Wagons Circle Around NCTC Director Leiter, Under Fire

The White House and allies of Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, disputed a New York Daily News report Thursday claiming Leiter "decided not to return to his agency's 'bat cave' nerve center in McLean, Va., until several days after” the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253.

The story says that Leiter “remained on ski slopes” after Christmas, but Denis McDonough, National Security Staff Chief of Staff, refutes that, saying that “Leiter was -- throughout the events of December 25, 2009 -- indeed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, and intimately involved in all aspects of the nation’s response to the attempted terrorist attack -- to include coordinating intelligence, examining terrorist watch-listing, and briefing Members of Congress.”

Leiter stayed late at the NCTC on December 25, an intelligence official tells ABC News, and the next morning he held secure communications working the issue with many in the U.S. government.

He did go on vacation the day after the attempted attack, but a close associate of Leiter says that the leave was quite different than the carefree “ski trip” being depicted.

Leiter is divorced, and the purpose of the ski trip was to take “his seven-year-old son for his birthday to meet his grandparents,” both of whom are in their late 70s, the close associate tells ABC News.

He did so only “after explicit consultations with both the White House and the Director of National Intelligence,” McDonough said, adding it “did not affect in any way his ability to remain engaged with all elements of the United States Government. “

Leiter, who was appointed to head the NCTC in 2007 by President George W. Bush, has spent time today talking to people on Capitol Hill, explaining his side of the story, as well as the facts, and trying to assuage concerns. Leiter and Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair (Ret.) are under fire for their failure to connect the dots and anticipate the threat posed by Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab.

Support for the NCTC director in the White House seems solid as of Thursday mid-day. Obama administration officials suggest that any time a director of the NCTC goes on vacation, he would do so with the ability to hold secure teleconference calls and the like, and officials insist Leiter’s vacation wasn’t much of a vacation.

“During the following days, Director Leiter engaged in regular, repeated, and extended classified discussions with the White House, the President’s National Security Staff located in Hawaii, the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, various members of Congress and their staffs, and of course the National Counterterrorism Center,” McDonough said.

Leiter is a former Naval Flight Officer who participated in various military operations in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Like President Obama, he served as president of the Harvard Law Review.

-- jpt

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