By Sr. National Security Producer Pam Benson
Analysts are working 24/7 this week at the National Counterterrorism Center, sifting through databases for connections to a possible threat of an attack on New York or Washington around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
"Some people have not gone home who are working on this," a counterterrorism official said Friday.
Experts are reviewing variations in names - names that might be fragments or aliases, but are enough to run through their computer systems in an effort to glean more information about the possible plot, which is believed to involve a vehicle-borne explosive device.
As analysts pore through travel records trying to find out if any suspected terrorists have entered the United States, they take the fragments of information they have - names, countries, dates - to narrow down nationality, country of departure, timeframe of travel and any contacts the suspects might have had en route.
The NCTC works with other members of the intelligence community to run down leads and information is exchanged.
"A fair amount of questions are being posed both from us and to us," the counterterrorism official said.
One of the reforms implemented at the NCTC after a failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines commercial flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, was to create pursuit teams to follow up on leads. The center was criticized at the time for not putting together a variety of clues that might have prevented suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab from getting on the plane - the so-called failure to connect the dots. People with specialized expertise are brought in to analyze the new data.
Reviewing information already in the data bank is an essential part of the investigation, according to an intelligence official.
"Does the old stuff make sense now that we have new material to work with," said the official, adding, "we see it with a new perspective."
Analysts try to see if patterns exist that might help determine whether a plot is real and provide law enforcement with the information it needs to stop it in its tracks.
Interpreting threat information is a difficult challenge, officials say.
The intelligence official said terrorists "talk in code to each other - they are cryptic," and don't necessarily use their real or full names. Nothing that might be overheard by a phone or computer intercept, or even by a trusted source, can be taken at face value or considered complete. Everything has to be run on the ground.
But 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, the official maintained that the intelligence community is better prepared.
"We are more alert all of the time, we collect more, we look at more, we put the pieces together differently, because of what we have learned."
That said, intelligence officials often use the analogy that intelligence is like trying to put together a picture puzzle with thousands of pieces, however there is no cover to tell you what the picture actually should look like.