CIA's joint intelligence centers showing results

Sunday, November 20, 2005

By Dana Priest, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The CIA has established joint operation centers in more than two dozen countries where U.S. and foreign intelligence officers work side-by-side to track and capture suspected terrorists and to destroy or penetrate their networks, according to current and former U.S. and foreign intelligence officials.

The secret Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers are financed mostly by the agency and employ some of the best espionage technology the CIA has to offer, including secure communications gear, computers linked to the CIA's central databases and access to highly classified intercepts once shared only with the nation's closest Western allies.

The Americans and their counterparts at the centers, known as CTICs, make daily decisions on when and how to apprehend suspects, whether to whisk them off to other countries for interrogation and detention and how to disrupt the al-Qaida terror network's logistical and financial support.

The network of centers reflects what has become the CIA's central and most successful strategy in combating terrorism abroad: persuading and empowering foreign security services to help. Virtually every one of the more than 3,000 suspected terrorists captured or killed since Sept. 11, 2001, outside of Iraq came about as a result of foreign intelligence services working in tandem with the agency, the CIA deputy director of operations told a congressional committee in a closed-door session earlier this year.

The initial tip about where an al-Qaida figure is hiding may come from the CIA, but the actual operation to pick him up is usually organized by one of the joint centers and conducted by a local security service, with the CIA nowhere in sight.

The CIA has operated the joint intelligence centers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to current and former intelligence officials. In addition, the multinational center in Paris, codenamed Alliance Base, includes representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.

"CTICs were a step forward in codifying, organizing liaison relationships that elsewhere would be more ad hoc," a former CIA counterterrorism official said. "It's one tool in the liaison tool kit."

The CTICs are entirely separate from the covert prisons, known in classified documents as "black sites," that the CIA has run at various times in eight countries. Legal experts and intelligence officials have said the prisons -- whose existence was disclosed in a Washington Post report earlier this month -- would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries. The CTICs, by contrast, are an expansion of the hidden intelligence cooperation that has been a staple of foreign policy for decades.

The intelligence centers were modeled on the CIA's counternarcotics centers in Latin America and Asia. Faced with corrupt local police and intelligence services, in the 1980s the CIA persuaded the leaders of these countries to let it select individuals for the assignment, pay them and keep them physically separate from their own institutions.

Officers from the host nations serving in the newer CTICs are vetted through background checks and polygraphs. They are usually supervised by the CIA's chief of station and augmented by officers sent from the Counterterrorist Center at Langley, Va. Such daily interaction with U.S. personnel, say intelligence officials, helps keep the foreign service focused.

In setting up the network, the agency had extensive inducements to offer foreign services once Congress opened the spigot, which it quickly did. "The money was just flowing," said one CIA case officer. In fact, the budget for the CIA's operations increased in the first two years by 2 1/2 times what it had been before Sept. 11, according to two government experts.

The Counterterrorist Center at CIA headquarters, which manages the CTICs and all other counterterrorism efforts, bought its friends SUVs, night-vision equipment, automatic weapons and push-to-talk radios for countries where intelligence services were starved for even basic material. It sent instructors in surveillance, data analysis and military Special Forces tactics to teach hostage rescue, VIP protection and counterterrorist assault. Foreign countries sent officers to the CIA's training school for weeks-long courses in counterterrorism operations and analysis.

The new cooperative ventures depended as well on loosening U.S. rules for sharing electronic eavesdropping and other precious "signals intelligence," which experts estimate provides 80 to 90 percent of the information that the United States gathers about terrorist networks.

The National Security Agency, which manages, analyzes and distributes electronic intercepts, quickly became a new partner in the joint centers, and established a Foreign Affairs Directorate that now handles sharing information and equipment with 40 countries.


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