Terrorism center head faces hot seat over bombing attempt

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — He's a Columbia University graduate and a former president of the Harvard Law Review, and he's now on the hot seat for intelligence failures that fueled the Christmas Day plot to bomb a Northwest airliner bound for Detroit.

While that bio might sound familiar, this protagonist isn't President Barack Obama. In fact, he and Obama don't appear to have much in common besides their paths through higher education — and Obama's decision to keep this former Bush administration official on board.

Mike Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be front and center when Congress holds hearings later this month on how and why U.S. intelligence fell short on the Christmas Day incident.

The National Counterterrorism Center, established in 2004 under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as part of the post-9/11 intelligence bureaucracy overhaul, is tasked with integrating tips, threats and data from 16 spy, defense, law enforcement, foreign affairs and homeland security agencies — or in Washington parlance, "connecting the dots."

Lawmakers want to know why Leiter's team didn't piece together Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father's warning and his reported Yemeni al Qaida connections before he boarded Northwest Flight 253. The plot is alleged to have failed only because the explosives didn't work and passengers quickly intervened.

Leiter, 40, got a taste earlier this week of how personal the inquiries may get, when the New York Daily News, citing anonymous sources, reported that he'd gone off on a ski vacation after the failed attack.

Various officials sprang to Leiter's defense, including Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

They said that Leiter had worked from the National Counterterrorism Center's McLean, Va., headquarters on the day of the attack, coordinating intelligence and briefing lawmakers. They also explained the circumstances of his ski trip. Leiter is divorced; the trip was his son's gift for his 7th birthday and it involved seeing the boy's grandparents. Leiter offered to cancel it, but Brennan and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Leiter's boss, told him not to. Leiter was set up with secure lines of communication so he could continue working while he was out of town.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence panel, called Leiter "one of the bright lights in the American intelligence community" and said in a statement that he continued to enjoy her "full confidence."

The committee's top Republican, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, who's been critical of Obama's handling of the bombing attempt's aftermath, told McClatchy in a statement that it's "too early to try and scapegoat anyone right now, including Mike Leiter. At this point, we know there's a lot of blame to go around."

Both senators' staffs said that Leiter had briefed their offices personally on Christmas Day.

David Kris, the assistant attorney general for the National Security Division, told McClatchy in a statement that Leiter is "very smart" with "tremendous judgment" and that "in my experience, he spends every day focused on the mission of protecting the country against terrorism."

Leiter declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.

Speeches, congressional testimony and interviews with him published before Christmas paint a picture of a driven, well-groomed young leader who takes his BlackBerry to bed, gets calls at all hours of the night and was speaking openly for months about al Qaida's instincts and the U.S. intelligence community's weaknesses.

Leiter, who grew up in New Jersey, started out flying EA-6B Prowlers as a naval flight officer and was a fellow at The Hague for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. After Harvard Law, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Leiter then became a federal prosecutor in Virginia. When the Robb-Silberman Commission was convened to look at intelligence errors regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, Leiter was named its assistant director and deputy general counsel. He later joined the National Counterterrorism Center, serving as principal deputy director, acting director and ultimately director, after the Senate confirmed him in June 2008.

In an interview with the Columbia alumni magazine published last summer, Leiter recalled how the 9/11 Commission report contained "an enormous amount about the need to ensure that the intelligence community is aggressively trying to figure out where plots are, connecting the dots and then sharing information."

However, Leiter said, "Eight years after 9/11, that's not what most of the discussion is about. Most of the discussion is now about perceived overreaching of different intelligence organizations and the need to rein them in. I think there has to be a healthy balance between these two poles, and I'm not quite sure we've reached it yet."

Leiter attributed al Qaida's appeal to recruits to a combination of opposition to U.S. policies, corruption in the Middle East and Africa and lack of economic opportunity, "a wide variety of drivers behind why a 19-year-old in Yemen or Somalia or Islamabad or Morocco would identify with al Qaida."

Speaking to The Aspen Institute last April, Leiter said that al Qaida's core leadership and recruitment had been "seriously diminished," but that there were reasons for concern about a resurgence of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen.

He said that "as al Qaida changes, we as a U.S. government will also have to shift . . . to ensure that we're addressing that dispersed al Qaida and their dispersed view of global jihad.

"The U.S. government is still not organized, as a government either in the executive branch or the judicial branch, to address a mission like counter-terrorism. . . . The fact that I have 18 or 20 different departments and agencies in my secure video-teleconference every day shows what a team sport this is, but the structures are still not perfectly organized to support that team sport."

Leiter told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last September that while al Qaida's core in Pakistan was its most dangerous component, if al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula grew stronger, it could use "the growing presence of foreign fighters in the region to supplement its transnational operations capability."

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