Michael Leiter Works to Keep Tabs on Terrorists

The head of the National Counterterrorism Center's work is little known but deadly serious.

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Now, as one of the top counterterrorism officials, Leiter is in charge of making sure that failures like the analysis on weapons of mass destruction and the 9/11 attacks don't reoccur. One of NCTC's chief roles is coordinating the intelligence that the United States gathers and seeing that it is distributed to those who need it across all branches of government. NCTC analysts sift through countless sources—electronic, human, and photographic—and write reports on what they think it all means. "Our analysts are trying to provide information that's useful to the president, the ambassador in Pakistan, an under secretary at [the Department of Homeland Security], the police chief in Seattle, and our foreign partners in Iraq. . . . It's an enormous challenge," Leiter says.

Especially as budgets shrink, there is pressure to reassess aspects of the counterterrorism effort, from grand strategy in the war of ideas, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to security measures like banning water bottles from going through airport security. "The further we get away from 9/11, the more people say what a silly exercise this is to take your shoes off at the airport," Leiter says. Security could relax, of course, but that would carry an increased risk. Leiter's job is to explain what those risks are, based on his understanding of the evolving terrorist threat. Some counterterrorism measures "may not be sustainable," Leiter concedes. "You just hope that decisions are made with eyes wide open."

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