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CNN exclusive: Counterterrorism center head offers unique perspective

By Jim Barnett, CNN Senior Producer
Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center for 4 1/2 years, shares his perspective on terrorism against the U.S.
Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center for 4 1/2 years, shares his perspective on terrorism against the U.S.
  • Michael Leiter has headed the National Counterterrorism Center for four and a half years
  • He is stepping down, with Friday as his last day on the job
  • "We are there to disrupt plots," he says in an exclusive CNN interview
  • "The American Muslim community is part of the solution to combating radicalization"

Washington (CNN) -- The National Counterterrorism Center based in Virginia was created to better integrate and analyze intelligence in hopes of preventing another 9/11. For Michael Leiter, who steps down as the center's director on Friday after 4½ years at the helm, there has been a very personal aspect to the job.

Relics of the 9/11 attacks are on display in the lobby of the counterterrorism center.

"I grew up in New Jersey, right across the bridge from Manhattan and I had a lot of connection to the World Trade Center," Leiter told CNN Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve during an exclusive interview.

"I actually had my senior prom from high school in the World Trade Center, had my college graduation with my parents in the World Trade Center, and I was actually sworn into the Navy in the World Trade Center.

"To come down here some days and look at the twisted metal and realize there was a time that I was standing in the building that that metal supported, and now to be in a position to be able again to try to bring some justice and some closure after that incredibly tragic day is emotional for me -- think it's been a real honor for me to do this for four and a half years because of it," Leiter said.

During Leiter's tenure at the NCTC, one of the most striking trends has been the proliferation of homegrown terrorist plots. Leiter believes rooting out the problem requires broader and deeper engagement with the Muslim community.

"Like any social phenomenon there's not a single root cause. There's ideological pieces. There's psychological pieces; there's demographic pieces," Leiter explained.

"So the first is understanding it. And I think we've come a long way in understanding radicalization here and abroad. And the second is I think domestically the most important piece is insuring that we don't have populations and we don't have individuals who are truly alienated from the rest of society, having an engagement with the federal government but equally important, state and local governments and communities.

"Really most important, I think, (is) making sure that Americans understand that the American Muslim community is part of the solution to combating radicalization, and not part of the problem."

Leiter said, "We have to face it down with a whole-of--government approach. This can't just be about homeland security. This can't just be about the FBI. It has to be the Department of Education, it has to be mayors. It has to be governors. It has to be community groups. It has to be industry -- working in a partnership to connect with these organizations and really show the absence of a positive message for al Qaeda."

Among the challenges: the Internet, which jihadists are using with increasing sophistication to spread their gospel of terror across the U.S. and the world. Is the U.S. disrupting jiadist websites?

Leiter wouldn't comment on specific operations. "But all of what we do in the war on terror has to be all elements of national power," he said. "And part of that clearly can involve watching what jihadists are doing on the internet and, when ... necessary, to disrupt the attacks, disrupting their ability to communicate, train and plot."

When it comes to disrupting terrorists' abilities to use terror for propaganda, Leiter says, "This gets into a really tricky area because obviously what guides all of our efforts is ... constitutional principles, constitutional elements like the First Amendment and other legal aspects of that. So we are not there to stop people from communicating. We are there to disrupt plots."

Some observers say the right to privacy is sometimes surrendered in the name of security and there needs to be a better balance.

"I think as the threat changes, as American expectations of privacy change, we have to constantly reevaluate that. So I do think that we're about the right place right now. I think we are.

"But again, as al Qaeda evolves, as our expectation of privacy evolves, this has to be a constant review of what we are doing because we have to have the American people's trust to do it well," added Leiter.

Leiter said the country must remain on alert even though there has not seen a major attack in the U.S. since September 11, 2001.

"I think the American people are incredibly resilient. They take care of themselves," he said. "They turn to government for things that they can't do themselves. But I actually think that is the political system that requires resilience. The political system doesn't enter into spasms after an attack and in so doing hand al Qaeda a victory that they might not otherwise enjoy."

Leiter points to the attempted 2009 Christmas Day "underwear" airline bombing. The NCTC was harshly criticized for not picking up on the plot. Leiter says some of it was warranted.

"Do I think some of the political discourse got overly heated and undercut the morale of some of the officers working through the intelligence community? I do," Leiter admitted.

"I think we could have been more constructive and less heated, and that would have shown al Qaeda that we are, in fact, resilient."

Leiter admits to frustrations on the job, but that's when he returns to the 9/11 memorial in the lobby at the NCTC.

"You can sometimes get bogged down in these jobs with bureaucratic garbage ... This reminds people that this is what's important. It's defending innocent people from being killed by terrorists," he said. "I've come down here on bad days when I've had bad meetings and been frustrated, and you just come down here and you look at that metal and you look at that flag and it's a great way of re-charging your batteries."

Leiter's last day on the job is Friday. He hasn't announced his next step but says he will continue to devote attention to terrorism and how to prevent it.