Counterterrorism chief: secrecy vital for national security

BY CHRIS SZABLA

Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center
Michael Leiter ’00

Michael Leiter ’00 breezed into Hauser Hall after spending the last two hours at the Kennedy School. “I’m in need of serious intellectual stimulation,” he joked, invoking Harvard Law School’s longstanding derision of its public policy-oriented counterpart across Harvard Square.

Yet Leiter’s cross-campus trek at Harvard mirrors the evolution in his own life: from the apogee of the world of legal academia, as president of the Harvard Law Review, to the National Counterterrorism Center, where he spends far more time analyzing foreign intelligence than legal opinions. When he first met Barack Obama ’91, the current U.S. president spun around upon hearing that Leiter, like him, had led the prestigious Review. “What are you doing briefing me on counterterrorism?” Obama wondered.

The National Counterterrorism Center was created in the wake of September 11th to collect and synchronize data from the U.S.’ various intelligence agencies, and to make corresponding recommendations for counterterrorism policy, which Leiter delivers to personnel ranging from the President to individual policemen and firefighters. He was appointed in 2008, after a career that included a clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer ’64, a stint as a federal prosecutor, and time spent serving in the U.S. navy during campaigns in Yugoslavia and Iraq. It was his military service that gave him his shot at working in counterterrorism.

Leiter’s current role puts him in a position to know quite a bit about the world, and during his visit to HLS – sponsored by the National Security and Law Association – he led a discussion on the security situations in areas ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and even to the potential for domestic Islamist terrorism in the U.S.

Afghanistan and Pakistan, Leiter noted, were “in flux” more than at any time since Pakistan’s independence in the wake of Partition from India in 1947. The border area between the two countries was home to “core elements” of Al Qaeda, which are forming new liaisons with Pakistani militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, enabling the group, just a few weeks ago, to mount a direct attack on Pakistan’s military headquarters.

Pakistan, Leiter said, had traditionally used such groups as proxies through which to conduct its foreign policy. He hoped that the headquarters attack would compel the Pakistani military to decisively move away from its defensive stance toward India and to engage militant groups instead. He expressed optimism, however, that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would not “fall into the wrong hands,” saying that the weapons had been secured, and that he worried about the use of cruder, more improvised weapons instead.

Leiter also highlighted the security risk emanating from Yemen. Recently, a Yemeni national trained by Al Qaeda had tried to assassinate a member of the Saudi royal family, he said. According to Leiter, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia were symptomatic cases, illustrating a larger trend: extremist groups taking over sparsely-governed states or areas within states and using them as training grounds to export terrorism.

While the U.S. has not faced as challenging a security threat from its domestic Muslim population as the U.K., Leiter noted, the Somali immigrant population in the country was posing an increasing challenge. 18-25 year old Somalis have been traveling in increasing numbers back to Somalia, attracted by the desire to defend the country against intervention from the African Union and other forces, which are sporadically present in unstable regions of the country. While Americans have always traveled abroad to fight for foreign causes, such as during the Spanish Civil War, Leiter observed, this was the first instance in which the U.S. was producing home-grown suicide bombers.

While they existed in lesser numbers, Leiter also pointed out that Afghan-Americans have traveled to Pakistan to gain training from Al Qaeda, and have attempted to set off improvised explosive devices in the group’s name in the U.S.

Leiter said that it would be difficult for domestic agencies to form a single policy for engagement with the U.S. Muslim community, which he said was too heterogeneous for such a scheme, although he also noted that the government could do more to earn the trust of poorer, less-educated U.S. Muslims, particularly the Somali community.

Still, Leiter emphasized that instances of “home-grown terror” were not cause for any more alarm than traditional domestic security issues faced by the U.S., such as school shootings. In such a big country, he observed, there were always bound to be new and creative forms of violence. This illustrated, he said, that such terror should be dealt with as domestic law enforcement agencies deal with other threats – they should be prevented and stopped as often as possible, but could not be eliminated entirely.

Leiter said he had divined at least four major lessons from his time at the NCTC. The first was to not over-learn lessons from the past – an enemy could always react in a different way to a given tactic or policy. The second was that “the counterterrorism tail should not wag the policy dog” – that counterterrorism should not be the basis for foreign policy. He noticed that in Afghanistan, pursuing counterterrorism at the expense of other priorities had left the U.S. supporting literally any group that would act against Al Qaeda, with potentially dangerous consequences. Still, in some cases, as in Yemen, he acknowledged, the U.S. has few interests to attend to other than counterterrorism.

Third, Leiter opined, formulating policy was easy, but – and here was where he was most skeptical of the Kennedy School’s public policy perspective – forming a cohesive process to ensure accountability when something happens as a byproduct of that policy, work, he said, better suited to lawyers, was the hard part.

Finally, and most controversially, Leiter said that everything counterterrorism did would require a large degree of public trust. He believed transparency would undermine such trust, making it difficult for counterterrorism policymakers to operate. Much needed to happen behind the scenes, he said, citing the use of provisions of the Patriot Act to foil a recent bomb plot against New York City subways, and noting that, in terms of international operations, there “was no altruism in international affairs,” and that difficult and delicate trade-offs were often made in the pursuit of security.

Returning to his third major lesson, Leiter said that, in the absence of public oversight, lawyers ought to play a greater role ensuring that there is accountability for any action taken behind the scenes. A breakdown of the internal channels set up by the Church and Pike Commissions in the 1970s – specifically, a lack of trust in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the special courts set up to monitor use of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) is what has led members of Congress to leak vital information to the press, rather than deal with problems within the system. “Everything now plays out on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post,” Leiter said, making it difficult for the NCTC and other national security agencies to pursue effective policies.

Leiter’s position on secrecy may reflect the fact that he is a legacy of the Bush administration, which first appointed him to his position in 2008. Still, he insists, his job has not changed much since Obama took office. 98% of his work, Leiter said, was “apolitical;” it was just that “the discourse” in the media focused on the hard cases that were not. “In the New York Times counterterrorism is Guantanamo, torture, and assassinations,” Leiter said. What had truly shifted between administrations, he observed, was the weight given to the needs and desires of different departments – Defense, in particular, had received more attention under Bush than Obama.

And while Leiter’s stance in favor of se
crecy and internal oversight both rankled and invited skepticism, he insisted that the approach would and should not sacrifice its commitment to values. “The idea of not protecting civil liberties while doing this job,” he said, “is losing the war in a different way.”

Comments