Counterterrorism chief and deputy leaving as Trump administration considers downsizing agency

Two former officials say Russell Travers, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, was seen as resisting potential personnel cuts.
Russell Travers
Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies before a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 5, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP file

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — The head of the National Counterterrorism Center and his deputy are abruptly leaving as the Trump administration considers a significant downsizing of an agency created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Russell Travers, a career intelligence official who helped launch the NCTC after the terrorist attacks by al Qaeda in New York and Washington in 2001, was ousted amid a hiring freeze instituted by the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, said two former officials who spoke to people involved in the matter. Travers was seen as resisting potential personnel cuts, the former officials said.

Peter Hall, the NCTC deputy, was sent back to his home agency, the National Security Agency, the former officials said.

Their departures were first reported by The Washington Post.

The NCTC, which has around 900 employees, is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Many of its officers and analysts are detailed from other agencies.

The DNI confirmed in a statement that the two men were leaving.

Richard Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, at a reception in Berlin in January 2019. He is now the acting director of national intelligence.Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa via AP file

"We are grateful for Acting Director Russ Travers' many years of service to the American people. Russ told Acting Director Grenell he wanted to retire, and that he did not want another assignment," the statement said.

The NCTC's role is to synthesize and analyze intelligence about terrorism collected by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and various other sources. While the CIA can look only at information about foreign terrorists, the NCTC has access to intelligence on both foreigners and Americans, although its treatment of information about U.S. citizens is subject to privacy rules. The CIA and the FBI have their own terrorism analysts.

With the threat from al Qaeda and related forces much diminished, some inside the intelligence community believe the time has come to shrink the agency. Others say it could play a leading role in stepping up scrutiny of far-right extremist groups.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Christopher Miller, a Pentagon special operations and counterterrorism official, as permanent director of the NCTC.

The job was filled by retired Navy Adm. Joseph Maguire until he moved into the role of acting DNI, and Travers then became acting director of the NCTC. Trump fired Maguire as acting DNI after an aide told lawmakers during an election security briefing that Russia was interfering in the 2020 election with a clear preference for Trump.

Trump then brought in Grenell, who has no intelligence experience, to be acting DNI. He then nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, whose nomination last year fell apart amid questions over his qualifications.

"A/DNI Grenell and ODNI leadership have been discussing the many reform recommendations previously made by former directors. Our hope is that these reforms will posture NCTC to lead the counterterrorism mission into the future," the DNI statement says.

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The debate about whether to shrink the NCTC has been ongoing for years, some former officials said.

"The NCTC has long been a looked at as the most viable place to downsize," said Katrina Mulligan, a former DNI official. "That's in part because the strategic landscape has shifted a lot. ... These conversations certainly pre-date this administration."

Even so, Mulligan said, "this feels very retaliatory and is likely to have a chilling effect within the embattled intelligence community."