifesto prior to mass murdering civilians at worship. Another white nationalist, the Norwegian Anders Breivik, appeared both in the Christchurch attacker’s writings as well as the research of Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard Officer accused of massing weapons in advance of a possible attack against prominent Americans. A full list of the international ties among violent white nationalists is beyond the scope of this assessment, but it is clear that domestic terrorism, as considered in the United States, is part of an world-wide ideological network in the same way as international terrorism is understood to be. Therein lies an opportunity for the National Counterterrorism Center.
Through using existing means of intelligence collection, the written product of experts already assigned to the organization, and employing decades-old information sharing protocols with allies facing similar threats, NCTC is well-positioned to lead the government response to a major domestic threat with significant international ties. No act of Congress is necessary to give NCTC this authority, either, all that is required is the will of its current – and outgoing – Director, which has already been demonstrated, as well as the next Director’s commitment to re-imagining NCTC’s role and pushing the organization to take on an additional pressing threat to the country.