What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night Mike Leiter's job is trying to protect the U.S. from another Sept. 11. He's the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., and he says it's impossible to guarantee security — no matter how much safer the U.S. has become.
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What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night

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What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night

What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night

What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night

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"Americans have to very much understand that it is impossible to stop every terrorist event," says Mike Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Katia Riddle/NPR hide caption

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Katia Riddle/NPR

"Americans have to very much understand that it is impossible to stop every terrorist event," says Mike Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Katia Riddle/NPR

Mike Leiter's job is trying to protect the United States from another Sept. 11.

He's the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, which puts him right in the middle of the controversy over the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day — and how the Nigerian student accused in the attack was apparently able to walk onto a U.S.-bound plane with a bomb sewn under his clothing.

The incident illustrates something Leiter says — no matter how much safer the U.S. has become, it's impossible to guarantee security.

"The failed attempt to destroy Northwest Flight 253 is the starkest of reminders of the insidious terrorist threats we face," Leiter told NPR in an exclusive statement. "While this attempt ended in failure we know with absolute certainty that Al-Qa'ida and those who support its ideology continue to refine their methods to test our defenses and pursue an attack on the Homeland."

In his first public comments since the attempted terrorist attack, Leiter added, "Our most sacred responsibility is to be focused on our mission — detecting and preventing terrorist attacks from happening on our soil and against U.S. interests. The American people expect and deserve nothing less."

Watching Terror Every Day

Shortly before the attempted attack, Leiter spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly at the NCTC in McLean, Va. Huge monitors loomed over the floor of the operations center, where a couple dozen analysts kept an eye on three or four computer screens each.

"This is 24/7," Leiter told Kelly from a big, stainless steel balcony overlooking the operations center. "We have secure video teleconferences at 1 a.m. every night where people sit down — 'What do you see? What have you seen over the past eight hours?' — This never stops."

The NCTC was established in 2004, partly in attempt to coordinate the sharing of information between more than 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and departments. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Leiter said, the U.S. government was fairly criticized for a lack of communication across those groups.

"There was a whole lot of information out there, but people weren't communicating with one another," he said. "Our job is to make sure we know where that information is and the people who need to have it to act on it see it as soon as possible."

Leiter's day usually starts around 6:45 a.m. with the same daily security briefing given to President Obama. Leiter, a Harvard Law School graduate who was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Sept. 11, 2001, examines the information with a special focus on counterterrorism.

"I then spend that next hour or so looking at any terrorist event or any movement of terrorist operatives or any intelligence we have from anywhere in the world," he said. "And then it's a series of many, many meetings."

That's a typical day, but there are many days when a big arrest, bombing or other event turns his schedule upside down. "I just take my little schedule card and I rip it up," Leiter laughed. "And it ends up being a different set of meetings than any of us have planned for."

"And certainly, over the past four months, with some of the arrests that we've seen within the United States, we've had a lot of those days where you just rip up your card and start again."

The Homegrown Threat

Leiter said the last several months have been busy in counterterrorism. "We've seen an increase in the fall and into the winter of some of the homegrown things that we expected might appear."

It wasn't entirely unpredicted, he said. "For many years we've looked at the ways in which al-Qaida and associated movements have started to shape their message to appeal more to Western audiences — using slicker graphics, using English, using other Western European languages."

It's a trend seen in the U.K., Germany, Spain and other places, Leiter said, and his organization has never expected the American population to be immune to the tactic. The challenge, he says, is determining how widespread the effort is in the United States.

Cases of radicalized Americans are on the rise. The last few months have seen arrests of alleged terror plotters Najibullah Zazi and David Headley, as well as the detainment of five young American men in Pakistan. Leiter thinks it's entirely possible there will be an increase in similar incidents, at least in the short term.

"Like any criminal act, there's a tendency among terrorists to do copycat acts of violence," he said. "I think that potential is absolutely there and we have to be really attuned to that."

But it's a fine line between advising the public to be vigilant versus worried. "The public should undoubtedly be aware," Leiter said, "and the public and state and local governments and the federal government have to do things to try to minimize the likelihood of this occurring."

However, he said, "I don't actually want people running around all day being worried that their neighbor or their friend is a radical terrorist, because the likelihood of that is still incredibly small."

Yet the threat of homegrown terror attacks is one of Leiter's primary concerns. "It is so very, very difficult in an open democracy, where there is relatively easy access to a lot of tools that can be used for both good purposes and for terrorism," he said. "It is very, very difficult to find that individual who, for a variety of reasons, suddenly believes that he is a warrior in the name of al-Qaida."

'We're Not Going To Stop Every Attack'

On Christmas Day, authorities say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device aboard a Detroit-bound plane. That attack failed, but as Leiter emphasized in his later statement, officials can't expect future attempts to be so unsophisticated.

"You don't need a Ph.D. to hurt a lot of people," he told Kelly. "You have to have access to certain tools and you can do it."

"Over time, we see in all terrorist groups and in all situations of radicalization, people getting better. They learn from the mistakes of others, and slowly but surely, those capabilities will improve and it will be harder and harder for us to detect some of them."

Still, the most sophisticated threat the U.S. faces right now is the threat from al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Leiter said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

It makes him nervous, he said, "every day and every night."

When attacks do happen, like November's shooting at Fort Hood, it's hard for Leiter and his team to not take it personally.

"It gets impossible not to," Leiter said. "We've got to look internally and say, 'What could we have done differently to improve our chances of stopping this?' We're not going to stop every attack. Americans have to very much understand that it is impossible to stop every terrorist event. But we have to do our best, and we have to adjust based on ... how the enemy changes their tactics."