Strategic Assessments Branch
The strategic assessments branch of the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established in 2001 to plug a gap in strategic analysis of the terrorism threat, particularly that due to al-Qaeda.
In late 2000 CIA chief George Tenet had "recognized the deficiency of strategic analysis against al Qaeda". (No overall assessment of the terrorist threat had been made since the CIA's 1995 National Intelligence Estimate and its 1997 update.) The strategic assessments branch was "created" in July 2001. But it struggled to find personnel. The head of the new section finally took up his post on September 10, 2001.
1995 National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism and 1997 update
The 1995 National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, prepared by the CIA for President Clinton's Cabinet, warned of the "new breed" of Sunni Islamist terrorist. Mindful of Ramzi Yousef's truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the Estimate warned that "national symbols" such as the White House and Capitol were at risk, as well as "symbols of U.S. capitalism such as Wall Street". The Estimate also warned of the vulnerabilities of the US domestic aviation system. It made no mention of Osama bin Laden.
The 1997 update reiterated the dangers, and briefly mentioned "bin Ladin and his followers", but made no mention of an organization called al-Qaeda. (This was in spite of the CTC's new Bin Laden Issue Station having produced evidence over the previous year that bin Laden was not just a significant terrorist financier, but a terrorist organizer too.) The update was the last national intelligence estimate on terrorism completed before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Setting up the branch, 2000–2001
"In late 2000 Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet recognized the deficiency of strategic analysis against al Qaeda" says the 9/11 Commission Report. "To tackle this problem within the CTC he appointed a senior manager, who briefed him in March 2001 on 'creating a strategic assessment capability.'"
"In [an] early Spring 2001 briefing to the DCI", says the Joint Inquiry Report, "[the] CTC requested hiring a small group of contractors not involved in day-to-day crises to digest vast quantities of information and develop targeting strategies. The briefing emphasized that the unit needed people, not money."
"The CTC established [the] new strategic assessments branch during July 2001." As Tenet later testified, "We created a separate analytic unit in July 2001 to assure that the demands for daily tactical support did not sidetrack our strategic analytic effort. The separate unit allowed us to isolate its analysts from the grind of daily crises to focus on the bigger picture. It also allowed us to better train and develop the analysts."
"The decision to add about ten analysts to this effort was seen as a major bureaucratic victory [says the 9/11 Commission Report], but the CTC labored to find them. The new chief of this branch reported for duty on September 10, 2001."
A strategic analyst on 9/11
"On the morning of September 11, 2001, [John] Fulton and his team at the CIA were running a pre-planned simulation to explore the emergency response issues that would be created if a plane were to strike a building." So said an advance-publicity pamphlet for a security conference held in 2002.
A subsequent Associated Press report expanded on the statement, clarifying that the exercise occurred at the National Reconnaissance Office, west of Washington. Officials at the Chantilly, Virginia, based NRO "had scheduled an exercise that morning in which a small corporate jet crashed into one of the four towers at the agency's headquarters building after experiencing a mechanical failure." The exercise was designed "to test employees' responses to a disaster, said spokesman Art Haubold".
The exercise was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. "The agency is about four miles from the runways of Washington Dulles International Airport", where American Airlines Flight 77 took off, to return and hit the Pentagon. "'It was just an incredible coincidence...', Haubold said."
The simulation was out of the usual line of John Fulton's work. "25 years in the intelligence community has contributed to his recognition as an expert in risk & threat response analysis, scenario gaming, and strategic planning. He is on staff for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), currently  serving as Chief of the Strategic War Gaming Division of the National Reconnaissance Office...."
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin, 2005. (This is an updated version of the original, Penguin, 2004.)
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 11, pp. 341–2 (HTML version)
- Joint Inquiry Final Report (2002/3), p. 387
- Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, p. 8.
- John J Lumpkin, Associated Press, "Agency planned exercise on Sept. 11 built around a plane crashing into a building", Boston Globe online, no date. (This is the AP article of Aug. 22, 2002.)