The Leiter They Are, The Quicker They Fall?

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As my learned colleague Shane Harris points out, someone in the administration seems to have the knives out for National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter. When the nation's counterterrorism establishment was scrambling to figure out whether the United States was under attack, Leiter was on vacation. He did not return to the NCTC, reports the New York Daily News, until two days after the attack. (Update: the NCTC says Leiter was there on Christmas, and took six days leave after -- and the White House is backing him up.)  That someone would drop a dime on Leiter suggests he is bearing some internal blame for the intelligence failure / failures, whatever they appear to be. Optically, it doesn't look very good; one wants one's front line soldiers to return to post when there's an incident.

The director of the NCTC is an apolitical position, and a relatively new one. John Brennan, who is leading the president's counterterrorism review, served as the founding head of the first iteration of the NCTC, back when it was called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. The NCTC doesn't actually participate in counterterrorism operations. That's the province of the CIA, and the NCTC has no tasking authority whatsoever. Its original name is apt: it is supposed to integrate information about terrorist threats and report them to policy makers throughout the government. The knock against Leiter, in theory, would be that his internal quality control system broke down, that he did not, on his own, decide to err on the side of caution and flag something that was suspect. Or, that he has grown too complacent -- and has seen too many false red flags -- or his analysts have, in any event. Everyone with whom I've spoken about Leiter thinks he is a fantastic civil servant -- loyal, dedicated, honest. But it is clear he has some enemies.The CIA has no problems with Leiter. "Michael Leiter is a great guy.  He is smart, capable, and he is the best in the business," one of the agency's senior-most officials told me. 

The CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI  -- these agencies have kept their best analysts in house. NCTC postings aren't career-makers. The best intelligence collectors don't want to serve at Liberty Crossing. How to reform the NCTC? For one thing, a lot of what the NCTC does should be automated. There shouldn't be a layer of "all-source" intelligence integrators. That's what computer software can do. The fewer steps there are between the origination point of intelligence and the policy makers, the better. The NCTC must also be empowered to act on hunches. To send flash messages to the FAA, to the State Department, to the Border Patrol -- and to ride herd on these agencies.

As DNI, Dennis Blair has fought to gain more operational oversight over (sorry for the redundancy) the CIA's covert actions and believes, perhaps with justification, that the CIA's counterterrorism center and the DNI's NCTC must not duplicate functions and must add value and enable the functions that each of the entities are supposed to accomplish.

In any event, a new director of the NCTC might feel more responsible. Or she or he might completely fail, given the enormous bureaucratic obstacles that the ODNI has yet to leap over.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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