By Michael Abramowitz and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 20, 2008
President Bush yesterday tapped veteran prosecutor Kenneth L. Wainstein to serve as his White House homeland security adviser as he moved to name another key counterterrorism official and defuse criticism that he has left important positions unfilled.
Bush also named Michael E. Leiter to be director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the principal intelligence organization for analyzing terrorist threats and conducting operational planning for counterterrorism efforts. Leiter, previously the center's deputy director, has been serving as the acting director since his predecessor, John Scott Redd, resigned last fall.
Both Leiter and Wainstein are well regarded in the legal and intelligence communities, but the prolonged search for replacements in the two positions has drawn notice among homeland security experts. Bush's last homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, announced her resignation in November, though she remained on the job until January.
Newsweek reported this week that Bush was rebuffed in several attempts to fill the job. White House officials declined to comment yesterday.
"It's about time," said David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While competent officials have been minding the store for the last several months, he said, "two things the president doesn't want are new threats or even a new attack at a time when he has two chairs empty next to him. . . . That doesn't look good."
As the new White House homeland security adviser, Wainstein is responsible for coordinating counterterrorism and homeland security efforts throughout the government. He will chair the Homeland Security Council, a counterpart to the National Security Council.
In a statement yesterday, Bush said Wainstein's experience with the FBI, where he once served as general counsel and chief of staff, "has provided him with a clear understanding of the dangers we face and the importance of ensuring that we have the necessary tools to protect America."
Wainstein has deep roots in the Washington legal community, where he first attracted public attention as lead prosecutor in the gruesome 1997 slayings of three people in a Starbucks in Georgetown. He went on to serve as the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia.
For the past year and a half, Wainstein has been the Justice Department's top counterterrorism official, leading the newly formed National Security Division, which coordinates information sharing among prosecutors and the intelligence community.
He has fostered a reputation as a polished advocate for Bush administration positions. In recent months, Wainstein has been a point person in the drive to renew the USA Patriot Act and win retroactive legal protection for telecommunications companies that assisted the government's warrantless surveillance efforts. Congress has yet to approve the latter.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey yesterday applauded Wainstein for nearly two decades of government service. "While I am sorry to lose Ken as part of my leadership team, I can think of no better choice to serve as the president's homeland security adviser," Mukasey said.
Wainstein emerged unscathed from a scandal over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, even as about a dozen officials from the department's senior ranks resigned after investigations had been launched.
Neil MacBride, a Democrat who worked alongside Wainstein in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, said that Wainstein's background in prosecuting drug gangs in D.C. parallels some of his national security duties.
"His background in electronic surveillance and human intelligence in the form of informants . . . has translated well," MacBride said yesterday. "He spent many years running large-scale investigations and brings to the job many things that only come from being a line prosecutor."
Wainstein, through a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment yesterday.