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Officials: Sequester could compromise U.S. intelligence gathering

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – A trial in the United Kingdom last week exposed al-Qaida’s new strategy for attacking the U.S.

Three men convicted of terrorism charges in Birmingham, England, had all received training in bomb-making and other terrorist acts in Pakistan, and had been instructed by their leaders to go west and lay low.

They were not instructed to launch attacks, but to teach others how to launch them. Essentially, they were told to fan out into various western countries including the U.S. and disappear into the fabric of their communities and look for apprentices and opportunities.

With the threat of sequestration only three days away, intelligence officials see a potential opportunity for the likes of al-Qaida and others.

“Allowing sequestration to be imposed at this late point in the fiscal year will dramatically reduce the funding available for the intelligence community to conduct its intelligence mission,” says Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is to integrate intelligence analysis and collection to inform the decisions that are made from the White House to the foxholes. As al-Qaida operatives try to slip in and burrow deep in the U.S., the intelligence community may be without some of its key players at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

“NCTC, like every other agency in government, is looking for ways to be more efficient and more effective with the resources that we have,” says Matt Olsen, director of the center. “We are aware that we are in a climate where we may face some real challenges on the budget side.”

In an exclusive interview with WTOP, Olsen adds that, “Everybody, every morning that walks through our front doors knows that they’re coming in here to work on one thing, and that’s counterterrorism and that also means protecting the country.”

Those budgetary challenges could lead to layoffs for counterterrorism analysts from across the community. Analysts, scholars, linguists and a range of experts from the CIA, FBI, military, homeland security and the State Department all filter through the NCTC on a daily basis.

“We even have folks here from state and local police departments,” Olsen says. “That is why I think it’s important as we look ahead to understand how we’re going to allocate those limited resources against those changing and evolving threats we face around the world.”

Clapper is resolute about his personal mission, but clear about what is at stake and the potential consequences.

“Whatever happens in the political debate over sequestration, as [director of national intelligence], I have to protect our ability to carry out the business of intelligence,” he says. “I can’t do that if our people — the intelligence professionals who are responsible for gathering the intelligence that helps protect us — are not on the job.”

Clapper says his team will try to “mitigate the effect of sequestration, but the sheer size of the cut has the potential to, over time, adversely affect our ability to meet our national security obligations.”

Olsen says the NCTC is dedicated to its work even in uncertain times like these because of the significance of its mission.

“That’s a great source of motivation, dedication and esprit de corps for our workforce, and I think we all understand that there are going to be some challenges on the budget side and we’re just going to do the best we can,” he says.

While cuts to systems and dramatic slowdowns in the spending that supports their systems may be inevitable, Clapper says he is committed to protecting his people and their mission.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to avoid widespread furloughs of our people,” he says. “In the intelligence community, you can’t separate the people from the mission and our mission is too important compromise.”

Follow @JJGreenWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.


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