The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Mike Leiter: Intelligence
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service. This week, my guest is Mike Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Mike grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. His extraordinary and extensive public service career began early, in high school, when he worked as an emergency medical technician in his hometown. After graduating from Columbia University, Mike served as a naval flight officer before attending Harvard Law School, where he was one of only four military veterans in his class. At Harvard, Mike was elected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a job once held by Barack Obama. After clerking on the United States Supreme Court for Justice Stephen Breyer, Mike worked as a federal prosecutor. He left that job when asked to become a key staffer on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, which examined substantial U.S. intelligence community failures in the leadup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ultimately, under Presidents Bush and Obama, Mike directed the National Counterterrorism Center, the organization responsible for analyzing terrorist threats against the United States and its interests at home and abroad. Mike’s insights on the U.S. intelligence community, as someone who’s studied it on the WMD Commission, and as someone who ran a vital part of it, are compelling, timely, important, and intriguing. Mike Leiter, welcome to The Oath.
Michael Leiter: It's great to be here, Chuck, thanks for having me.
Rosenberg: It's a privilege. Mike, where'd you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your childhood and your family.
Leiter: I grew up in an upper middle class, Jewish kid in northern New Jersey, right across from the George Washington Bridge. My both my parents were New Yorkers, one from Brooklyn, one from the Upper West Side. And my dad was a surgeon in New York City, my mom was an environmentalist, so I grew up going into New York City a lot, museums, things like that. And it was a pretty normal American childhood, I think.
Rosenberg: I know you went to the Dwight Englewood school, I even looked it up, Mike, and learned that among the notable alumni, of course, you're listed, our former Secretary of State George Shultz and Brooke Shields, the actress.
Leiter: Indeed, and I have to say when I was there, Brooke Shields was there also and she was much, much more of a rock star than was George Schultz. But it was a lovely school, I still stay engaged there. We also at the same time had Mira Sorvino, who has had quite a career in Hollywood.
Rosenberg: Another famous actress.
Leiter: Exactly. It was a it was a great school at the time and, you know, offered some really neat opportunities to at a relatively early age, study the law and constitutional issues, certainly a luxury that most people in the country don't have.
Rosenberg: And that's something that I did in high school. But I'm curious, is that where you got interested in the law?
Leiter: A little bit. You know, my--although we were very much New Yorkers, I guess there were a couple of things that certainly influenced my, my interest in high school. One was my mother was a Holocaust survivor, having left Berlin with her family when she was one in 1938. She was born in 1937. And her parents lived very near us, and that certainly got me very interested in history. I used to walk home from school and my grandfather would talk to me about how wonderful Germany was. And my mother would actually yell at him for saying kind things about Germany and speaking in German around me, because they'd lost their entire family, the Holocaust, and that got me very interested in history. The second thing was, I think my father probably gave me a little bit of an adventurous streak, although he, as I said, he was a doctor in Manhattan and commuted every day, much like many others. He was never really a New Yorker at heart in many ways, and he had a--whether it was sailing, and I was a big sailor growing up and I sailed to Bermuda twice and sailed across the Atlantic, or he was a ski patrolman, a volunteer ski patrolman--he had a real adventurous streak, and that got me involved in some things to include also being a ski patrolman, but being a volunteer ambulance EMT for four years in high school. And so, I think there's a combination of having an interest in history and then also sort of the most immediate piece of law that you see in that environment: law enforcement and problems in society that you're trying to serve in an ambulance. So, I think those are the pieces that sort of started to fit together in high school.
Rosenberg: Did you enjoy the EMT work, Mike?
Leiter: I loved it. I mean, where else can you be 15 and a half years old, 16 years old and driving around it in the middle of the night with lights and sirens. And you grow up pretty quickly. My town was anything but it wasn't a big city, but it was a city of about 25,000 people, actually quite racially segregated and although very well off in one part of that city, pretty poor in other parts. And the ambulance experience was a fascinating one for me. Again, I was very lucky kid in a private school. So, for 20 or so hours a week because I did it from six to eight In the morning, five days a week, and then on weekends, you know, I was out and serving a part of the city that I really didn't see. And it was thrilling and exciting. And you also, again, you're 16 years old and you're walking in and tragically, you know, people had been stabbed, people have been shot, people are, are passing away from medical emergencies. It's a, I think it's a pretty maturing experience. But it's also, for me, it was a wonderful way to start serving the community that I really enjoyed.
Rosenberg: What drew you to that?
Leiter: I think nothing so inspirational, Chuck. I, I think in part it was I wanted to make more money as a lifeguard during the summer and the Ambulance Corps in our town was where you got your CPR and first aid training so you could get the lifeguarding job. And I remember finishing up my CPR class and they said: “So when are you joining the Ambulance Corps?” and I'm not even sure I knew what they were talking about. But it just seemed like a very, very nice break from my Otherwise terribly placid existence. And it turned out to be very influential because I did it not only all through high school, I continued to do it some in college when I was at Columbia in New York City, and even when I was in the Navy, my early years in the Navy, I was a volunteer fireman at the EMT in Florida, and it was always a great way to see a side other than the rest of my professional life.
Rosenberg: As an EMT while at Columbia, were you working in Manhattan or back home in Englewood?
Leiter: It was it was in Manhattan, and I actually my, my EMT life in Englewood was much more exciting and a lot--again, we had a fair crime problem. And it was, as you recall, the early era of crack cocaine that was really destructive of communities. Along with response, it was destructive to communities, but it was a busy environment. Columbia was more focused, although it was in Manhattan, on the university, so I spent a lot more time with drunken students. Although, even then, during that period in New York City, you know, what is now a quite an amazing neighborhood on the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights-- at that time when I got there in 1987 through 1991, New York was really struggling with a crack epidemic and crime and violent crime. In 1988, we had a security guard murdered shot in the back of the head in the lobby of the journalism building at Columbia. And I was the first one there, and it was a very, very odd juxtaposition with your daily Columbia Ivy League existence that, you know, 10 o'clock on Wednesday night, you're trying to save security guards life, which unfortunately, we did not.
Rosenberg: Mike, you graduated from Columbia in 1991, and join the Navy as a naval flight officer. Did you do that through ROTC or through Officer Candidate School? How did that come about?
Leiter: Chuck, I firmly believe that I stumbled onto all of my good opportunities. I have to go back a little bit. The summer before I graduated or the summer before my senior year, I had what I think was one of the great jobs anyone could have as a college student. And I was an intern at the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, which, at the time, was still hunting down those who were involved in Nazi atrocities in World War II. And I was a history major and I went down and I did a bunch of historical research. And it was an amazing job. It was removal operations. It was all for violating immigration laws, but it was absolutely fascinating for me, given my family background, it was a really special experience. And even though--
Rosenberg: If I may interrupt, when you talk about removal operations, you mean former Nazis who had emigrated to the United States and now we're being removed from the United States and back to Germany.
Leiter: Exactly. So, they were being stripped of their citizenship based on false statements at the time because post World War II, they were asked whether or not they were ever members of the Nazi Party. So, we were finding these people and stripping them their citizenship, and they were either going back to Germany or other, other countries. And it was fascinating work. And I just felt very lucky. And simultaneously, I was taking Law School Admission Test, tutoring class. And it suddenly hit me one day studying that there was no way in heck that I wanted to go right to law school and do this. I felt like I had one of the best jobs I could ever have as a budding lawyer, and I didn't want to do it at age 22, and I didn't want to go to law school right away. And I went back to Columbia and I applied for three things in my senior year: I applied for graduate school in the United Kingdom and criminology, I applied to the NYPD to be a police officer, and I applied to the Navy because as I mentioned before, I really liked sailing, and I liked history and I saw history being connected with warfare. And the Navy seemed like a fabulous opportunity. So, it was not through Razzi, it was really accidental. And I showed up at the World Trade Center where the recruiting office was, and he gave me a test, and he said, “What do you want to do in the Navy?” And I said, “I guess I want to drive ships.” And he looked at me and he shook his head. And he said, “No, no, no. You want to fly airplanes.” And this is a little bit after Top Gun and he was an F-14 guy, and he explained to me that all the cool people in the Navy flew airplanes. And suddenly I found myself after graduation, going to flight school.
Rosenberg: Where did you do that, Mike?
Leiter: I went to Pensacola, Florida at the time, it was still aviation Officer Candidate School and it was 20 quality weeks with my good friend Gunnery Sergeant Hernandez, United States Marine Corps, who is my Marine Corps drill instructor, who definitely beat the Ivy League out of me and introduced me to life in the Marine Corps in the Navy, and it was a pretty amazing experience. It was a difficult program. About half of the people dropped out, but it was fascinating. My first time in the South and Pensacola it was physically exhausting. And it was just an entirely new world, but I loved it.
Rosenberg: And what happens after 20 weeks?
Leiter: After 20 weeks, you go through that kind of magical ceremony where the drill instructor from the Marine Corps has been beating you up for 20 weeks and calling you the lowest of the low, salutes you for the first time you're a commissioned Ensign in the Navy and I went from there to flight school, so I spent another year and a half in Pensacola learning how to fly, and was then assigned out to Whidbey Island Washington. So, after a quick tour through San Diego for prisoner of war school, also known as survive, evade, resist, escape, I headed out to Whidbey Island to fly them EA6B Prowler, which carrier based electronic attack jet.
Rosenberg: Electronic warfare aircraft, one that is capable of jamming enemy radar and picking up intelligence about missile defense and airplane defense systems. Is that right?
Michael Leiter: It's exactly right. All of air defense is kind of built around the ability of the enemy to see you and know where you are and know where you're going, and then communicate that to the weapon systems to fire and the EA6B's job was to go in with the fighters the attack planes and make sure that the bad guys couldn't see you. So, we both jam those radar systems and shot missiles at them if they were threatening our guys. So, I found it really interesting and attractive because it, it required a little bit of perspective on how everything came together and what we, the good guys, were trying to do, and how the bad guys were gonna try to stop us. So, I loved it.
Rosenberg: Was the recruiter at the World Trade Center right?
Leiter: He was right. Of course: the cool guys flew, and the other guys drove ships. I stumbled on something which really did fit my personality at the time, it had a piece of history and perspective. It had a huge amount of excitement. It got me out of kind of the bubble of New York, New Jersey, which great place, but I wanted to see a lot more of the world. And it also, it gave me an opportunity to play a tiny, tiny, tiny piece, but kind of see history in the making up front. I spent two deployments, splitting between the Arabian Gulf and flying over Iraq for the no-fly zone, as well as in the former Yugoslavia in Bosnia, and especially in Bosnia at a time when there were some real atrocities occurring in almost every direction, but especially targeting Bosnian Muslims. It was not difficult at all to draw parallels to, you know, what my mother's own family had gone through some 45 years earlier in Germany. Again, different circumstances, but it felt much, much more direct to me than what I had been doing when I was at the Department of Justice. And I think when I was 25 years old, that's exactly what I wanted to be doing.
Rosenberg: While you were flying for the Navy, did you still have law school in the back of your mind, had you toyed with the idea of staying in the Navy and making it a career?
Leiter: I think I still had law school in the back of my mind. And maybe after my second deployment at sea for six months, I really had law school in my mind. I love the Navy, and it seemed like a fantastic thing to do when I was young. But I looked ahead of me and there were some people who had done some tremendous things. I think, you know, if I'd gone in today, post 9/11, Chuck, I think it would have been more likely that I would have stayed in because it felt a little bit more integrated with society. You know, I was in from 1991 until 1997 in a pre-9/11 era where, I mean, I would come home from deployments and I had a friend asked me, “so this Navy thing is it is it full time?” You know, there's just as complete disconnect between the country and the military. And I felt really, really removed from everything else that was going on in society. So, I think after about three or four years in the military, I did crave to be more integrated into everything else. So, I don't think I thought too hard about staying in. And I was lucky enough, of course, to come back around and do a lot more with the military, but at the time, I was pretty excited about doing something new and I was excited about going back to school in a way that probably hadn't taken school so seriously before that.
Rosenberg: So, why Harvard Law School, Mike, other than that they accepted you?
Leiter: You know, why Harvard? I really did want to get back to the northeast after--I love the West Coast. I thought I would end up back in in Washington State and Seattle when I was done, I didn't, but I missed the East Coast a little bit and Harvard offered me something that was hard to find. It was in a city that I wanted to be in, but it's also a big community. And I knew I was going to be significantly older than most of the law students. And I was worried if I was at a small place, there would just be that many fewer people who had a little bit of life experience. And ultimately, I mean, I, I know, there is absolutely no better place for me to go.
Rosenberg: You really can't. I started law school when I was 27, and surprised me in my small section group of 30. I was the third oldest person.
Leiter: Yeah, I think I was not the oldest, but I was certainly in the top 5%. And the other piece for me that you'll appreciate: in my class at Harvard, so it's 500 plus students, there were four of us who are veterans. And if you look at it now, I mean, it's literally 10 times that, it's 40 to 50 in a class. So being older and being a veteran was just a huge outlier in school, but in many ways that I think it probably gave me a competitive advantage. But it was odd simply being there with 22 year olds who had gone straight through from college. It was a really different life experience.
Rosenberg: Well you did well there, Mike, and if I can brag on your behalf, you were elected as the 113th, President of the Harvard Law Review, a very prestigious job at a very prestigious law school. So, and don't take this the wrong way, how did that happen?
Leiter: So, I don't mean to sound too self-deprecating, but a little bit of accident and a little bit of, I was so much older and more experienced that people thought, “Oh, he can't be too much of a knucklehead.” You know, I did quite well academically in my first year. I thank the Navy for that. You know, I'd had a real job for six years, I came to law school and I treated law school like a job and I'd get up in the morning and I exercise and I go study and then I go to my class and I’d study at the end of the day, and that would be it. And I think for people who had gone straight through from college, that was much harder to keep up. So, I, I performed very well academically my first year, not that I expected to, which got me on Law Review. There were so many brilliant people there. There are many, many people that are much, much smarter than I am. And I don't, again, don't mean that to be self-deprecating--some really brilliant colleagues on the larger view and beyond the Law Review. But I do think I approached law school and Law Review with a healthy attitude towards what was important and maybe what was not quite as important. And law review is a place that can become really caught up in the minutiae that seems incredibly important. And I think people probably appreciated that I wasn't quite as worried about which judge I was going to go clerk for and exactly what footnote 17 should look like, nor did I care that much about some articles we took or didn't take. I kind of realized that we were just a bunch Have law students who had this incredible privilege and honor and do as well as you can on it. But this is not the end all and Beall. So, I think that probably won a few votes.
Rosenberg: And you mentioned clerking, Mike and you actually ended up clerking for two judges or I should say, one judge and one justice, both of whom went to Harvard Law School, and both of whom were on the Harvard Law Review.
Leiter: Not a coincidence, I'm sure. And also, you know, especially, it should always be important, but in the era of what I view is entirely appropriate, and overdue protests about systemic racism, it is so important to remember how some of these careers are made. And they are made by opportunities and mentors, which is great, but we have to make sure those opportunities and mentors don't just go to people who look like the previous generation. And I'm so appreciative to both Judge Michael Boudin and Justice Stephen Breyer, who selected me. And I'd like to think they selected me because I was the best candidate and I offered things others didn't. But it is also undoubtedly true that they looked and said, “Ah, all the people from the Harvard Law Review are the best people and that's what I'm going to hire.” And it turns out that I'm sure there are many, many equally qualified people who aren't on the Harvard Law Review, or from other law schools and other law reviews, so I was really lucky to have that leg up. And I think in both cases, they also liked that I had some life experience, which has become more common for clerking but at the time, really, no one had work experience and I was so lucky, Chuck to have real, in both cases, absolutely brilliant mentors, who taught me both the basics and the advanced. And I'm a completely different person than they are but I have such un--, you know, untold respect for both of them for being amazing epitomes the best of the federal judiciary.
Rosenberg: Michael Boudin, the judge for whom you first clerked was on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and then, of course, Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the person for whom you clerked, second, do both remain friends and mentors?
Leiter: They do I stay in touch with both. I often repeat to my associates some of the lessons that they both taught me. For example, I walked in--Judge Boudin asked me to come in after I draft first opinion for him. And I was I'm sure I walked in thinking, ah, he loved it, it was fantastic. And he turned to me and he said, “Mike, let's start with what the law actually says.” I realized that I know--he just went back to basics in a way that it was so easy to get caught up in be a pretentious post Harvard Law Review president and forget. So, they have both been involved in teaching me both how to be a lawyer, but how to also think about broader policy issues. Justice Breyer and I keep up. He's continued to inspired me and how he's approached the law, but how he also thinks more broadly about very, very difficult public policy issues. And that's obviously his background coming from the Senate, worked for Senator Kennedy. I just think that clerking is a great honor and such a fantastic experience for young lawyers.
Rosenberg: Justice Breyer has such an interesting perspective on the role of the court, not just in the law, but international norms, and in, sort of, establishing process and priority.
Leiter: Yeah, both of the judges Justice Bryer Judge Boudin were amazing, because we draft things for them. And what we'd get back as clerks I used to joke I still joke I guess, that when I gave something to Justice Breyer, I knew I would get two words of the opinion right and, hoped to get three, because every opinion starts with Justice Breyer. And I always hope to at least know where he was going to land. But every other word, despite the fact that we worked hours and hours on it, every other word was written by both judges. And the amount of time that they spent digging into both high-profile issues, but also the arcane issues that no one thinks about, about statutory interpretation. I often tell people when they visit Washington, please if you have any doubts about how the US government works, go and watch a Supreme Court argument. Because nowhere else do have nine very smart people, not getting caught up in the headlines of the day, not getting caught up in all the politics and partisanship, but really just struggling with legitimately difficult challenges. And I was so happy to see that and really, to play a tiny, tiny role in it.
Rosenberg: Does the Supreme Court strike you as a collegial place, not just for clerks, but for the justices, regardless of which President appointed them, or in your case, which justice hired you?
Leiter: I showed up at what I think was probably one of the least collegial moments in recent Supreme Court history, which was the term after Bush v. Gore.
Rosenberg: Remind us with Bush v. Gore was.
Leiter: The presidential election in 2000 was extremely tight, it was ultimately coming down to counting votes in Florida. There were a series of major judicial challenges regarding which ballots should be counted and hanging chads and which were legitimate votes and for whom, and again, it came down to just a few hundred votes. And as the vote recount was occurring, ultimately, the parties appealed to the Supreme Court. And the supreme court at that point, now in 2001, put a halt to the recount in Florida, which the result of that was the election of George W. Bush as President. So, as a clerk for Justice Breyer, beginning in 2001, we had a very, very eventful year. And the first event was simply showing up post Bush v. Gore. And fundamentally, the conservative clerks and the liberal clerks were barely speaking to each other, they sat on different sides of the cafeteria, they stopped doing happy hours that are traditional on Thursday evenings amongst clerks. And this isn't a big bunch, this is 35 people. And, you know, you've split between two camps. And we arrived as a new clerkship class, and we sort of swore to ourselves that we would not let that happen, that even if we all--we knew we would come out on different sides of different issues, that we wouldn't allow that splintering to happen. And I'm very, very happy to say we didn't, and our clerkship year was amazingly collegial, and we continue every five years to have not just reunions with justice Breyer, but every five years, our year of clerks, appointed by Republicans and Democrats, we still get together and I have clerks. One of our co clerks is Naomi Rao, who is now on the DC Court of Appeals. I have other co clerks who were appointed by President Obama as judges on the federal bench. And I think we have all taken joy in seeing our group succeed. And I think we viewed that independent of any partisan lens. And at least when we were there, I think the justices were amazingly collegial and, you know, Justice Breyer, my--I said this at a reunion recently for him, nothing inspired me more about justice prior than his optimism. And he would come back often being on the on the dissenting side of a five to four opinion, and us clerks would get cranky and say, “Oh, God, why did it come out this way?” And Justice Breyer would never miss a beat say, “It's okay. Next time we have to convince them.” And he never lost his optimism to try to convince the other side that we had the better of the argument, again, even in a very political time. I think there's a real effort by all sides to make sure that the court did not become a politicized place.
Rosenberg: Mike, when you left the court, you actually became a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. You did that for three and a half, four years. Did you enjoy that work?
Leiter: I enjoyed it, but I never had remotely, remotely the success or acumen that you did, Chuck. And I say that quite seriously. I was a young prosecutor. It was immediately after 9/11, I was at the Supreme Court on 9/11, and that was an experience, but I didn't want to go work at a law firm at the time. I didn't care about a clerkship bonus. I really wanted to get into public service. And I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to, I wanted to be a prosecutor for quite some time. So, I really like being in an AUSA, if for no other reason day one of the job, I had an office and everybody from the organized crime and drug unit that I was in, came and gave me about five of their worst cases that they didn't want to deal with anymore. They dumped them on my desk. They said “have fun being an assistant US Attorney.”
Rosenberg: I mean, if it makes you feel any better, Mike, my first year was much like that. But it was a job I grew to love.
Leiter: Yeah. Well, you did it so much longer than I did. And I think in many ways, I wish I had done it longer because at best, I became a decent apprentice, and I think I was alright at helping--working with agents to run investigation. That came a little bit more naturally, but I had never been in a courtroom before and you're suddenly standing in front of a federal judge and you're making an argument. And I remember my first trial with a mentor of mine who you know, Jim Trump. Jim was my supervisor and he sat next to me my first trial and I learned evidence because Jim kept kicking me under the table and whispering: “object.” And I'd never really understood it when I got taught evidence at Harvard Law School by a visiting Yale Law professor who I'm quite sure had never been in a courtroom either. And I now understand the rules of evidence because Jim Trump kicked me, elbowed me, and taught it to me in the course of a federal trial, and there's no better way to learn it, but it's it doesn't lack stress.
Rosenberg: I think Jim Trump has taught generations of federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, the rules of evidence and so much more as a gift to that office.,
Leiter: You epitomize this too, but in an era where so much has become politicized, when, when people rail against civil servants and the deep state, those pejorative terms are being aimed at a guy like Jim Trump. Jim Trump could have gone and been a successful trial lawyer at any big firm and made plenty of money. And what Jim has done is the most honorable of tasks, which is serve the United States in courtrooms for decades, taught young lawyers, pursued justice with no partisanship whatsoever in an honorable way. So, it just drives me crazy when I hear some of the derogatory phrases that are thrown around. Because, you know, it makes it that much harder to recruit and retain the next Jim Trump.
Rosenberg: That's always been one of the goals of this podcast, Mike, to introduce our listeners who are very, very smart to men and women they may never have heard of who do things that they may never have imagined, and to show that people serve honorably and well, in nonpartisan ways, all around the world.
Leiter: Yeah, I mean, another of our office mates that, you know, well and has had his name in the news Dana Boente, who was Acting Deputy Attorney General, the FBI General Counsel till June of 2020. And Dana got up every morning, went for his five-mile run, and then came to that office and prosecuted white collar fraud cases for 30 or 40 years, longer than I think anyone in that office, and in the most principled of ways,
Rosenberg: Right. And Dana and Jim are just two examples. There are people like them all over the country.
Leiter: Agreed. So, I was a short timer, but I had a great time. And I had a great time doing investigations. I mean, it's just so much fun working with agents and, and it's fun finding things when you think they're not going to be much and somebody dumps the dog of a case on your desk. And it turns out, it really wasn't a dog. You just had to find the needle in a haystack. I had a couple of those. And that just felt great to get it past the easy piece of the prosecution and find the people who were really behind something and doing legitimately bad things.
Rosenberg: Well, Mike, I disagree that you were an apprentice. You have an amazing reputation in that office even today, but you left in 2005. And you went to work on the WMD commission. I was hoping you would tell us what that was and what you did there.
Leiter: Sure. I was very happy being in an AUSA, Assistant US Attorney, although I left the Department of Justice in 2005. I actually got a call in 2004 from one of the mentors, we talked about Justice Stephen Breyer. And it turns out that if a justice calls you and suggests you do something, my recommendation is you do. And he called up and he said, “Mike, they're putting together a commission to investigate why the US intelligence community wrongly assessed there to be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” before the invasion in 2002. Justice Breyer said to me, “I'd like you to go talk to former senator and Governor Chuck Robb, and Judge Larry Silberman who are running this commission for the president, and talked to them.” I said, “okay, well, sounds like an interesting opportunity.” And I went over and I walked in and I spoke to both Judge Silberman and Senator Robb, and we finished up after about an hour and I think they were intrigued by my time as a prosecutor, they were intrigued by my time in the military, because, as I mentioned before, there weren't that many of us coming out of Harvard Law School and clerking the Supreme Court who had been in the military. And at the end of my hour or so talk, Larry Silberman, the judge said, “Okay, so can you start on Monday?” And I said, “Well, can I ask my wife?” And he said, “Well, you can ask her, but that wasn't the question I asked you. Can you start on Monday?” and that was it. And, you know, four days later, I was detailed from the Department of Justice to this commission, and I was along with my counterpart, Brett Gary, who is now the general counsel at Boeing. Brett and I were employees number one in two It was a fascinating experience. There were nine commissioners, bipartisan commissioners chaired again by Senator Robb and Judge Silberman. And some really wonderful, amazing people, some that the public know, senator John Mccain was a commissioner, others whose names aren't quite as familiar but are just such public servants and brilliant. Richard Levin, the former president of Yale, Chuck Vest, one of the most amazing men I've ever met. It was a former president of MIT and American Academy of Engineering Judge Patricia Wald from the DC circuit, who wonderful Carter appointee who, by the way, teamed up with a republican Senator John Mccain to write what I thought was one of the most powerful paragraphs in that report about torture and the misuse of torture. And this commission, again, the job was really twofold. One, figure out what had happened with intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, why they weren't there when we thought they were, and then also make recommendations about how the intelligence community could be improved in light of what were clearly very, very significant failures. So, I thought of it as kind of an 18 month experience of, of getting a PhD in the intelligence community and allowed me to interact with an amazing group of commissioners and staff, and an amazing group of witnesses. And again, a little bit of being there and figuring out what happened during a key moment in history in interviews with George Tenet and Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and so many others, it was a fascinating experience.
Rosenberg: Well, broadly speaking, Mike, what happened, what went wrong? I understand intelligence is part art and part science, but what went wrong? What did you find as a member of that commission?
Leiter: So, one thing we didn't find in history, some people mistake this, one thing we absolutely did not find was inappropriate political pressure to say, tell us that there are weapons of mass destruction. Now, saying that there were weapons of mass destruction did align quite well with the political desires of some in the Bush administration. That is undoubtedly true. But it was not causation, correlation, but not causation. And what we found about what went wrong was the intelligence community--some of it was just a very hard problem, they got some things wrong--but in other ways, it was just a lot of sloppy work. And it was also an expectation that Saddam Hussein would act in a certain way. And we didn't really have any intelligence one way or another to tell us otherwise. So, we assumed that he would develop weapons of mass destruction because he said he would. And if we found any intelligence that supported that view, that intelligence became truthful and important. And if we found any intelligence that said, “No, there's nothing here. We assume That those people were largely fabricators.” So, we allowed ourselves to be pulled in by bad intelligence, whether it was about mobile, biological weapons vans or decontamination vehicles. And we saw the evidence that we wanted to see. And ultimately, that evidence that intelligence wasn't effectively challenged. And in part, it was not challenged because it fit again, a preexisting desire from some in the political realm. So, the performance was really bad, the intelligence community was quite scattered, it was not well coordinated, but that is very, very different from nefariously conspiring to lie about weapons of mass destruction. And that is not something that we found in the least
Rosenberg: In a recent Washington Post editorial, Mike, you wrote, with two colleagues, that intelligence, by definition, is almost always imperfect and in countless ways, and that as members of the intelligence community, and you certainly became one, you had an easier job when briefing a president, for instance, about intelligence, you only had to present the intelligence, the President, of course, had to find a way to tackle the uncertainty that you presented to him.
Leiter: People always say, “Oh, my God, how did you deal with this? You had all these big decisions.” We just had to be straight shooters in the intelligence community. We had to find what we could find. We had to try to find more. And yeah, we had some difficult calls about whether or not if it was terrorism, whether a threat was real, whether a source in Yemen or Germany was telling the truth, then try to prioritize that, so, it wasn't easy. But exactly as you say, ultimately, we could just walk into the Oval Office and say, “Mr. President, this is the best we got.” And the President and other advisors had say, okay, now that we have this imperfect story--because it always was imperfect, always, no hard question and intelligence and national security is certainly and only the Monday morning quarterbacks ever say it is or think it was--but when we gave that imperfect information to the President, the President again had to make those hard decisions. Am I going to order a strike? Military strike? Am I going to go arrest someone? Am I going to threaten an ally? Am I going to, you know, use some element of national power? And once he did that, he can't take it back. We're giving him words and there's risk and collecting intelligence, you know, intelligence operators. Now, analysts have very hard jobs. But ultimately, we knew there was uncertainty and I firmly believe that to sort of dismiss intelligence because it's uncertain or uncorroborated completely misses the nature of both intelligence and principal leadership and decision making,
Rosenberg: Say a bit more because I thought your article was a terrific one. I will make sure we have a link to it in our show notes, so our, our listeners can find it and read it. But that notion of uncertainty being a constant--that happens all the time except in Hollywood.
Leiter: Yeah, well. Thanks for the nice comments. And I also want to thank my co-authors, two more great Americans, Mike Hayden, retired Air Force general director of CIA and NSA, again, independent guy, and Robert Cardillo, the head of a lesser known Intelligence Agency, the National geospatial intelligence agency, with whom I co-author. But it is uncertain and actually, I think that in many ways, it's only in the political immediate discourse that is sometimes lost that uncertainty is inherent in all our decision making. So, it's not just intelligence in the president. I remember in the midst of one of you know, my greatest failings in government, when we did not detect someone who was known as the “underwear bomber,” “the Christmas Day bomber,” who was coming from Yemen and had a bomb in his trousers and tried to blow up an airplane of landing in Detroit. And we, we failed because we didn't locate him, we didn't keep him from getting on the plane. After a few weeks of really being excoriated somewhat appropriately, I had a friend who works in pharmaceuticals, and she turned to me and she said, “Mike, did these people who say, of course, you should have found this one, realize how many people we hurt when a drug test is successful. There's no certainty in intelligence, there's no certainty in science, there's no certainty in business. And the reason that leadership exists is not to wait until they have the perfect picture and then make a decision for economic interests or health or for, or for national security. It's because you think they have good judgment and they're going to see this uncertainty, but they're going to weigh the pros and cons in a systematic way. And it's not just they use their gut, so they use their intellect and then combined Now with their instincts to make the best decisions.” So, I find it, again, deeply misunderstanding of any sort of major decision to not appreciate that uncertainty is inherent. And if one waits for certainty, especially in national security, but other fields as well, it will be too late, you will have lost the opportunity to counter the threat, to improve us standing to improve US national security, because everyone will see you moving slowly waiting for perfect information, and they will take advantage of that vacuum.
Rosenberg: In fact, I remember Jim Comey saying that hindsight isn't actually 20/20. Because 20/20 still implies some limitation on your vision. Hindsight is actually perfect. And we don't have the benefit of that when we're making decisions with uncertain information.
Leiter: It's so right, that whole phrase that came out of 9/11: “connect the dots.” We have to connect the dots, which is, of course, true and it's a good, offhanded way of describing the intelligence function, but what it misses is you can connect the dots in 1000 different ways. You don't know what the ultimate picture is that you're trying to draw until after the fact. And you know, if there was one thing that I pray and beg leaders in government, especially the Congress, to continue to pursue, is, of course, we have to have oversight, of course, we have to improve after both successes and failures in every field in government. That's lessons learned, that's improving the system. But that doesn't necessarily translate, it doesn't need to translate to Monday morning quarterbacking and loads some criticism and personal attacks, that of course, you should have known, or of course you are motivated by political interests. We can't start with our conclusion and then align the facts after an incident to match those conclusions, that's deeply dishonest, and I think it's deeply destructive of the spirit of true public service.
Rosenberg: But Mike, the faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, you were described as sloppy, which is different than uncertain. Can you make that distinction?
Leiter: I think you can. There's no doubt that the intelligence was uncertain, but also, in some ways, quite sloppy. I'll give you two quick examples. At the time, it was very famous, we looked at aluminum tubes that were, in theory, being used for centrifuges to enrich uranium by the Iraqis and the Iraqis were buying these very, very high performance, quite expensive aluminum tubes and the US intelligence community, some of, it at least, concluded that there was no way they would spend this much money on this silly aluminum unless they were using it to enrich uranium for nuclear device. It turned out to be completely false. They were using them for mortar tubes, standard conventional weapon, and the sloppiness was, as one part of the intelligence community wrote, that no one would ever use this for anything but centrifuges. You know who would previously use the exact same aluminum for mortar tubes? The United States of America. We had done the exact same thing, but these analysts who were looking at it weren't connected with the analysts who actually understood how this was previously used. To me, that is a combination of sloppiness and a breakdown in the system and the coordination among organizations. So, yes, it was uncertain, but we, in fact, in that case, made it more certain than it actually was. We concluded with certainty that this is what they meant when we should have gone in with uncertainty about what the intelligence showed. There was a lot of intelligence about the testing of biological weapons. At one point, there were some very good geospatial intelligence, which showed trucks spraying down an area, and the intelligence community concluded that this was not only decontamination vehicles, but also that the, the frequency of them doing this decontamination was increasing, roughly doubling. And that was a sign that Saddam Hussein was increasing biological weapons testing and development. And it sort of hit me during the meeting, as they said, “Yes. You know, we saw roughly a two-fold increase.” We had just been talking about how the President had rightfully ordered and the director of the CIA at the time had ordered more collection on these issues, because these were national priorities, figure out about weapons of mass destruction. So, I sort of raised my hand from the back and said, “So you said you saw about a two-fold increase? Do you have any idea how often the satellite was going overhead and taking pictures of this site?” And everyone got kind of quiet, and of course, they came back later and said, “Yes, during that same period, we were increasing collection by roughly two.” So that was just sloppy. We weren't increasing the number of trucks that we're doing decontamination, they were just taking more pictures. So, we saw it more often. And by the way, it also turned out that they weren't doing decontamination. These are just water trucks and they were spraying down the dirt and sand during a period where otherwise it would produce sandstorms. So, I don't mean to aim at any one individual. I don't think generally these are failings of an individual. Sometimes they are, but in more cases in the US government, they are failures of systems. And they are failures of to some extent imagination, but they're often failures of rigorous thought and analysis.
Rosenberg: And even to your earlier point, if you eliminated all of the sloppiness, you would still be left with a degree of uncertainty.
Leiter: Absolutely. And it might still make sense for the president united states to say, post 9/11, “I cannot live with that degree of uncertainty. I do not think it is worth being uncertain. I understand the risks of invading Iraq. But I believe it is still the right course.” And that's, and that's why the President ultimately is the president. That's why he's an elected official. That isn't a decision that the intelligence committee should make, not a decision of the Secretary of Defense should make, it's a decision that a president has to sit there, deliberate, you hope do it in a thoughtful, meaningful way and make that decision and then you have to live with the consequences as a country.
Rosenberg: Speaking of presidents and intelligence agencies, in 2007, President George W. Bush appointed you to run something called the National Counterterrorism Center, you served as its director for four years, extending into President Obama's first term. What is the National Counterterrorism Center?
Leiter: Post 9/11, there were a number of developments in government around Homeland Security and terrorism. The one that people know most of all, is of course, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and TSA at airports and the Customs and Border Protection and all those pieces. And the idea behind the NCTC was pre-9/11, the CIA looked at foreign intelligence, the FBI looked at domestic intelligence, the Department of Defense looked at military intelligence, and nowhere in the US government did all of that intelligence come together on topics of terrorism. So, one group of people could see it all. They could understand that if they saw something in Yemen, it might relate to something in Philadelphia. And if someone tried to travel from Asia to the United States, there was no one who coordinated the watch list to make sure all of that was well coordinated. And that was clearly one of the failings behind the 9/11 attack. So, the National Counterterrorism Center, NCTC, was designed to fix that. So, I was very lucky to run it. When I finished up, it was about 1200 officers. And one of the great things about the organization was that I had officers from everywhere. I had CIA officers, officers from the National Security Agency from the FBI, from Homeland Security, from every military service from Special Forces, I had a fireman from Seattle, I police officers from Chicago and Boston in New York. And all of those people came together and sat side by side and along with them, all of the information from their agencies came together side by side. So, in fact, we could, when we saw a threat from Pakistan, figure out, was there some connection to a plot here in the United States. And like any organization in government, it had its shortcomings. But I think overall, it has been viewed, especially in those years, sort of, immediately after 9/11 through, you know, the death of bin Laden, as one of the really most successful developments in bringing people together to serve a common mission. And the last piece, I'll say, Chuck, is the public doesn't realize how little in the US government is actually organized around a mission. And what I mean by that, a mission is counterterrorism. Most of the government is organized around a department or an agency and their functions and that might be Health and Human Services, it might be the Department of Justice, but you do all sorts of things at the Department of Justice: anti-trust and criminal prosecutions and civil rights. And the National Counterterrorism Center is really one of the very, very few examples, which is designed around a very singular mission. And I think we proved that in certain cases that works especially well.
Rosenberg: When you bring together all these disparate agencies. You know, a firefighter from Seattle and a police officer from Chicago, sitting next to the NSA and the FBI and the CIA, how easily and how eagerly do they share information with one another?
Leiter: It usually takes a little bit of time, and they often look at each other, either with deep distrust which we often saw between the CIA and the FBI, or just quizzical confusion. Why do I have a firefighter from Seattle here? And then, inevitably, as they start to work together--they would usually be with us for somewhere between one and three years--as they start to work together, they start to feed off of that different perspective. And suddenly the people who are writing very professional, polished analytic products that are going to the President and the PDB, about explosives when the firefighter from Seattle says, “Well, that's interesting, but if I walked into a house, I'd have no idea what I should even be looking for, to know about how you make this bomb,” they suddenly see this opportunity to inform a whole other population who's involved in this all elements of power fight against terrorism, and they have insights that are fantastic. A small example of this: when I arrived at the National Counterterrorism Center every Friday, my predecessor, a great man, Vice Admiral Scott Redd, he used to do the most sensitive intelligence on Friday afternoons and there'd be about five of us in the room. The two of us are head of intelligence. And then two officers from CIA who would tell us the most secret secrets the CIA had on terrorism. And that was really useful. But more and more, I realized I was just getting one small pinprick of the view. By the time I left, every Friday afternoon, we would do the director's brief on threats and issues. And it grew to a group of about, I think the most we've ever had in the room was 82 people. And we didn't talk about the most sensitive stuff, but we talked about all the cases we're tracking that we thought were most important. And one of the things I really encourage was, even if you're not working on this, I want you to listen. And at the end, I'm going to say, “does anybody have any ideas? Should we be doing more things? What do you think's actually happening?” And without fail, without fail, every day, somebody who had nothing to do with that matter before said something that made everyone go, “Oh, that's a good idea.” And NCTC, we tried to embody that. Realizing, of course, people have specialties, but those specialties can be applied even more effectively if you have a few different perspectives, it was a great fun experience to get to help build something new in government and shape it because it's not something is, you know, it's not something we do all that often in government. We normally have what we have, and you're stuck with what you've got
Rosenberg: That cross pollination you describe is so important to the health of an organization, but it's also difficult, particularly in hierarchical organizations, vertical organizations, to get people to speak up. How did you do that?
Leiter: So, I certainly agree. And even within the intelligence community, we would see that there were certain organizations that were less hierarchical, frankly, the CIA is not a very hierarchical organization, and they were quite used to saying to the director, first of all, they called the director usually by his first name, they'd say, “Now, Mike dadada” that's a bad idea.” And often, military intelligence organizations were much more hierarchical and sometimes got challenged leadership. The way I tried to do it--in a way it was easy for me, Chuck, because I came in and I was, back then, I was still sort of a young buck. I started running NCTC in 2007, so I was 38 years old. So, every one of my deputies is at least 10 or 15 years older than I was, if not more, and I, I embraced that. I said, “Guys, I know less than you do. I might be good at certain things. You're better at certain things than I am. But we're going to work through this together. And we're going to try to figure it out together.” And I had a strong view and I tried to express it that there are people who can contribute no matter what. And I tried to do with humor. I was a poor government bureaucrat, so the only thing I could do is I tried to insert a little humor to keep people involved. So, during those 80 person briefings every week I would give out a $20 movie gift card to the person who was able to weave in to their brief, the best quote from a movie. You know, when you've got a bunch of 25 to 45 year olds who are spending their days trying to identify the people in the world who are seeking to kill Americans, that's a heavy burden, so a little bit of levity to get people, not to have fun, there's nothing fun about this, but to appreciate that they're appreciated, I think was great. Other mentors of mine, who had done this well, and especially post 9/11, the Special Forces community really reduced its hierarchy. It flattened the organization to make sure that the troops on the ground we're speaking back to the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. And I saw first Stan McChrystal, and then Bill Mcraven build that. And I thought that's, that's what we should aim to be. Of course, we have bosses and reviewers. But we, in the US government, can always do with some flattening of the organization, to make sure that voices are being effectively heard. You know what was the best thing about those $20 gift cards? I used to walk around and kind of, you know, just walk through the spaces and talk to the analysts. And I saw countless times, somebody had their movie gift card, and their little cubicle pinned up on the wall. And they never even used it, so, they had gotten it. And, you know, that made me really happy. I'm sure my process was not perfect. I'm sure there were some people who didn't like it, but I knew for some, you know, that they were recognized, it didn't matter a lick what the recognition was, it is that they were recognized.
Rosenberg: But it's also an effort. And this is really important to flatten the hill, right? So, you're the director of this big, important organization, and you're trying to get people to open up to you. And by flattening the hill, they're more likely to do that. And if they're more likely to do that, you're more likely to have good ideas and good suggestions and that cross pollination we referred to earlier.
Leiter: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I mean, every Tuesday, we would reach the President on all the most significant threats. And every Tuesday, as soon as I was done, I'd come back and we’d get everybody in, you know, fancy NCTC conference room. And I debrief, and I might not tell them every single word because there were certain things that were sensitive with the president, the President had said, but I wanted to give them feedback. I want them both to improve it next time. And also, I may have failed something up and they'd correct me it was really important. And I don't want to make this about a generational piece entirely, but I do think that the workforce that I had, which tended to be a younger workforce, that people would come in post 9/11, they had certain expectations of that they were entirely reasonable expectations that they didn't necessarily just want to do 40 years in the same job moving from a GS7, five years later, do GS8, and I couldn't change all that, but I could give them the opportunity to be a part of the organization from top to bottom and a way that other organizations from which they came maybe weren't isn't, weren't as likely to do because they were a little bit more calcified. So, to me, that was not just to help the organization and perform better, but it was also, it was a recruiting tool, they come to NCTC, you'll have this opportunity in a way that you might not elsewhere.
Rosenberg: I presume you brief both President Bush and President Obama.
Leiter: I did. We did it a little bit differently, but it was basically at least once a week for four years. President Bush we always did in the mornings in the Oval Office. It was a relatively small group. It was President, Vice President, national security adviser, Chief of Staff, Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, Director of the FBI, and the Homeland Security Advisor, and that was it. We did the Oval Office and you're in very in depth sessions for usually an hour an hour plus. President Obama did a little bit differently. It was actually a larger group in the Situation Room, also happened to be on Tuesday afternoons. Both of them had their pros and cons. And we'll always remember the first time we walk in the Oval Office. It is a, it is a daunting experience. And basically, just saying yourself, don't foul it up, don't foul it up, don't do anything stupid. You sort of feel like Homer Simpson or something.
Rosenberg: Now, we should point out President Obama when he was a student at Harvard Law School, was also the president of the Harvard Law Review, the same job that you held. And there's a charming story about him learning that you had also been president of Harvard Law Review.
Leiter: It is true, also a Columbia College graduate, so we had a couple of things in common and the first time I briefed him he was then Senator Obama's still running and as you know, Chuck, when the Democrat and Republican Party select their nominees, they begin to get intelligence briefings so they can It'll get up to speed on major national security issues. So, the first time I briefed President Obama, who was actually Senator Obama, we went to Chicago and briefed him and I briefed him with Bob Mueller, then the director of the FBI, and Mike Hayden, and each of us took a piece of the counterterrorism puzzle, and we briefed it. The second time I briefed him, he was then President Elect Obama, is then national security adviser and became both a close friend and his chief of staff, Denis McDonough. As we left, Dennis, sort of embarrassing to me said, you know, “Mr. President Elect, Mike here, who's president, Harvard Law Review,” and President Obama sort of looked at me, like, “why,” and he said, “What the hell are you doing here? Why he briefing me on terrorism?” So, these are the, the small moments, but President was very gracious about it. And I'm not sure he ever fully understood how another president of the Harvard Law Review was his counterterrorism guy, but I was lucky he decided to, to keep me on board. Can I tell one story about that, Chuck?
Leiter: One of my favorites. So, President Obama has been elected. We're still obviously briefing President Bush every Tuesday from November until January, and quite regularly President Bush was asking his chief of staff Josh Bolton, you know, “So Josh, have they talked to you about who they're going to keep on?” “No, Mr. President, they're still working on it.” And the President Bush and Josh Bolton both made clear that they had recommended to President Obama that he keep me on. So, one time, President Bush asked this, said “no, still, still no word, Mr. President,” and President Bush turned to me, he said, “Mike, is it because you're a republican?” And I sort of embarrassingly said, “well, actually, Mr. President, I'm not a Republican,” and he sort of put his glasses down on his nose and said, “You did vote for me, didn’t you?” and I sheepishly said “Mr. President, does it help that I voted for your father?” And he started laughing, but I love that moment because it just shows that President George W. Bush actually had a fabulous sense of humor. But also, nobody ever asked me if I was a Republican. No one cared. I came in every day, I briefed on terrorism, I, you know, was aligned with the President on what we were doing there. And that's all that mattered.
Rosenberg: There's a great story and these are not partisan jobs. And unfortunately, I think today we see much too much through a partisan lens, which is, I think destructive.
Leiter: Without a doubt, obviously, there are problems on all sides. But I think American people, whether it is COVID, or threats from terrorism, or threats from Russia, none of those parties care about whether it is Democratic or Republican people that they harm, Democratic or Republican ideals that they harm. They are all either passive acts of nature, or they are active perpetrations of attacks on American interests. And we'd all be much better off if we approached the world with a little less partisanship and a little bit more steely eyed, uniform national resolve.
Rosenberg: You gave a speech when you were the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and made a lot of really important points. And I want to focus on one, that counterterrorism work requires a great deal of public trust. And that transparency, which is very important, can be at odds with that work. Can you explain that a little bit more?
Leiter: Our society, our government, every aspect of us civil society, is premised on transparency to a very great extent. When the whole premise of the Constitution is based on this idea that you will have largely transparency through elections, through the people seeing what decisions their members of Congress or members of the executive branch make, transparency in judicial process, so the people can then make decisions about how they want to be governed. And in basically every part of our government today, there are other requirements for transparency. So, if the Department of Transportation, first of all, we have public lawmaking, we have sea span covers it, there's a public record of every statement in Congress, a law is passed, there's public debate, then the department transportation, for example, passes a regulation, there's what's known as “notice and comment” where they release it, and people can say, no, this is good, this is bad, it's adopted. And if people are hurt by it, when they do, they sue, they go to a court, court is open. All the evidence in almost every case is open and public. And if they still don't like that outcome, you can go to Congress and try to get the law change and you have public hearings and all of that and we think of transparency as the great disinfectant to avoid bad choices and corruption and all those pieces. Intelligence and national security, throw a real curveball there because by definition, when you're trying to secretly collect information about people who are secretly trying to harm the United States or our allies, that stuff has to be a little secret. And if every time you wanted to go collect information about al Qaeda, you had to show up in a public courtroom and say, “Your Honor, my name is Michael Leiter, I swear, my hand is up. And here, I'm very interested in this individual who's a member of al Qaeda, we think he's planning an attack,” it would be pretty darn easy for Al Qaeda to avoid every effort, we had to defend the country. So, we know that there has to be a degree of secrecy in these matters. And the question is when we will rely on transparency for faith and trust of the American people and say, “Yes, I like this. How can you propagate that same sense of faith and trust and support and the government when you don't have that transparency,” and the fact is, in my view, we've really struggled with that post 9/11. And we've continued to struggle with it. It continues to be a problem. We erected some elements to try to provide trust through proxies fundamentally, largely post-Watergate. And they haven't worked anymore. They don't work very well anymore. We have select committees within the House and the Senate, but much of their work is secret. And I don't think most Americans say “Oh, don't worry the Senate in the house are on top that, they're going to do it a nonpartisan way.” We created a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the fisc, to review applications for counterintelligence and counterterrorism, a secret court non article three court to review this, and there are some greater transparency to that process, but quite limited, and people clearly don't trust it to include the current administration that has been very critical of the FISA court process in the context of the investigation of Russian and interference. So, we have these systems, and they're failing us. So, the question then becomes: how do we preserve the ability to do what must occur in secret, but still have the American people think this is both worthwhile, and it's being done correctly. And I think we're going to continue to struggle that. And part of it is also simply of growing distrust in government. That doesn't help. That's obviously the environment. But there are specific pieces here which I think have to be strengthened in order for people to have greater faith, and ultimately, support these missions.
Rosenberg: You know, having grown up within the system, I instinctively trust it. I mean, that's my bias. It doesn't make me right or wrong. But that's where I come out philosophically. It's painful for me to see that trust erode.
Leiter: So many good hearted, smart, thoughtful, civic minded people. They've seen abuses and whether it's real abuses or perceived abuses or frankly, made up abuses that are now amplified through very partisan and often one sided or misleading media lenses, it's hard to combat that. Because gosh, got my story about how we have transparency, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I mean, that, that's like bullet number six on a PowerPoint slide. It's not the title. And if the title is, “they're out to get you, and no one can be trusted,” well, that's what gets amplified. That's what grabs people. And it takes a while to explain what are legitimately complex problems and complex systems and how are you going to protect against the abuses? And how are you still going to accomplish the mission? It's so much easier for people to fall into the conspiratorial trap. And I'm not saying there's never a conspiracy, but my experience and the vast majority of the time, it's not conspiracy, it's incompetence, it's sloppiness, it goes right back to our discussion of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Nobody was sitting there saying, “Let's tell them they've got biological weapons so we can go invade.” Were they doing a lot of dumb things that allow that to happen? Absolutely. And even through that experience, we still haven't really figured out in this country how to maintain security while also promoting the transparency and trust we need to preserve it.
Rosenberg: Which are not mutually exclusive. You can have both.
Leiter: I absolutely believe you can have both. Now, though, you can't have both if people who are responsible for the systems continue to undermine them and attack them in their own legitimacy. You can't have members of Congress say certain people hear the other side always are just a bunch of partisan hacks. If they say that, then enough people will believe them, that no one will trust when the outcome is real and serious. If you have members of the executive branch who are constantly attacking the FISA Court and the systems for oversight inspectors general then you can’t have trust because you will undoubtedly undermine the faith merely some segment of the population. So, the people who run these organizations have a sacred trust, both to create systems that work, and then, to encourage trust and faith in those systems.
Rosenberg: Are you an optimist, Mike?
Leiter: Absolutely. I learned it from Steve Breyer. If he could come back day after day, being on the short end of the five to four stick and say, “we just have to do a better job,” I'm absolutely an optimist. I think, I think that all these issues of public choice, public education, understanding these issues, are critical to getting us to a better place. And I think there are some things working against us. I think the media cycle and how people largely only review news that already conforms to their preexisting notions, I think that's a real challenge. It's no different, once again, from the intelligence getting it wrong on weapons of mass destruction. If what you're looking for and what you've concluded is that there are weapons, and you'll find the dots to connect to point to weapons. And if what you've decided is the case is everyone is corrupt and awful and conspiratorial, you will find the dots, whether or not they should be painting that picture, that paint that picture. I think we go through cycles as a country, this is probably not the best of periods for serious civil discourse, reflection, to say the very least, but we have been here before. And, Chuck, I wouldn't be on this program talking about any of this if I were a pessimist, so yes, I'm still optimistic.
Rosenberg: You know, Mike, you've served this country in so many ways as a firefighter, as an EMT, as a naval flight officer, as a clerk on the first circuit, and the Supreme Court as a federal prosecutor on the WMD Commission, and of course, as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, always with dignity and integrity and kindness and civility. I hope, whether or not you share my hope, that you serve again.
Leiter: Chuck, although the specific lines of work experience might be a little bit different, I would say the exact same thing to you. So, thank you for having me. Thank you for the wishes. And thank you for doing this.
Rosenberg: Thank you, Mike.
Leiter: Thanks, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Thanks to Mike Leiter for joining me on the Oath. Mike had an extraordinary pulic service career, from EMT to naval flight officer, from Supreme Court clerk to federal prosecutor, from the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission to the National Counterterrorism Center. Mike’s deep knowledge of the U.S. intelligence community and its work, its successes and its failures, are fascinating and timely.
If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a five-star rating on whatever app you use to listen and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, and every major listening app as well as msnbc.com/theoath. If you’re listening on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art of the podcast. You’ll find the episodes notes including some details you might have missed. If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at email@example.com, that’s all one word: firstname.lastname@example.org. And though I cannot personally respond to every email, please know that I read each one of them, and that I appreciate it.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. They are a wonderful team and I am really lucky to work with them. Olivia Cruiser provided excellent production support, as always, our associate producer is Allison Bailey. And Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.