- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010

The White House is defending Michael Leiter, the Bush appointee who heads the agency charged with integrating terrorist threat information, as Congress prepares its own oversight hearings into the failed airline terrorist attack on Christmas Day.

In the coming weeks, Congress will begin its probe into what went wrong when a Nigerian national trained in Yemen by al Qaeda nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

A preliminary report on the incident released Thursday by the White House found that the intelligence community collected enough information to at least cancel Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab’s visa to enter the country.

Despite those mistakes, President Obama has not fired any senior executives in the intelligence community. In particular, the White House defended Mr. Leiter after newspapers reported that he went on a ski vacation after the Christmas attack.

John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security, defended his decision to grant Mr. Leiter’s request to leave for a ski vacation starting Dec. 26.

AP INTERACTIVE: Key events leading up to the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound flight

“I said, ‘Mike, no, you deserve this vacation. You need to be with your son.’ So I was the one who told him he should go out there,” Mr. Brennan said Thursday at a White House news briefing.

Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the National Security Council, issued a statement saying Mr. Leiter spent Christmas Day and evening at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in McLean, Va.

As NCTC director, one of Mr. Leiter’s top tasks is connecting the disparate pieces of threat reporting and disseminating those pieces of information to the rest of the intelligence community.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will hold a hearing Jan. 20 at which Mr. Leiter, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis C. Blair and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are scheduled to testify.

Leslie Phillips, communications director for the committee, said the hearings would “be a broad look at the intelligence reforms passed in 2004 through the prism of the Dec. 25 attempted attack.”

Mr. Lieberman said in a statement, “As the president noted, while enforcement and intelligence communities have worked successfully together to disrupt several plots against our country, the intelligence to discover and disrupt the plot masterminded by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was available to our government. But it was not pieced together.”

The senator’s statement promised a focus on the structure of the intelligence agencies and whether Mr. Leiter and Mr. Blair have been given impossible jobs.

“We will ask Admiral Blair and Director Leiter why the intelligence community was unable to bring together pieces of intelligence held by various agencies to detect this plot and whether the DNI and NCTC have the authority to integrate the intelligence community into a single, integrated enterprise,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a recently retired senior executive at NCTC and National Security Council official, said Mr. Leiter “is a consummate professional who has enhanced and improved NCTC’s effectiveness over the last years.”

Mr. Leiter had served in the post in an acting capacity since November 2007, but was formally nominated by President Bush in 2008 and confirmed unanimously by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

But Mr. Nelson, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the NCTC in particular may need new authority.

“NCTC does not have the authority to collect intelligence,” he said. “It does not have the authority to revoke visas, it does not have the authority to conduct investigations. It is not an action arm of the government. It is simply an aggregator of information, they conduct analysis, they set priorities, they conduct planning activities.”

Mr. Obama’s top adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security, Mr. Brennan, founded the NCTC and is the former chief executive of one of the contractors NCTC uses to help develop the watch lists that should have kept Mr. Abdulmutallab off Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The White House report said that NCTC is the “primary organization that provides situational awareness” to the counterterrorism community and, along with the CIA, is the primary agency charged with analyzing all sources of terrorist threat information.

Mr. Lieberman shed his Democratic affiliations after losing the 2006 primary to a challenger supported by the left-wing “netroots” of his party. Some activists in his party opposed giving Mr. Lieberman that chairmanship a year ago partly because the senator from Connecticut supported John McCain and not Mr. Obama in the 2008 election.

Key Republican congressmen, though, have told The Washington Times that they are not especially looking for blame in the wake of the intelligence failures.

When asked earlier this week whether any senior executives in the intelligence community should be fired, Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, told The Times, “Unless someone grossly abused or failed to use their authority, then it does not do any good to roll the heads. I have worked with Director Blair, [CIA Director Leon E.] Panetta and Director Leiter. I think they are all working hard.”

Mr. Bond’s Republican counterpart on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, said earlier this week, “The problem is the system is broken, it did not do what we intended it to do. The job of the system is to stop bombs from getting on planes. The president needs to take aggressive steps to make sure this does not happen.”

One issue all the committees in Congress likely will examine is whether reforms after Sept. 11, 2001, have been fully implemented. Mr. Bond, for example, said that he still wants Mr. Blair, who last year lost a battle to name CIA station chiefs at U.S. embassies, to have more budgetary authority.

Mr. Lieberman’s Thursday statement also said his panel would “discuss the reforms made after 9/11 relevant to the Christmas Day attack, including changes in areas such as intelligence analysis, information sharing, watch-listing, border security and aviation security.”

He said the panel would want to know from Ms. Napolitano “how - even after reforms designed to prevent it - Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to exploit passenger pre-screening systems and the international aviation security system to board a plane bound for the United States with an explosive device.”

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