Will Obama Fire Anyone Over Intel Failures?

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Updated 1:39 p.m. Eastern Time

According to White House national security adviser James Jones, Americans will feel "a certain shock" when they read a report being put forth this afternoon about the failures that allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian man to board a U.S.-bound airliner with an explosive device despite numerous warnings that he could pose a threat.

Indeed, President Obama said Tuesday that the intelligence community "had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt" it – yet did not do so because of "a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had."

In his daily briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "You'll see tomorrow that this is a failure that touches across the full waterfront of intelligence agencies."

The question for many in Washington has thus shifted from what allowed the attack to happen to what the fallout might be. The president has said he wants accountability, and CBS News chief Washington correspondent and "Face the Nation" anchor Bob Schieffer expects it: He predicted "a major shakeup" based on the president's claim that intelligence was not properly analyzed.

Gibbs was asked by several reporters Wednesday whether, if the failure so significant, the president would fire anyone. The press secretary said that he was not sure about the outcome of hiring and firing, adding that the president would focus on finding the holes and filling them.

It's likely that the shakeup, if and when it comes, will not involve some of the biggest names in the drama – among them director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Both Brennan and Napolitano have made statements that have generated criticism because they seemed to play down the lapses that led to the terror attempt. Brennan acknowledged "lapses" but said intelligence agencies did not miss a "smoking gun" that could have prevented the attempt, while Napolitano said "the system worked" shortly after the incident – though she insisted she was referring to what happened after the attempt.

Yet the White House has indicated it remains fully behind both officials, who are scheduled to brief reporters on their reviews of the lapses later today. In general, presidents don't like to fire top aides if they don't have to, in part because it doesn't reflect well on them.

"First of all, they are usually people the president likes and trusts or would not have put him or her in the administration in the first place," said CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. "Next, it makes the president look bad if he has to fire someone he hired. It raises questions about his judgment."

According to the conventional wisdom – which Mr. Obama may or may not follow – an ideal "fall guy" is a person who is high enough up the chain of command that holding him or her accountable seems like a serious move, but not so high up that forcing him out raises questions about the president's judgment in choosing his inner circle. That person would also have had to have done something that undermines the claim that they acted responsibly following a crisis.

As it turns out, that very person may exist: His name is Michael Leiter, and he is the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. According to the New York Daily News, Leiter elected to continue with a ski vacation after the bombing attempt instead of returning to his post at the National Counterterrorism Center.* (see update)

Leiter has been the director of the NCTC since 2007 – before the president was inaugurated – and his organization's mission is to coordinate intelligence against terror plots, exactly what the president said did not happen in the case of the Christmas bombing attempt. (Brennan, oddly enough, was the first head of the organization, which was founded after the Sept. 11 attacks.) And, as CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder reports, Leiter apparently has some enemies around Washington.

So far, Leiter has not made any public statements about how he spent his time after the bombing attempt.

In the Obama administration's first year, there have been two high-profile forced resignations. The first was former White House environmental adviser Van Jones, who signed a petition questioning whether the Bush administration had allowed the Sept. 11 attacks to happen and used a crude term to describe Republicans. The second was Louis Caldera, who stepped down as Director of the White House Military Office after an unannounced low-level flyover by one of the 747s that serve as Air Force One, followed by an F-16 warplane.

That's a group no one wants to join. But it looks like someone might have to – and Leiter, to his dismay, suddenly seems to be the leading candidate.

*Update, 1:39 p.m. ET: Leiter appears to be garnering some support: An intelligence official tells CBS News that Leiter was at the National Counterterrorism Center throughout the Christmas Day episode and "in constant secure communications" after December 25th.

The official would not go on the record on details of Leiter's travels after Christmas Day.

Denis McDonough, National Security Staff Chief of Staff, is also pushing back against the Daily News report. He says Leiter took his vacation sometime between the date of the bombing and today.

"Director 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 watchlisting, and briefing Members of Congress. 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. 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, which again did not affect in any way his ability to remain engaged with all elements of the United States Government."

Special Report: The Christmas Day Terror Attack