The cascade of State Department cables posted by WikiLeaks offers a cautionary tale but it’s “too early to tell” how and whether it may affect the conduct of intelligence activities, the nation’s top counterterrorism official said today.
Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the release of huge quantities of sensitive and classified documents “has certainly driven members of the intelligence community to reexamine information sharing….” and it “undermines U.S. national security.”
Leiter, who rarely speaks publicly, appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He stressed several times that the counterterrorism community was more comfortable with sharing information and may have more safeguards in place because it was forced to act by the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and has had time to hammer out careful restrictions so that information they gather and analyze does not rebound on the counterterror community.
On the operational front, Leiter said he believed that the U.S. is much safer than it was. The situation, he said, “is really, really significantly better than it was in 2001.” The likelihood of an attack by Al Qaeda in Pakistan using chemical, biological or radiation weapons has grown much more remote, he said. And the “threat of that most severe and complicated catastrophic attack is much less than was in 2001.”
At the same time, he told the audience of more than 500 reporters, terrorism experts and at least one former FBI director, no one should assume that an attack will not occur. In the event of a successful attack, he offered a prescription of do’s and don’ts.
Most importantly, the U.S. must respond with “quiet competent resilience” because the people and government define the success of an attack by our reaction to it. Our engagement with the U.S. and the worldwide Muslim communities must continue and “we should not assume that everything is broken” and “we should not assume that the terrorists are 10 feet tall.”
Many of al Qaeda’s offshoots are the product of local problems and must be approached that way. They may be part of what might be called a movement but they are not extensions of the group of terrorist leaders hiding in northern Pakistan. After his remarks, I asked him if the enormous rewards that America offers for information to the death or capture of top terrorists such as Osama bin Laden are counterproductive. Some senior intelligence officials have argued privately that offering large rewards only increases the status of criminals and does little to actually help bring them to justice.
Leiter said he believed the efficacy of rewards depends on local conditions.