Most people assume that the people working in counter-terrorism — especially those in charge of the effort — understand that the job is 24/7. If an attack happens, Americans visualize pagers and cellphones ringing, experts rushing back to their battle stations, and directors ensuring that they get answers now, dammit! What they don’t visualize is the man in charge of the National Counter-Terrorist Center schussing his way down the slopes after the first confirmed al-Qaeda attack attempt in years (via Jammie Wearing Fool):
The top official in charge of analyzing terror threats did not cut short his ski vacation after the underwear bomber nearly blew up an airliner on Christmas Day, the Daily News has learned.
Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center since 2007, decided not to return to his agency’s “bat cave” nerve center in McLean, Va., until several days after Christmas, two U.S. officials said.
“People have been grumbling that he didn’t let a little terrorism interrupt his vacation,” said one of the sources.
The NCTC, the post-9/11 clearinghouse for intelligence to detect terror plots against the U.S., is under intense scrutiny for failing to “connect the dots” on Nigerian bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Lee Hamilton complained today that CT efforts and the people who run them — all the way up to President Obama — have grown “too complacent.” This seems to be something else entirely. Being complacent is a diagnosis for allowing Abdulmutallab to keep his visa even after all of the intel we had on his intentions. Shrugging off a confirmed AQ attack attempt in order to continue one’s vacation is something else entirely — more like a dereliction of duty.
Some will draw a parallel between this and Obama’s decision to stay in Hawaii. However, Presidents remain on the job regardless of their location. One can certainly criticize the optics of staying in Hawaii rather than returning home to the White House to handle the situation, but Obama had plenty of resources at his command in Hawaii to actually do his job. The same cannot be said for Leiter. His job is in the NCTC, and it can’t be done from the ski slopes, not even with a hands-free Bluetooth headset connected to his cell phone. The need for Leiter’s leadership was obvious from almost the first few hours, when people wondered how American intel allowed the EunuchBomber to keep his visa after the State Department got a tip from his Nigerian banker father that his son was a danger to the US.
If heads should roll after this incident, perhaps Leiter’s should be first. And perhaps that’s already in the works:
Leiter – appointed by President George W. Bush – already ranked high in the buzz over whose heads could eventually end up on Obama’s chopping block.
Without mentioning Leiter or the NCTC by name, Obama made it plain in a Tuesday speech that there was intelligence in the center’s hands that should have been “fully analyzed and fully leveraged” to stop Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Flight 253.
Who appoined Leiter is immaterial. Obama kept Leiter in position, but that’s also immaterial now. Get us someone who understands that a terrorist attack that only failed through the incompetence of the attacker is a national-security emergency and who acts accordingly, and Obama will have done the right thing.
Update: Jake Tapper reports that the vacation may have been a bit different than first reported:
Leiter stayed late at the NCTC on December 25, an intelligence official tells ABC News, and the next morning he held secure communications working the issue with many in the U.S. government.
He did go on vacation the day after the attempted attack, but a close associate of Leiter says that the leave was quite different than the carefree “ski trip” being depicted.
Leiter is divorced, and the purpose of the ski trip was to take “his seven-year-old son for his birthday to meet his grandparents,” both of whom are in their late 70s, the close associate tells ABC News.
He did so only “after explicit consultations with both the White House and the Director of National Intelligence,” McDonough said, adding it “did not affect in any way his ability to remain engaged with all elements of the United States Government. “
The trip to see Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t wait another couple of weeks? Barack Obama couldn’t make it back to Hawaii after his grandmother’s death because of the election, but he’s OK with the NCTC chief heading out of town for a week so he doesn’t disappoint his son’s desire to spend time with his grandparents? Maybe Leiter could have bought a couple of tickets for his parents to come to visit instead. It seems to me that a lot of people in this decision chain need to put their priorities in order.