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.

What Keeps The Counterterrorism Chief Up At Night

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Today, President Obama came right out and said what many people have suspected - there's a direct link between al-Qaida and the man who tried to bomb that Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.

President BARACK OBAMA: It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaida, and that this group - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.

KELLY: Nowhere is the story of that attack being tracked more closely than the place we're about to take you. It's in McLean, Virginia, and it's called the NCTC, the National Counterterrorism Center.

We are now on the floor of the operations center, up on a big, stainless steel balcony looking out - it's about a 40-foot ceiling in here, and we're looking down on, let's see, maybe a couple of dozen analysts. They've each got three or four computer screens up, monitoring big screens on the wall. And this is 24/7, looks like this.

Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): This is 24/7. 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? And this never stops.

That's Michael Leiter. He's the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, which puts him right in the middle of the controversy about how a Nigerian man was able to walk onto a U.S.-bound plane with a bomb sewn under his clothing.

Teams from NCTC are briefing the president twice a day on that incident. About 600 people work there. They all have top secret security clearance. Our visit to the NCTC came right before the attack, a relatively calm day, so I didn't get to ask about it. But I did get to ask Michael Leiter about how he approaches his job and how he ended up in the counterterrorism world. Turns out, after college, he joined the Navy and flew EA-6B Prowler jets over Bosnia and Iraq.

You flew for a few years and then in '97 started at Harvard Law School.

Mr. LEITER: I did.

KELLY: And then you went on a clerked for Justice Breyer...

Mr. LEITER: I did.

KELLY: ...at the Supreme Court.

Mr. LEITER: I was there on 9/11, actually.

KELLY: Oh, really? At the court itself?

Mr. LEITER: At the court. Interesting experience of the justice was actually in India, but we were in chambers and we watched it on TV. And next time I looked outside, there were hundreds of people streaming down East Capitol Street, running from the Capitol. And then the Supreme Court police were running through with their shotguns saying, everyone, run, run. And our entire chambers ended up in my basement apartment on Capitol Hill, huddling there for the day as the reports continued to stream in.

KELLY: I mean, for many of us, that was the first real experience of terrorism touching our lives in a concrete way. Was it for you?

Mr. LEITER: I think it was. Even in my Navy time, I never focused on terrorism. I obviously lived in and around New York during the first bombing of the World Trade Center. I remember going to my senior prom in the World Trade Center. I actually was sworn into the Navy in the World Trade Center. So I hadn't given a lot of thought before 9/11, although, obviously, pieces of it. And then when it occurred, it hit very close to home for me.

KELLY: Now, Mike Leiter's job is trying to protect the U.S. from another 9/11. The room where we sat down to talk is where President Obama visited soon after he assumed office to see for himself how the effort is going.

Mr. LEITER: President Obama sat roughly right where you are.

KELLY: Just to describe the conference room a little bit, we're at a table with, what, maybe 15 chairs or so around it, screens that can come up so you can see people who are sitting all over the country and around the world if you need to. And in a way, this is kind of a metaphor for what you all are doing here. It's getting the 16 U.S. spy agencies and a bunch of others to talk to each other, share what they know.

Mr. LEITER: That's exactly right. I think before 9/11, one of the very fair criticisms of the U.S. government was there was a whole lot of information out there, but people weren't communicating with one another. 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.

KELLY: Of course, in the days since I talked with Leiter, this very issue has become intensely controversial. We now know U.S. spy agencies had intelligence that might have prevented the attempted Christmas Day bombing, intelligence that was not put together, not shared with the right people.

Here's how an editorial in today's New York Times put it, quote: "Either the National Counterterrorism Center didn't get all of the information it was supposed to get - or it utterly failed to do its job," end quote.

When we spoke to him, Leiter insisted that a lot of progress has been made, that the U.S. is safer than in the days before 9/11. He says it's about vigilance, day by day, hour by hour.

Mr. LEITER: I usually get here around 6:45. I start my day taking the same brief that the president takes - the president's daily brief, and we walk through that 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 walking through that in some detail with my staff. And then it's a series of many, many meetings.

KELLY: And that's a typical day. If something big is happening, if there's a big arrest, or if there's a, you know, a bomb goes off somewhere in the Middle East, does your whole schedule get turned upside down?

Mr. LEITER: I just take my little schedule card and I rip it up...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEITER: ...and it ends up being a different set of meetings that 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.

KELLY: You mentioned homegrown cases...

Mr. LEITER: Yes.

KELLY: ...and how we seem to see an uptick in recent months. How come?

Mr. LEITER: Well, first, I would say this isn't entirely unpredicted. I think 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.

And we've obviously seen this trend in the United Kingdom, to some extent in Germany, Spain, other places. We have never looked at the American population as being immune to that. We just saw them, and I think still appropriately so, as being more resistant to it. So it first is not a surprise, I would say. And second, it still is not that widespread. The question is, is it becoming more widespread? And I think it's still probably a little too early to say.

KELLY: How worried should we be about what we seem to see this trend of Americans becoming radicalized here? Americans, U.S. residents - I mean, you can pick through the cases just in these past few months that have come to public attention of Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, five Americans detained in Pakistan. Is this something you think we're going to see more of?

Mr. LEITER: I think it's always difficult for someone in my position to answer whether or not the public should be worried. I think the public should undoubtedly be aware, 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.

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.

KELLY: Should we take some heart in the fact that a lot of these people coming to light don't actually seem to be that competent, that far along in what they were trying to execute?

Mr. LEITER: I think we have been lucky so far that the people who've been radicalizing the United States are not necessarily the best and the brightest. But I don't think we can take much comfort in that. First of all, you often don't have to be a genius to perpetrate some really horrific acts of violence. You have to have access to certain tools and you can do it. You don't need a Ph.D. to hurt a lot of people.

Second, 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.

KELLY: So again, I sat down with Michael Leiter before the attempted bombing on Northwest Airlines flight 253. But I did ask about another recent episode, the shooting rampage in November at Fort Hood.

When something like that happens, I mean, and the job that you have, do you just feel it in your gut? I mean, is it hard not to take something like that personally when it - when something like that happens?

Mr. LEITER: I think it's impossible not to. And in both the successes and those cases that we don't stop, 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, again, how the enemy changes their tactics.

KELLY: What keeps you awake at night? What is it that worries you most? Because this seems like it would be a very worrying job.

Mr. LEITER: There are really two things: the most sophisticated threat we face still comes from core al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. There's no doubt in my mind - and I think with the arrest of Najibullah Zazi in September of this year, after he went to New York from Denver, I think that is the sort of thing that is very difficult to detect and makes me nervous every day and every night have we found that individual here in the United States.

The second thing that absolutely also keeps me up at night, which is different and probably not as sophisticated, but it's the homegrown threat, and 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. It is very, very difficult to find an individual who, for a variety of reasons, suddenly believes that he is a warrior in the name of al-Qaida.

KELLY: Mr. Leiter, thank you.

Mr. LEITER: It's my pleasure. Thanks very much.

KELLY: Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He can add another item to the list of things keeping him awake at night: the apparent determination of al-Qaida branches in places like Yemen to strike directly at the U.S. mainland.

Leiter has not spoken publicly since the attempted bombing on Christmas Day. He's given his first statement to NPR. Here it is. Quote: "The failed attempt to destroy Northwest flight 253 is the starkest of reminders of the insidious terrorist threats we face. While this attempt ended in failure, we know with absolute certainty that al-Qaida and those who support its ideology continue to refine their methods to test our defenses and pursue an attack on the homeland."

Mike Leiter continues: 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.

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