President Obama will be losing another key counter-terrorism official in the coming months, just as the threat from Jihadists is rising and the Middle East descends further into sectarian war.
On Wednesday, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, announced he would be leaving the administration in the near future. Joe Vealencis, a spokesman for Olsen and the NCTC, said there was no set date for his departure but added, “We expect it to be within the next few months.”
Two of Olsen’s colleagues told The Daily Beast that the director was burned out after three years on the job. The schedule for the NCTC director is grueling. Olsen often awoke before dawn, according to these sources, to absorb the overnight threat briefings and left the office after dark.
For Olsen, who has spent 24 years in government, the chance to earn money in the private sector was attractive, according to one of his government colleague. “It’s been three years, it’s a long time on the job,” this official said. “He wants to make some money for his family. I think he would have considered other government jobs, but at this point he doesn’t want to go the White House for the end of an administration.”
Vealencis said, “The director’s decision to leave after three years at NCTC was a personal one for him and his family.”
But nonetheless the timing is not good for the Obama administration. Since the beginning of 2014, Jihadist groups have made significant gains in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The problem is particularly acute in Iraq, where a former affiliate of al Qaeda that split with the organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham took over the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. Last month, the group declared itself a new Caliphate, a reference to the golden age of Islamic history when the Middle East, North Africa and even Spain were ruled by Muslim dynasties.
In Libya, the situation in Iraq was so bad that al Qaeda-linked groups took control of a military base that the United States initially used to train Libya’s counterterrorism forces. In Syria, U.S. counter-terrorism officials now estimate more than 100 Americans have joined al Qaeda to fight the Syrian regime.
Olsen was among the senior officials who warned Congress recently that Americans joining al Qaeda were becoming an acute threat to the U.S. homeland.
Now with terrorists threatening Baghdad; Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the brink of a third Intifada; and al Qaeda looking to fill the void in Afghanistan left by U.S. troops, Obama will likely need Olsen now more than ever.
Olsen’s departure also comes at a time when Obama is attempting to wrap up the war on terror. In recent policy speeches, the president has spoken of modifying or revoking the congressional authorization from 2001 that created the legal framework for war on terror and new tougher restrictions on when U.S. drones can strike terrorist targets. This has drawn the ire of other top U.S. counter-terrorism officials who have pressed the White House privately to reconsider some of these reforms.
Earlier this spring, Gen. Mike Flynn, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), announced that he would be leaving his post this summer, a year earlier than the standard term for the DIA director.
In the case of Flynn, he was frustrated about the Obama policy on the war on terror. Olsen’s colleagues stress that the NCTC director’s pending resignation is not motivated by differences in policy with Obama. But Olsen also has a reputation for being a straight shooter, not a political player. He was, for example, the first senior official in 2012 to call the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism.
Perhaps for this reason he has earned plaudits Wednesday from not only within the administration, but from Republicans in Congress as well.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, for example said in a statement: “While it is much harder to determine the number of lives saved from thwarted terror attacks, there are no doubt many, many people alive in the United States and around the world today because of Matt Olsen’s service and persistent dedication.”