The White House said Friday that President Obama would nominate Matthew Olsen, general counsel for the National Security Agency and previously a longtime Justice Department official, to be the nation’s next counterterrorism chief.
Michael E. Leiter, the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, plans to step down next week.
Olsen left the Justice Department in June 2010 to join the NSA. Before leaving Justice, where he worked for 18 years, he directed the inter-agency Guantanamo Review Task Force, overseeing the Obama administration’s assessment of every detainee at Guantanamo Bay as part of its plan to close the facility.
The task force recommended whether detainees should be prosecuted, held in prolonged detention without trial, or transferred home or to third countries for resettlement. The effort was seen as a critical prelude to the closure of Guantanamo, a plan that floundered in the face of intense congressional opposition and disagreement within the administration about how to push the goal.
Although closure was never realized, those who worked with Olsen — a mixture of military, intelligence and diplomatic officials as well as federal prosecutors — said there was surprisingly little rancor in the review process, despite the toughness of some of the decisions and the potential for bureaucratic infighting.
“He will be a bulwark of good sense and determination,” said one administration official who worked with Olsen on Guantanamo.
The Senate must confirm Olsen, a graduate of the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University.
“Matt has a distinguished record of service in our intelligence community and I’m confident he will continue to build on our strong counterterrorism efforts,” Obama said in a statement. “Matt will be a critical part of my national security team as we work tirelessly to thwart attacks against our nation and do everything in our power to protect the American people.”
The NCTC was created in 2004, and is charged sifting through disparate sources of intelligence to identify terrorist threats.
The center was criticized for failing to identify the Nigerian who attempted to bring down a commercial airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. And Leiter, in response, instituted a series of reforms to increase the likelihood that analysts would zero in on clues.
Olsen has been immersed in national security law and issues for much of the past decade.
From 2004 to 2005, he served as special counsel to the director of the FBI, where he focused on counterterrorism and intelligence investigations. That was followed by a stint in the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C., where he was chief of the national security section. From 2006 to 2009, Olsen was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, supervising the implementation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.