Ex-Counterterrorism Aide Warns Against Complacency on Al Qaeda
ASPEN, Colo. — The recently departed director of the nation’s main counterterrorism center said Thursday that Al Qaeda in Pakistan still posed a serious threat to the United States, and he warned that assessments that Al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked “accuracy and precision.”
The comments by the official, Michael E. Leiter, who stepped down three weeks ago as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, are the most significant pushback to a growing chorus of statements by American officials that the death of Osama bin Laden and years of Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes in Pakistan have brought the United States “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda,” as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta put it recently.
Mr. Leiter said that Al Qaeda’s leadership and structure in Pakistan were “on the ropes,” but he contended that “the core organization is still there and could launch some attacks” and that “Pakistan remains a huge problem.” He noted that the failed plot to blow up an explosives-packed vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by a Pakistani-American trained by the Pakistani Taliban. The Qaeda affiliate in Yemen also remains especially dangerous, he added.
Mr. Leiter also raised concerns that a decade of intensive paramilitary operations by the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen had begun to change the nature of the spy service, and not necessarily all for the better.
“The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?” he said, citing the potential impact on traditional espionage and analysis of longer-range issues like China and counterproliferation.
As some of America’s wars wind down, Mr. Leiter cautioned about the effects on a generation of young analysts and officers from the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies who have been pushed forward into adrenaline-surging counterterrorism missions overseas. They could return to headquarters, he said, and find themselves bored by doing the still-important jobs of analysts or case officers — what he called the “crown jewel” of the C.I.A.’s work.
“Suddenly you find yourself at a desk in Washington working in a pretty big bureaucracy and you say: “This what I’m stuck with for another 30 years? You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Mr. Leiter said.
Mr. Leiter spoke in a wide-ranging, hourlong interview at the Aspen Security Forum at the Aspen Institute here. The New York Times is a media sponsor of the four-day conference, and Mr. Leiter was interviewed by David E. Sanger, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent.
In the wake of Bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, a growing debate has taken hold among American and other Western intelligence and counterterrorism specialists over how close the United States may be to dismantling Al Qaeda’s main network in Pakistan.
President Obama’s choice to replace Mr. Leiter, Matthew Olsen, who is the general counsel at the National Security Agency, said at his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would define the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda as “ending the threat that Al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.”
Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who until February worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for United States Special Operations Command, expressed caution about the idea that Al Qaeda in Pakistan is on its last legs. “Central Al Qaeda and a mix of other groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are capable of pulling off an attack in the U.S. homeland,” he said.
In an assessment drawn from nearly four years as head of the counterterrorism center, Mr. Leiter warned that while Al Qaeda’s ability to pull off another attack on the scale of Sept. 11 has greatly diminished, smaller attacks carried out by the remaining leadership of Al Qaeda or Qaeda franchises, or adherents in Yemen and Somalia, or possibly by homegrown terrorists in the United States, could still cause tremendous physical, psychological and emotional damage.
“Small events can still have a strategic impact,” he said.
He cited the bombing and shooting spree last week in Norway, apparently by one man, that killed at least 76 people, as well as the attacks by gunmen in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 that left more than 160 people dead, including 6 Americans.
Asked what advice he would give the American public about the current threat, Mr. Leiter said he would stress how much progress the country had made in the past 10 years against terrorist attacks, but he also said people should not overreact to what he said would inevitably be future strikes.
“The American people do need to understand that at least the smaller-scale terrorist attacks are with us for the foreseeable future,” he said.“The way that we fundamentally defeat that threat, which is very difficult to stop in its entirety, is to maintain a culture of resilience,” Mr. Leiter said. “Although this threat of terrorism is real and there will be tragic events that lead to the deaths of innocent people, it is not, in my view, an existential threat to our society.”