Before Michael Leiter took a job in a building so secret that it didn't even appear on Google Maps until recently, he flew jet planes for the Navy. Specifically, the EA-6B Prowler, an oddly shaped craft primarily used to flummox enemy communication and radar.
In his current job as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Leiter is again in the business of interfering with the enemy. But instead of radar units in the former Yugoslavia or air defenses in Iraq, the adversary is global terrorist networks. And rather than scramble enemy communications, he is coming up with new strategies to match the new attitudes in the intelligence community.
Militant Islamic extremism remains the national security focus. But the Obama administration's strategy against al Qaeda and its affiliates also focuses on the war of ideas, which may in the long run be more important than killing suspected terrorists in the mountains and deserts of the world's least governed spaces, says Leiter. "It means diminishing the al Qaeda message, amplifying the absence of a positive agenda, and countering the tools that they use to bring people to their side," he says. That message was echoed in a major speech last week by John Brennan, the president's deputy national security adviser and a former head of NCTC, who called for a renewed attention to "upstream factors" contributing to radicalization, as well as a strategy of "exposing al Qaeda as nothing but the death cult that it is."
Demonstrating success in counterterrorism often relies on the absence of violence. There hasn't been an attack, which means the remedy is working, the thinking goes. But in this case there is additional evidence. U.S. analysts point to polls of Muslims around the world over the past few years that have shown the support for suicide bombing and the popularity of Osama bin Laden both in decline. The Pew Research Center found this to be the case in several Muslim majority nations, even wherethe United States is not viewed positively. Moreover, the inability of al Qaeda affiliates to win broad support in numerous hot spots, including Iraq and North and East Africa, seems to indicate that the bin Laden-style of terrorism isn't as contagious as it first appeared. "The al Qaeda franchises haven't proved as fruitful as we once feared," Leiter says.
But Leiter still has plenty of work. The center's reporting shows that nearly 50,000 people were killed or injured around the world in terrorist-related violence last year. In recent weeks, the attack on a pair of hotels in Indonesia (once seen as a bright spot in the fight against extremist groups) and the arrest of extremists linked to Somalia who reportedly were plotting an attack in Australia show the evolving nature of the terrorism landscape.
As with many jobs in the national security realm, living on constant alert comes with a price. The 40-year-old Leiter says he can't remember turning off his cellphone once in the past five years. "People ask me if I'm stressed all the time, and I say no. Then I realize that I'm losing my hair; I'm irritable; I'm stressed all the time," he says. He finds respite in gardening, spending time with his son, and catching home games when his beloved Nationals are in town.
Leiter doesn't have the typical background for one of the country's top intelligence officials, but he has risen unusually quickly through the ranks. While his Columbia University classmates took jobs at hedge funds or went to medical school, Leiter "stumbled into the Navy." He flew missions over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Leiter then attended Harvard Law School, where he, like the current president, became the head of the school's prestigious Law Review in 2000. He also has experience as an emergency medical technician and a firefighter.
In 2001, he was working at the Supreme Court as a clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer when a hijacked American Airlines plane slammed into the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac. After a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, he became the assistant director and deputy general counsel of the commission to investigate U.S. intelligence on Iraq, headed by former Sen. Charles Robb and Laurence Silberman. The group's report, which Leiter had a large role in drafting, concluded that U.S. intelligence had been "dead wrong" in nearly all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons programs. In November 2007, Leiter took over as acting director of NCTC. During the confirmation hearing in May 2008, Robb testified on his behalf, calling him "a man wise beyond his years."