Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), spoke with the News Thursday after giving a talk at Yale Law School titled “Reflections on the Fight Against al-Qaida: The Evolving Threat and Our Evolving Response.” For more than an hour, Leiter spoke about the line between privacy and security, the role of technology in terrorism and the current structure of al-Qaida. Prior to his work with the NCTC, Leiter served as deputy chief of staff for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and as a law clerk to Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
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Q How did you first become interested in counterterrorism and national intelligence?
A My six years in the Navy got me interested in national security issues. Also, I was in the Supreme Court [working as a clerk] on Sept. 11, 2001, and I remember very clearly running out of the Supreme Court to my apartment on Capitol Hill when we were evacuated. It was impossible for me to be in Washington during that period and not think that counterterrorism was something I wanted to pursue.
Q What do you enjoy most about your job?
A I enjoy coming to events like this [talk at Yale] because you end up having a really good exchange of ideas with people who have thought about and studied these issues. The discussions are thoughtful instead of politically charged, or with people who have foregone conclusions. Also, I’m very happy every day I get to go into work and do a little piece to prevent terrorism.
Q How many pieces of terrorism intelligence do you receive per day? What sorts of problems does that pose?
A We receive 8,000 to 10,000 pieces of intelligence a day. This means that trying to figure out what the real threats are amidst the junk is incredibly challenging.
Q How has al-Qaida changed since Sept. 11, 2001? What must we do to deal with this evolving threat?
A It has gone from a hierarchical organization to more of a movement and now has regional affiliates that threaten the U.S. much more than they did in 2001. We must have a distributed response. We must focus on what has existed since 9/11, but we also must address root causes in regions that have allowed al-Qaida to advance, and we have to address homegrown radicalization problems in the U.S.
Q In what ways is the war against al-Qaida a war against ideology and the spread of ideas, and what can we do combat this threat?
A Al-Qaida has a distinct ideology. We must counter this both by showing how bankrupt their ideology is since more than half of al-Qaida victims are Muslims and by sending a positive message that the U.S. can help other nations prosper and give people jobs, education and other basic things that people want, rather than a culture of death and destruction.
Q Under your service, the National Counterterrorism Center was publicly criticized for failing to identify the threat posed by a known extremist, Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, who on Christmas Day 2009 succeeded in boarding a Delta Airlines airplane in Amsterdam rigged with an explosive device that failed to detonate over Detroit, Mich. What steps has the NCTC taken to ensure that a similar situation does not happen again?
A There have been many reforms. We have increased analytic focus on small bits of data that could come back and result in attacks, and we have increased our watch-listing. Finally, since we were reminded again about the ongoing nature of the threat, we have continued to educate people on this threat so we have resources necessary to protect this nation.