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Top counterterrorism chief Mike Leiter resigns

National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) head Michael Leiter is resigning from his position after almost four years on the job, the White House announced today. "Serving in two Administrations since 2007, Mike led the National Counterterrorism Center with dedication and unwavering determination during challenging and demanding times," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "Mike has ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) head Michael Leiter is resigning from his position after almost four years on the job, the White House announced today.

National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) head Michael Leiter is resigning from his position after almost four years on the job, the White House announced today.

"Serving in two Administrations since 2007, Mike led the National Counterterrorism Center with dedication and unwavering determination during challenging and demanding times," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "Mike has been a trusted advisor to me and to the entire national security team, providing us with an in-depth understanding of terrorist activities that affect our Nation’s security.

Leiter had served as director of the NCTC since November 2007, before which was the organization’s principal deputy director. The NCTC’s mission is to integrate and analyze all information produced by the U.S. government’s diverse intelligence-gathering agencies, "serv[ing] as the central and shared knowledge bank on terrorism information." Leiter was also responsible for conducting strategic planning for counterterrorism operations, and reported directly to Obama.

The NCTC was created following the 9/11 attacks to break down the bureaucratic barriers between intelligence agencies, but was sharply criticized for missing key pieces of information leading up to Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab‘s attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. In that incident, U.S. intelligence officials were unable to piece together information that al Qaeda militants in Yemen were plotting to use a Nigerian in a terrorist attack and disregarded a warning delivered directly to U.S. diplomats by Abdullmutallab’s father that his son had been radicalized in Yemen.

Leiter took a White House-approved, six-day ski vacation immediately after Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack. The decision attracted some criticism from U.S. officials. "People have been grumbling that he didn’t let a little terrorism interrupt his vacation," one official told the New York Daily News.

A declassified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the attempted attack singled out the NCTC for responsibility, saying that the agency "was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions." Though Congress had tasked NCTC with integrating the many streams of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence, the report stated that no agency saw itself as responsible for tracking all terrorist threats.

Despite that failure, counterterrorism experts said Leiter made significant improvements to the NCTC during his tenure. "He inherited three major problems at NCTC: The watch list system was a red tape mess, the agency had trouble pursuing specific leads in the morass of information streaming in, and state and local officials were poorly integrated [into the counterterrorism effort]," said Amy Zegart, an associate professor at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs and author of Spying Blind. "He has made significant improvements in all three, especially after the Christmas Day bomb plot."

While experts said that the NCTC played a role in assembling the intelligence that led to the May 1 raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Leiter was also out of the office in the crucial day leading up to the attack. He got married on April 30, though was reportedly back at work the next day during the raid itself.

The White House is considering several replacements for Leiter, but has yet to settle on a candidate.

With Leon Panetta‘s departure at the CIA, Zegart pointed out that Leiter’s departure means that two of the most important intelligence agencies will be experiencing leadership transitions at the same time. "For Obama, the timing is terrible," she said.

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