The head of the National Counterterrorism Center is resigning after nearly four years on the job, the administration announced today. Michael Leiter will step down in July after the White House releases its long-awaited national counterterrorism strategy, which Leiter helped to write.
NCTC, under Leiter’s tenure, has become an all-source intelligence fusion shop focused on detecting and preventing terrorist attacks inside the U.S. Leiter is well-regarded by members of the intelligence community and by members of Congress.
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"Serving in two Administrations since 2007, Mike led the National Counterterrorism Center with dedication and unwavering determination during challenging and demanding times and our nation is grateful for his many contributions to our safety and security," President Obama said in a statement.
Obama's national security team is considering several candidates to replace him, including Juan Zarate, former senior director for counter-terrorism under President Bush.
By statute, the NCTC’s director reports directly to the president and is responsible for crafting detailed counterterrorism plans. Functionally, however, the NCTC has struggled with its strategic mission, has struggled to break down bureaucratic barriers, and has been at the center of a number of attempted attacks on the American homeland, including the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day, 2009.
Leiter, 41, presides over a staff of 500 analysts, many detailed from the country’s 16 intelligence agencies. They collect and distribute information on threats to the homeland and to Americans abroad. The NCTC's Strategic Operational Planning Directorate is headed by a senior officer from the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which executes the nation’s counterterrorism missions overseas. But in practice, JSOC and a cell in the Joint Chiefs of Staff have written most of the plans.
The President and his team are putting the finishing touches on a counterterrorism strategy that will "articulate the United States' broad, sustained, and integrated campaign against al-Qa`ida and its adherents, consistent with the President's enduring commitment to protect the American people," a senior administration official said today. "The strategy will lay out how we harness every tool of American power and the concerted efforts of allies, partners, and international institutions, as well as account for the transformational changes in the Middle East, the death of Usama bin Ladin, and the significant challenges that remain."
Leiter plays largely a behind-the-scenes role, serving as a key conduit to Congress, helping to lobby for expanded surveillance and investigative authorities. He was appointed acting director in late 2007 and was confirmed to the position in early 2008. The reason for his departure was not immediately known, although friends say that nearly four years of being the nation’s 24-hour point person on terrorism was not easy.
On balance, Leiter is seen as shrewd and effective, but he’s had to deal with long-standing bureaucratic inefficiencies. On Christmas Day, 2009, those came to a head, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to set off a bomb on board Northwest flight 207 over Detroit. It quickly emerged that the CIA had received a tip about Abdulmutallab's radicalization from his father, and had passed on to NCTC, which was not able to piece it together with other intelligence indicating a possible Yemeni-based, Pakistani-trained threat to the homeland. Complicating matters, at least perceptually, was Leiter’s decision to take a long-planned vacation with his young son immediately after the bombing attempt. Leiter has a network of champions inside the administration, who noted that he volunteered to give up his vacation and stay on the job if needed.
Leiter promised aggressive changes after that failure. Instead of cutting 80 positions, which had been on the drawing board, Leiter fought to keep his staff and reorganized the NCTC to be more responsive to threats to the homeland.
Some Leiter critics complain that he lacks a firm understanding of the ideological threat posed by al Qaeda and specifically the threat doctrine espoused by elements of radical Islam. But Leiter has an ally in the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and in Denis McDonough, the president’s deputy national security adviser and longest-serving national security aide.
Leiter, a Navy veteran and a 2000 graduate of Harvard Law School, was a clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court. He then became a federal prosecutor, focusing on terrorism cases.
He also worked on the Robb-Silberman commission on weapons of mass destruction and in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
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The President and his team are putting the finishing touches on a counterterrorism strategy that will articulate the United States' broad, sustained, and integrated campaign against al-Qa`ida and its adherents, consistent with the President's enduring commitment to protect the American people. The strategy will lay out how we harness every tool of American power and the concerted efforts of allies, partners, and international institutions, as well as account for the transformational changes in the Middle East, the death of Usama bin Ladin, and the significant challenges that remain.
This article appears in the June 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.