Run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the new center would be a significant step in streamlining targeting operations previously scattered among U.S. and battlefields abroad and giving elite military officials closer access to Washington decision-makers and counterterror experts, the officials said.
The center aims to speed the sharing of information and shorten the time between targeting and military action, said two current and two former U.S. officials briefed on the project. Those officials and others insisted on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified matters.
The new center is similar in concept to the civilian National Counterterrorism Center, which was developed in 2004 as a wide-scope defensive bulwark in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to share intelligence and track terrorist threats.
But the new military center focuses instead on the offensive end of counterterrorism, tracking and targeting terrorist threats that have surfaced in recent years from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia and other hot zones. Its targeting advice will largely direct elite special operations forces in both commando raids and missile strikes overseas.
The data also could be used at times to advise domestic law enforcement in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the U.S., the officials said. But the civilian authorities would have no role in “kill or capture” operations targeting militant suspects abroad.
The center is similar to several other so-called military intelligence “fusion” centers already operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those installations were designed to put special operations officials in the same room with intelligence professionals and analysts, allowing U.S. forces to shave the time between finding and tracking a target, and deciding how to respond.
At the heart of the new center’s analysis is a cloud-computing network tied into all elements of U.S. national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security’s border-monitoring databases. The computer is designed to sift through masses of information to track militant suspects across the globe, said two U.S. officials familiar with the system.
Several military officials said the center is the brainchild of JSOC’s current commander, Vice Adm. Bill McRaven, who patterned it on the success of a military system called “counter-network,” which uses drone, satellite and human intelligence to drive operations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While directly run by JSOC, the center’s staff is overseen by the Pentagon, while congressional committees have been briefed on its operations, officials said.
Over the past year, the numbers of special operations forces and commando raids against militants have surged in Afghanistan. Two strike forces have grown to 12, according to an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
“We’ve gone from 30-35 targeted operations a month in June 2009 now to about 1,000 a month,” said NATO spokeswoman Maj. Sunset Belinsky. “More than 80 percent result in capture, and more than 80 percent of the time we capture a targeted individual or someone with a direct connection.”
How does it work?
McChrystal’s intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Michael Flynn, recognized early innovations by special operations forces in the field and then refined the intelligence sharing process among the military into the “counter-network” system.
Under that system, U.S. special operations forces have acted as police crime scene investigators, quickly combing for evidence after capturing or killing their targets. They bring their data back to a team of defense intelligence analysts who work with interrogators questioning captured suspects. Their teamwork, officials said, speeds up the targeting of new terror suspects.
Similarly, the military’s new targeting center near Washington will rely on a steady flow of information and evidence from the field, which will then by analyzed by special operations experts and their civilian counterparts.
A tip from Africa that suspected militants are planning a strike in the United States, for example, would lead to the names of those suspects being fed into the cloud-computing network. The computer would compare the information with U.S. and international border and flight information, mined from the database of watch lists from the Counterterrorism Center, DHS and the FBI.
If the targets surface overseas, for example, in a country such as Somalia, where special operations forces have already staged snatch-and-grab raids against militants, the military forces would likely be chosen to pursue the targets.
But if the suspected militants turned up inside the U.S., the FBI and other domestic law enforcement would take the lead, officials said.