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Spending a day at the National Counter Terrorism Center

Reporters tour the secret intelligence agency and find computers, intense security, and a touch of Walt Disney.

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We weren't blindfolded, but we were asked to forget where we were going. There were 15 of us. All reporters from different parts of the country on a small bus speeding out of Washington toward the nation's new counterterrorism nerve center.

We'd already been told that tape recorders, cellphones, Blackberrys, and other communications devices had to be left behind in the bus when we got there. And if we referred to the locale at all, we were supposed to identify it as an "undisclosed location in northern Virginia," according to our tour leader, wielding a microphone in the front of the bus.

Within a fairly short time (we won't say how much: 15 minutes, a half hour, maybe 2 hours – you know Washington traffic), we arrived at the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), where we went through a cordon of security checks. A gleaming new complex nestled in a wooded area (somewhere in northern Virginia), the center was designed to help surmount the intelligence communication lapses that led up to the 9/11 tragedy. Congress created it in 2004. It is the highest high-tech cerebellum that the nation's best engineers and creative minds – think Disney (more on that later) – could come up with.

Or, in the very official words of Mike Leiter, the principal deputy director of the NCTC, "We are the primary analytic agency for counterintelligence in the nation. We inform policymakers and support counterterrorism operations around the world."

More than anything, it is a sophisticated junction of human synapses and electronic circuit boards. More than 30 separate computer networks here and abroad feed a river of intelligence into the NCTC's central operations center, which is staffed 24/7 by at least a dozen analysts. They sit in a cavernous auditorium equipped with multiple computer stations and huge overhead screens, a la Dr. Strangelove (again, think Disney.)


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