Leiter Discusses Raid On Bin Laden's Compound

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Bit by bit, new details are trickling out about the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. As that raid unfolded, the president's national security team was gathered in the situation room to watch. Among those in the room was Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Bit by bit, new details are trickling out about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. As events unfolded, the president's national security team watched from the Situation Room. And among them was Michael Leiter. He's head of the National Counterterrorism Center, the NCTC, and he spoke today with our colleague Mary Louise Kelly for the first time since the bin Laden news broke.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: As they huddled this past Sunday, Michael Leiter and the president's other advisers were able to track the Navy SEAL team as they made their way towards their target.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): From the time that U.S. aircraft entered Pakistan, all the way until U.S. forces were back on the ground in Afghanistan, we were able to monitor the situation in real time.

KELLY: It must've been incredibly tense, that moment in particular I wondered about when the helicopter looked as though it might be going down.

Mr. LEITER: Well, although I just said we were monitoring it in real time, I will tell you it never felt like real time. It really did feel like slow motion. It just felt like hours and hours were going by. And certainly when that helicopter came to the ground and the rudders stopped spinning, that was a tense moment.

KELLY: Leiter has run NCTC for nearly three years now, so he's no stranger to tense moments. But he admits everyone in that room knew they were taking a big risk.

Mr. LEITER: Ultimately, we knew that there was a chance he was there and I think people also knew that there's a chance he wouldn't be there. And ultimately, I think everyone knew that the president had a very, very tough decision to make.

KELLY: Now that the operation is over, U.S. spy agencies are combing through computers and other electronics gathered in the raid.

Can you share at all who's looking at those, whether they're finding anything useful yet?

Mr. LEITER: Well, the CIA has certain skills and expertise and interests, as does the FBI, the NSA and NCTC. And we're all focused on that material for different purposes. I think the two primary purposes would be for detecting ongoing threats that we're obviously concerned about. And second, to target other high-value targets within al-Qaida.

KELLY: You mentioned the concern about ongoing threats. Can you share whether there's any specific threat information out there at this point?

Mr. LEITER: Right now, there is no specific intelligence about ongoing threats. We certainly have been concerned about potential retaliation. And again, nothing specific and, hence, no change in the threat levels. But that is something that the NCTC and others, DHS and FBI, are particularly focused on.

KELLY: Now to that other focus Leiter mentioned: Chasing down al-Qaida's remaining leaders. I asked him about bin Laden's presumed successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Is it safe to assume he also is in Pakistan?

Mr. LEITER: I think we certainly suspect he's in Pakistan. I do think it's important to note that although second in command, he doesn't have nearly the sway that bin Laden did. He is not nearly, I think, as charismatic and I think he is not as nearly as much of a folk hero as is bin Laden.

KELLY: We mentioned the intelligence work that U.S. officials are now doing, trying to go through the material left in that house. Does Zawahiri have to assume his current hiding place may be compromised?

Mr. LEITER: Zawahiri has been and will continue to be a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. And I think what this should show to all members of al-Qaida, that if bin Laden was not secure, no leader of al-Qaida should consider themselves secure.

KELLY: To that end, Michael Leiter says a big cheer went up in the Situation Room when it became clear they'd gotten their man. But that after that it was back to work, trying to figure out how next to hit al-Qaida.

For NPR news, I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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