Senate confirms first female director of the US National Counterterrorism Center

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 9: Christine Abizaid, nominee to be Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill June 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the position on a permanent basis. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775664343 ORIG FILE ID: 1233359274
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 9: Christine Abizaid, nominee to be Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill June 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the position on a permanent basis. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775664343 ORIG FILE ID: 1233359274

The Senate has voted through the first confirmed female director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, officials announced Friday, giving the Biden administration another key player in the intensifying battle against enemies both foreign and domestic.

The confirmation of Christine S. Abizaid by a voice vote Thursday comes as the terrorist threat intensifies at home from domestic extremists and overseas as the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan has spurred the Taliban and al-Qaida affiliates to launch increasingly deadly attacks.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines praised Abizaid on Friday for her “leadership acumen, thoughtfulness, and an enterprising approach that will enable her to effectively steer the Intelligence Community’s work on these issues and lead the CT (counterterrorism) mission into the future.”

“Christy is well-known and respected in the counterterrorism community, and I can think of no one better to lead NCTC during this critical period,” said Haines, the first woman to oversee all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, in a statement given to USA Today.

Michael Leiter, the third NCTC director and one of the longest-serving, said Abizaid is well-suited to lead the agency during a time of such change and turbulence as it pivots to more of a focus on domestic terrorism.

“Christy is an ideal choice, not only because of her extensive background in both counterterrorism operations and policy, but because she is a dynamic leader who understands NCTC is at a key inflection point,” said Leiter, a former federal prosecutor who served during the Bush and Obama administrations from 2007 to 2001.

Background weighted to fighting terrorism overseas

Abizaid comes to the position with a background that is more heavily weighted toward fighting terrorism overseas.

She was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia in the Obama administration and served for two years beginning in December 2014.

Prior to joining the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Abizaid served on the National Security Council as both a director for counterterrorism and senior policy advisor to the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

She also served for seven years with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Joint Intelligence Task Force Combating Terrorism as the senior intelligence analyst in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Division and the Iraq/Middle East Division. During this time, Abizaid deployed several times throughout the Middle East, including a tour as the senior DIA counterterrorism representative in Iraq, according to her Department of Defense bio.

Abizaid holds a B.A. degree in psychology from the University of California, San Diego and an M.A. degree in international policy studies from Stanford University.

On leaving government, Abizaid reportedly worked as a strategy adviser at JPA Partners, the consulting firm founded by her father, retired general and former head of U.S. Central Command John P. Abizaid. More recently, she has served as an executive at Dell Technologies in its global operations organization.

The NCTC, as it is commonly known, is one of the most visible by-products of the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide hijackings and the reforms passed by Congress in the aftermath of the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It was established in August 2004 as a giant clearinghouse where law enforcement agencies like the FBI could work under one roof with the CIA and other intelligence agencies to improve information sharing and analysis of the myriad threats streaming in from literally thousands of domestic and foreign sources.

Criticisms of the NCTC

In recent years, the NCTC has been widely criticized, in part for focusing so much on the threat posed by Islamic terrorists overseas that it had lost sight of the growing danger from homegrown white supremacist and anti-government groups within America’s own borders. Critics also accused the Trump administration of using political appointees at NCTC and other intelligence agencies to help then-President Donald Trump try to stay in office and to quash dissent.

One of the NCTC’s most outspoken and influential critics is one of its own former directors, Russell Travers.

A career national security official, Travers was summarily ousted by the Trump administration in March 2020 soon after filing a whistleblower complaint about widespread problems at NCTC headquarters just down the road from the CIA in Virginia.

Trump officials never said why Travers was ousted but denied that it had anything to do with his whistleblower complaint.

For his part, Travers said he had become so alarmed by problems at NCTC that he felt compelled to share his concerns with the intelligence community’s top internal watchdog.

“I think there are really important questions that need to be addressed, and I don’t think they have been thus far,” Travers told Politico last June. “And that has me worried, because I do think we could very easily end up back where we were 20 years ago.”

“Some of these advances that we’ve made are fragile, and there are extraordinarily difficult questions the country’s going to have to address when it comes to evaluating risk, and allocating resources against that risk,” Travers said at the time. “And that kind of a sophisticated conversation simply hasn’t been had.”

Travers has stressed that he still cannot discuss the top-secret details of his complaint. But he has provided some additional hints about what he believes are institutional problems at NCTC in more recent public comments.

Last December, Travers told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that funding and personnel shortages at NCTC were “steadily, almost imperceptibly undermining the center and increasing the risk” of the same kind of 9/11-style attack that the center was created to prevent.

Other problems, he has said, include mismanagement, hiring freezes, political backbiting and improper White House meddling in intelligence matters that are supposed to remain independent.

By the time he filed his complaint, Travers said, he had been rendered effectively powerless despite his role as the leader of the government-wide counterterrorism effort. “I was ostensibly the ‘mission manager’ for terrorism,” Travers told Ignatius, “but I had no authority to compel anyone outside of NCTC to do anything.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate confirms first female National Counterterrorism Center director

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