Rita Katz is tiny and dark, with volatile brown eyes, and when she is nervous or excited she can’t sit still. She speaks in torrents, ten minutes at a stretch. Everybody who works in intelligence calls her Rita, even people who don’t know her well. She sometimes telephones people she hasn’t met—important people in the government—to tell them things that she thinks they ought to know. She keeps copies of letters from officials whose investigations into terrorism she has assisted. “You and your staff . . . were invaluable additions to the investigative team,” the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Salt Lake City Division wrote; the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boise said, “You are a rare and extraordinary gem that has appeared too infrequently throughout the course of history.” The letters come in handy, she told me, when she meets with skepticism or lack of interest; they are her establishment bona fides.
Katz, who was born in Iraq and speaks fluent Arabic, spends hours each day monitoring the password-protected online chat rooms in which Islamic terrorists discuss politics and trade tips: how to disperse botulinum toxin or transfer funds, which suicide vests work best. Occasionally, a chat-room member will announce that he is turning in his user name and password and going to Iraq to become a martyr, a shaheed. Several weeks later, his friends will post a report of the young man blowing himself up. Katz usually logs on at six in the morning. When she has guests for dinner, she leaves a laptop open on the kitchen counter, so she can check for updates. “It is completely addicting,” she says. “You wake up thinking, I’ve been offline for seven hours, but the terrorists have been making plans.”
Traditionally, intelligence has been filtered through government agencies, such as the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., which gather raw data and analyze it, and the government decides who sees the product of their work and when. Katz, who is the head of an organization called the Search for International Terrorist Entities, or SITE Institute, has made it her business to upset that monopoly. She and her researchers mine online sources for intelligence, which her staff translates and sends out by e-mail to a list of about a hundred subscribers.
Katz’s client list includes people in the government who are presumably frustrated by how long it takes to get information through official channels; it also includes people in corporate security and in the media, who rarely get much useful material from the C.I.A. She has worked with prosecutors on more than a dozen terrorism investigations, and many American officers in Iraq rely on Katz’s e-mails to, for example, brief their troops on the designs for explosives that are passed around terrorist Web sites. “You’re thrown into Baghdad, and there are a million different groups out there you’ve never heard of claiming responsibility for attacks,” Robert Worth, a Times reporter who used Katz’s service during the eighteen months he spent in Iraq, told me. “Rita really knows what she’s talking about—who’s responsible for attacks, what’s a legitimate terrorist organization and what’s not.” Because many reporters rebroadcast her information, it can reach the public before people in the government have had a chance to evaluate it; her organization’s work is cited in the Times and the Washington Post about twice a month.
Katz has many critics, who believe that she is giving terrorists a bigger platform than they would otherwise have, and that the certainty and obsession that make her a dedicated archivist also make her too eager to find plots where they don’t exist; she publicized a manual for using botulinum in terror attacks, for example, which experts later concluded was not linked to any serious threat. It’s possible that her immersion in the world of terrorism has removed whatever skepticism or doubts she may have had. “Much as Al Jazeera underplays terrorist threats, the SITE Institute at times overhypes them,” Michael Scheuer, the former head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit, said.
Terrorism is, in part, theatre and psychological warfare, and many of the statements that Katz translates are propaganda intended to raise the profile of obscure groups. Katz sees her audience mainly as professionals—people whose job it is to stop terrorism or uncover it. But, by creating a shortcut around government agencies, she may also be contributing to the tendency that the media (and at times the government) has displayed since 9/11 to dramatize even the flimsiest threat. In recent months, Katz has noticed Algerian radicals and Afghan terrorists releasing videos that mirror Zarqawi’s in substance and tone and that are also designed to impress young militants in the West. Katz believes that the terrorists have been underestimated, and that more people should have direct access to what they are thinking and saying. The terrorists, of course, think so, too.
Katz has a very specific vision of the counterterrorism problem, which she shares with most of the other contractors and consultants who do what she does. They believe that the government has failed to appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism, and that its feel for counterterrorism is all wrong. As they see it, the best way to fight terrorists is to go at it not like G-men, with two-year assignments and query letters to the staff attorneys, but the way the terrorists do, with fury and the conviction that history will turn on the decisions you make—as an obsession and as a life style. Worrying about overestimating the threat is beside the point, because underestimating the threat is so much worse.
“The problem isn’t Rita Katz—the problem is our political conversation about terrorism,” Timothy Naftali says. “Now, after September 11th, there’s no incentive for anyone in politics or the media to say the Alaska pipeline’s fine, and nobody’s cows are going to be poisoned by the terrorists. And so you have these little eruptions of anxiety. But, for me, look, the world is wired now: either you take the risks that come with giving people—not just the government—this kind of access to information or you leave them. I take them.”