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Behind The Scenes: Getting Inside The National Counter Terrorism Center

In seeking a story for last night's special, "Five Years: How Safe Are We?" back in June, a look at the National Counter Terrorism Center "was a natural choice," said correspondent David Martin. "It was new, it was secret and it was directly relevant to 9/11. It was created specifically to correct the intelligence failures of 9/11."

So, Martin had the subject of his story. "The question, of course, was how do you get in there?" he said.

He started in the most logical (and somewhat ironic) of places – the National Counter Terrorism Center's Public Affairs Office. "Even for a secret place, they have a public affairs officer," said Martin. The PA officer happened to be someone Martin had been acquainted with for some time, and he was receptive to the idea. He took it to his boss, Vice Admiral Scott Redd, who was willing to consider it.

By July, Martin spent a few hours with Redd at the center without cameras to determine "whether our mutual needs could be met," said Martin. "Their primary need being not to give away any secrets and our primary need to provide pictures of what goes on out there."

Martin had provided a formal wish list of what he'd like to see, and most of his requests were granted. When he returned in August to do the shoot – coincidentally, the day after the foiled transatlantic bomb plot -- they fulfilled "more than I thought they were going to fulfill," he said, including brief footage of an inter-agency video conference.

It was that footage that turned out to be the most difficult part of the story, said Martin.

As their superior, "Adm. Redd can say to everyone in the NCTC to cooperate," but he can't compel the other agencies that were in attendance at the video conference to agree to be on camera. And a lot of the agencies didn't want to so much as admit they were in attendance. "That took a lot of bureaucratic pulling and hauling [by Redd] to get them to sign off on it," said Martin.

The cameras, as Martin notes in the story, weren't allowed to stay in the room beyond the roll call of all the agencies. "As soon as they got down to business, we had to get out of there, and fast," said Martin. Attending the entire meeting wasn't even on Martin's wish list. Because of the sensitive information discussed during it, "I knew it would be a nonstarter."

Cameras were also allowed into Redd's daily morning meeting -- when he goes over some of the most sensitive information on terrorism with his top aides -- but only for about 15 seconds, before any classified information was discussed.

"It's amazing how much work on their part goes in to letting you into a classified space," said Martin. "They have to make sure that something doesn't inadvertently show up that's a secret, not just a document, but a person who's not acknowledged as being in intelligence. And there are a lot of people in intelligence who think there should be no dealing with the press," he added. "Internally a lot of arguments go on. I'm not privy to them, but they certainly go on."

So why does he think the NCTC ultimately allowed CBS News to tour the center? "There's a recognition of the value of showing people that some very considerable changes have been made since 9/11 -- it goes to the very question of whether we're safer."

And, undoubtedly, there was something in it for the NCTC. "While it doesn't sound like a big deal to an outsider for the CIA and the FBI to share information – that's just a revolution in bureaucratic intelligence terms. They feel like they've moved mountains and they want to get credit for it. And the way they do that is to show people how they do things."

With a somewhat symbiotic arrangement like this one, there's always a concern that the story could be perceived as too promotional, said Martin.

"There's no mystery here what's in it for them," said Martin, "but that's what the interview is for," he added, because it's an opportunity to inject some skepticism: "'OK, you stopped the London bomb plot, but there's another one out there,' 'You don't have all the analysts you need. Why is that?'" he said. (You can watch an extended version of his interview with Redd


"We also had an interview with an outside person, [Former NCTC Director] John Brennan, who had set up the organization in the first place. And he told us that it was a bureaucratic battle royale to share information" between agencies, said Martin.

"Obviously, you go into this trying not to make it an advertisement or promotion, but a real look at where they are five years after," said Martin, who added that time constraints "always kill you when it comes to putting it together." Martin noted that in his interview with NCTC Deputy Director of Information Sharing Russ Travers (some of which was included in the piece) Travers also shared the reverse side of increased information sharing – that intelligence operatives are being drowned in it. "He was pretty frank about that, but unfortunately, it got cut."

You can watch an extended version of Russ Travers's interview in the video player below.

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