The White House on Thursday disputed a published report that National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter was on a ski trip when he learned of the failed attempt to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, and that he didn't cut short his vacation to return to work.
National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough said in a statement Thursday that "Director Leiter was -- throughout the events of December 25, 2009 -- indeed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia."
The New York Daily News reported earlier in the day that Leiter, who is in charge of analyzing terror threats, was on a ski vacation on Christmas and did not return to his office until several days after the failed bombing attempt, a decision the newspaper said raised eyebrows within the intelligence community.
"People have been grumbling that he didn't let a little terrorism interrupt his vacation," a source reportedly told the paper.
But McDonough said Thursday that Leiter was "intimately involved in all aspects of the nation's response to the attempted terrorist attack -- to include coordinating intelligence, examining terrorist watchlisting, and briefing members of Congress.Only after explicit consultations with both the White House and the Director of National Intelligence and considering the current threat environment did Director Leiter take six days of annual leave after the event."
The NCTC, the government's primary organization for analyzing all terrorism intelligence, has been roundly criticized for failing to "connect the dots" on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with plotting to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it flew from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.
Leiter, who reports directly to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, was appointed by President George W. Bush. He was sworn in as head of the NCTC on June 12, 2008 after serving as the center's acting director since 2007. Before joining the NCTC, Leiter served as the deputy chief of staff for the ODNI, where he helped coordinate its internal and external operations and create national intelligence centers, like the NCTC and National Counterproliferation Center.
In a statement issued on Saturday -- eight days after the failed bomb attempt -- Leiter reaffirmed the center's commitment to preventing terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda.
"The failed attempt to destroy Northwest Flight 253 is the starkest of reminders of the insidious terrorist threats we face," Leiter said. "While this attempt ended in failure, we know with absolute certainty that Al Qaeda and those who support its ideology continue to refine their methods to test our defenses and pursue an attack on the homeland."
"Our most sacred responsibility is to be focused on our mission -- detecting and preventing terrorist attacks from happening on our soil and against U.S. interests," he said. "The American people expect and deserve nothing less."