Two days after planting a car bomb in Times Square, Faisal Shahzad boarded a plane for Dubai at JFK International Airport. But a routine post-boarding check discovered Shahzad on the no-fly list, and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents arrested the terrorist on May 3, 2010. CBP’s then-commissioner, Alan Bersin, lauded the capture, 52 hours after the attempted attack, and credited swift success to the National Targeting Center (NTC), calling it a “national treasure.”
Part of the CBP’s layered strategy for securing US borders, the NTC is responsible for identifying timely, actionable information before borders are crossed. A growing need for quick and coordinated intelligence analysis is one reason behind a planned consolidation of NTC to a new 24-hour, 7-days-a-week facility in Northern Virginia.
Originally, the NTC grew out of federal efforts to develop targeting practices to protect ports from drug and currency smuggling. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, targeting techniques were re-focused on anti-terrorist concerns. NTC began 24/7 operations on November, 2001, tasked with supporting CBP’s mission to prevent terrorists and their weapons from crossing US borders—while also enabling public travel and international trade. In 2007, NTC was divided in two: NTC-Passenger and NTC-Cargo. NTC-P screens inbound and outbound commercial airline passengers to spot potential high risk individuals, while NTC-C focuses on high-risk cargo that might conceal ingredients for weapons of mass destruction, chemical precursors of illegal drugs or conventional weapons or explosives.
NTC has not been immune from criticisms. Many objected in 2007 when a Federal Register notice revealed that the NTC’s program for tracking cargo would also be used to generate ratings on human travelers. The Automatic Tracking System began to scrutinize volumes of data for each person who crosses a U.S. border, as well as for container cargo, and the Bush administration excepted the procedures from the 1974 Privacy Act. But despite privacy concerns, comparing government watchlists, lost passport reports, criminal activity and other data, has allowed NTC-P to issue 3,181 no-board recommendations to airlines in FY 2011. Proponents point out that the program saves money as well as lives by improving operating efficiency for commercial airlines.
In 2003, the NTC (then still one entity) moved into a state-of-the-art facility in Reston, Virginia. President Bush visited a year later and observed how analysts, called targeters, pore over screens of data about people, ports and flights around the world. Workload and staff grew swiftly as national security concerns mounted, leading to NTC-C’s separate creation and move to Herndon, Virginia. At both facilities, targeters work closely with CBP personnel in the field and on-site staff from the Coast Guard, the FBI, Transportation Security Administration and other agencies. NTC-P targeters collaborate with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence officers and numerous law enforcement organizations to develop passenger targeting algorithms, and NTC-C targeters and DHS intelligence staff jointly refine rule sets for rating cargo risks. NTC-P personnel increased from 20 in 2001 to 307 in 2012; NTC-C staff grew from about 40 in 2007 to 407 in 2012. A DHS report in 2011 asserted that NTC-P caseload exceeded staff capacity, resulting in heavy reliance on overtime and high staff turnover. Reliance on 17 different data systems further contributed to work inefficiencies, and the report concluded that both technology upgrades and staff expansion were essential to improving the nation’s border security.
Technological and space enhancements are major reasons for consolidating the NTC-P and NTC-C at one facility, according to a lease prospectus submitted by the GSA in November, 2012. In addition, the prospectus notes that NTC-C lacks certain types of space, sometimes requiring travel to the NTC-P facility. Data sharing between the two entities is also complicated and slowed by maintaining separate locations, heightening the risk that a terrorist plot might not be identified in time. Unlike many other recent prospectuses, this one requests 78,426 RSF more space (from 90,574 RSF to 169,000 RSF), and USF per person is projected to increase as well (166 USF/person to 207 USF/person). In addition to special operational space, the new facility would include security areas, a fitness center for law enforcement personnel and Local Area Network (LAN) rooms for classified and unclassified materials. The location will remain near Dulles Airport to facilitate communication with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Western Fairfax County.
Today, February 11th, initial offers are due from developers hoping to build this new mission-critical facility. GSA has solicited owners of sites large enough to accommodate the 169,000 building along with parking for more than 1,000 vehicles. All of this will need to be provided on a site with a secured perimeter and two points of ingress and egress. The winning bidder will need to be able to complete the facility by the second quarter of 2016.