Tag Archives: National Counterterrorism Center

Strategic Operational Planning and Congressional Oversight of Intelligence

By Sally Scudder, Center for Strategic Research

US Capitol

When President Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), he called it “the most dramatic reform of our nation’s intelligence capabilities since President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947.   Under this law, our vast intelligence enterprise will be more unified, coordinated, and effective.”[i]  To this specific end, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) officially took over as the nation’s lead in the counterterrorism effort.  Yet IRTPA’s passage didn’t mean the national security structure in Washington was going to change instantaneously and NCTC would be given complete charge of interagency counterterrorism efforts.   While blame of ineffectualness could be laid on interagency turf battles, perhaps the most responsible party is Congress and, as the 9/11 Commission calls it, their “dysfunctional”[ii] oversight of intelligence, which is “always dependent on newspaper headlines.”[iii]

The release of the 9/11 Commission Report demanded action, and with the 2004 elections looming, congressional members across the aisle were quick to endorse it, including presidential candidate John Kerry, forcing President Bush to follow suit. [iv]  Though it had also publicly endorsed the Commission, the Bush Administration had been loath to call it into existence, citing “sensitive information” as a reason to withhold hearings from the public eye.[v]   After the Report was published and public pressure started to build, Bush attempted to go around the recommendations while showing his commitment to reforming the national security structure by issuing a multiple executive orders and memos on the subject.  In reality, many of his orders “did little more that reaffirm the system as it existed” or simply pandered to “established bureaucratic interests.”[vi]  Among the executive orders issued was EO 13354, which created the National Counterterrorism Center as an update of the Threat Integration and Intelligence Center.  Bush outlined the NCTC’s functions as a center for the analysis and integration of intelligence; coordination of strategic operational planning; assigning operational responsibilities to agencies; serving as a shared knowledge bank; and ensuring agencies have appropriate access to intelligence.

Congress was also mindful of public perception.  Shortly thereafter, they introduced and passed IRTPA in less than ninety days, an exceedingly rare occurrence for the notoriously slow-moving bill passage process.  For such a sweeping and purportedly “revolutionary”[vii]  new organization, Congress didn’t add, subtract, or clarify NCTC’s functions, keeping the language identical to EO 13354.[viii]  Specifically, Congress didn’t challenge or define the vague and contrary concept of “strategic operational planning,” which was the mandate of the newly created Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning (DSOP) within the NCTC, leaving it open to interagency interpretation and contention.  Reportedly, members “didn’t know [what strategic operational planning was], just wanted enough words for [someone else] to figure it out.”[ix]  Though the rhetoric surrounding NCTC’s creation promised a “unified, coordinated and effective” streamlining of stovepiped efforts, Congress did not consolidate a single intelligence agency; they simply added to the already intricate intelligence community’s roles and reporting structure.[x]  If Congress did not fully flesh out and institute intelligence reform when public demand was at its peak and funding for intelligence programs had exponentially increased, what would drive them to keep an eye on NCTC’s efforts now, especially the “less than glamorous”[xi] planning side?

The Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning is supposed to be the mechanism for government-wide strategic operational planning and is half of NCTC’s mission, yet oversight is negligible.  The seeming importance of DSOP has been highlighted in testimony by NCTC leadership, yet relatively unchallenged by Congress in hearings.  In his statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as nominee for the Director of the NCTC, Adm. John Scott Redd called strategic operational planning “substantial, daunting and, I believe, very necessary.”[xii]  Through the years, SOP has been called “truly revolutionary”[xiii] as the government has “come together in ways…never seen during…decades of government service.”[xiv]  Despite caveats of strategic operational planning as “new to the US government,” [xv]SOP was called “foundational”[xvi] to counterterrorism efforts.  Succeeding NCTC Director Michael Leiter said he was “more convinced than ever that success against terrorism will only come through such coordinated and synchronized efforts—to include the full weight of our diplomatic, financial, military, intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement activities.” [xvii]  For such weighty importance, however, Congress hardly paid attention to DSOP.  The most questioning DSOP received was after the publication of the National Implementation Plan, which was supposed to discreetly task the interagency on counterterrorism efforts.  There were eight questions regarding NIP and all came from Representative Sanchez, who was frustrated at Congress’s lack of access to the document. [xviii]

It wasn’t until the attempted bombing of Flight 253 and the Fort Hood shootings in late 2009 that NCTC was put under Congress’s microscope as echoes of a ‘failure to connect the dots’ reverberated back into the public rhetoric. Though the sharpest scrutiny was directed at the intelligence side of NCTC, there were questions on DSOP’s roles and responsibilities, to which the answer seemed to be “I do not think the legislation gave clear authority— in fact, it did not give us clear authority to direct action, so we have become a negotiator and mediator of sorts rather than director of action.”[xix]  Suddenly the attitude was seemingly back to “we’re building the airplane at NCTC even as we are being asked to fly it.”[xx]  Though there were questions surrounding strategic operational planning and testimony from outside experts blasting DSOP’s failings,[xxi] there have still been no bills proposed or executive orders given to clarify DSOP’s operation.

NCTC is supposed to be the all-government approach to counterterrorism with the Directorate of Intelligence ‘connecting all of the intelligence dots’ and DSOP serving as the ‘connective tissue’ for the US government’s counterterrorism plans.  Unfortunately, without proper congressional oversight and a clear definition of strategic operational planning, DSOP’s mandate is difficult to enforce across the competing interagency.  Ordinarily, intelligence reform is characterized as moving an “aircraft carrier down a creek,” [xxii] and DSOP as a “less than glamorous”[xxiii] organization does not hold the attention of its overseers enough to ensure accountability or create a comprehensive government counterterrorism plan.

Sally Scudder is a research assistant with the Center for Strategic Research.  The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. 


[i] George W. Bush, “President Signs Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act,” Washington, D.C., December 17, 2004, available at <http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/12/20041217-1.html&gt;.

[ii] The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: Norton, 2004). 420.

[iii] Cynthia M. Nolan, “More Perfect Oversight: Intelligence Oversight and Reform.” Strategic Intelligence: Intelligence and Accountability: Safeguards Against the Abuse of Secret Power 5 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 115-140. 129.

[iv] Glenn Hastedt, “Washington Politics, Intelligence, and the Struggle Against Global Terrorism,” Strategic Intelligence: Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism: Defending the Nation Against Hostile Forces 4 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007). 100-25. 103.

[v] Pete Brush, “Bush Opposes 9/11 Query Panel,” CBS News, 11 February, 2009, available at <http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-509096.html&gt;.

[vi] Glenn Hastedt, “Washington Politics, Intelligence, and the Struggle Against Global Terrorism,” Strategic Intelligence: Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism: Defending the Nation Against Hostile Forces 4 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 100-25. 108.

[vii] Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: Counterterrorism: The Changing Face of Terror, June 13, 2006.

[viii]Todd Masse, “The National Counterterrorism Center: Implementation Challenges and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, (2005).

[ix] Interview, 26 April 12.

[x] Glenn Hastedt, “Washington Politics, Intelligence, and the Struggle Against Global Terrorism,” Strategic Intelligence: Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism: Defending the Nation Against Hostile Forces 4 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 100-125. 106.

[xi]Hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland: Six Years After 9/11, September 10, 2007.

[xii] Hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate: Nomination of Vice Admiral John Scott Redd to Be Director, National Counterterrorism Center, July 21, 2005.

[xiii] Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: Counterterrorism: The Changing Face of Terror, June 13, 2006.

[xiv] Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: Counterterrorism: The Changing Face of Terror, June 13, 2006.

[xv] Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Nine Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland, September 10, 2007.

[xvi] Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Nine Years After 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland, September 10, 2007.

[xvii] Hearing Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate: Nomination of Michael Leiter to Be Director, National Counterterrorism Center, May 6, 2008.

[xviii] Hearing of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism of the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives: Homeland Security Beyond Our Borders: Examining the Status of Counterterrorism Coordination Overseas, October 4, 2007.

[xix] Hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Intelligence Reform—2010, January, 2010.

[xx] Hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: Counterterrorism: The Changing Face of Terror, June 13, 2006.

[xxi]Hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Intelligence Reform—2010: The Lessons and Implications of the Christmas Day Attack: Intelligence Reform and Interagency Integration, March 17, 2010.

[xxii] Cynthia M. Nolan, “More Perfect Oversight: Intelligence Oversight and Reform.” Strategic Intelligence: Intelligence and Accountability: Safeguards Against the Abuse of Secret Power 5 (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 115-40. 131.

[xxiii]Hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland: Six Years After 9/11, September 10, 2007.

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