John Brennan: the drone apologist with the president's ear
Barack Obama's nominee for CIA director portrays himself as a moral force in a messy business
6 February 2013
John Brennan's bunker is a soundproofed, windowless suite in the White House basement where, as one senator put it, Barack Obama's counter-terrorism chief "decides each day who he's going to execute".
Behind guarded doors, Brennan -- the "priestly figure" nominated by Obama to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency -- draws together the lists of suspected terrorists for assassination by drone in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. They are signed off by the president on what have become known darkly as "kill list Tuesdays".
It's an unprecedented role for a US president devised by an official who wields greater influence on White House security policy than more senior officials.
Brennan was at the forefront of moulding Obama the election candidate, who in 2008 denounced the CIA's hand in abductions and torture at secret foreign sites under the Bush administration, into Obama the president, who has overseen the rapid expansion of the CIA's legally questionable war by drone.
Brennan's part is all the more striking because four years ago he was forced to withdraw from contention as CIA director over his role in justifying the agency's abuses under George W Bush.
"It's fair to say that John Brennan has been instrumental in getting Obama to where his thinking is today on counter-terrorism," said a former senior intelligence official who declined to be named. "Brennan helped the president to understand he could not turn away from the things that need to be done against the terrorists, and then he helped construct the legal and moral framework so that they sat comfortably with the president's commitments."
Another former senior intelligence official, Mark Lowenthal, an assistant director of the CIA appointed shortly after the 9/11 attacks and vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Bush administration, said it was Brennan that Obama looked to on security policy. "The president needs someone he can trust deeply and Obama has found an unusually close connection with Brennan. One of the things presidents really value is having somebody down the hall who they call on and rely on and not question why they're there.
"Everybody wants something from the president. To find one of those few people who only want to be there to serve you is valuable. Clearly Brennan will be missed in the White House. I'm hard put to believe that whoever replaces Brennan will have the same level of intimacy."
That role is returning to haunt Brennan as agitated senators threaten to turn his nomination hearing into an examination of the drone policy he forged and, most particularly, the White House's refusal to release the detailed legal justification for the killing of US citizens in strikes by the unmanned aircrafts.
Some senators are so incensed that on Monday they wrote to the president warning that the administration's lack of transparency may jeopardise Brennan's appointment to head the CIA. At the very least, he has now become a lightning rod for congressional suspicion and doubts over the legality of the drones, civilian casualties and whether the target list is cast so widely that many of those killed pose no real threat to the US.
Brennan was born in 1955 to Irish immigrant parents from Roscommon and raised in New Jersey. He joined the CIA as an analyst in 1980 because, he once said, the American war of independence spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British on his birth date. "There was an ad in the New York Times and it said the CIA was looking for a few good people," he said recently.
Brennan's education at a Jesuit university included a year of Middle East studies and learning Arabic at the American University in Cairo.
After that he earned a masters focused on Middle East studies at the University of Texas.
That set the tone of a career in the CIA where his service overseas was capped as station chief in the politically sensitive posting of Saudi Arabia where, according to agency legend, he once confronted an Iranian spy on the street in Riyadh.
Back in the US, Brennan served as chief aide to the CIA director George Tenet during the Clinton administration and under George W Bush as first chief of the National Counterterrorism Centre, charged with integrating the government's fractured intelligence gathering on terrorism. There he became entwined in aspects of the "war on terror" that returned to haunt him years later.
Brennan quit the CIA in 2005 to run a security consultancy until he was picked up by Obama's first presidential campaign as a consultant on national security and terrorism.
Officials who have observed the two say that early on Obama was impressed by the experience and confidence of the former CIA officer who claimed a moral core, with his condemnations of waterboarding and questioning of the invasion of Iraq -- evidently lacking in the agency's leadership under Bush.
But when, as president-elect in 2008, Obama settled on Brennan as his new CIA chief he faced a backlash over the former spy's earlier endorsement of some of the agency's abuses, including the abductions to secret torture and interrogation "black sites" in foreign countries. He has called the abductions, known as renditions, an "absolutely vital tool".
"There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hardcore terrorists," Brennan told CBS in 2007. "It has saved lives."
Obama backed down out of concern about a fight in congressional confirmation hearings. But he still got his man, appointing Brennan assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, a White House post not requiring Senate confirmation.
That gave Brennan a degree of access to the president he would not have enjoyed as CIA director. Planted in the bowels of the White House, his brief ranged across federal agencies dealing with everything from espionage to law enforcement and natural disasters.
Aside from his central role co-ordinating the administration's anti-terrorism strategy, Brennan became part foreign envoy, dispatched to deliver messages from the White House to Yemen's leaders, and part oversight officer as he kept a watch on sensitive terror-related incidents such as the investigation into the killings of soldiers at Fort Hood by a Muslim officer. Brennan routinely met Obama at least once, and often several times, a day. All the while, he helped open up Obama to some of the more unsavoury aspects of the US's counterterror strategy.
Brennan has portrayed his relationship with Obama as a meeting of minds. "Ever since the first couple of months, I felt there was a real similarity of views that gave me a sense of comfort," he told the Washington Post in October. "I don't think we've had a disagreement."
Kenneth Wainstein, who was counterterrorism adviser to Bush and describes the future CIA chief as someone he "has a lot of respect for", said the relationship between the two men was rooted in Obama's deep confidence in Brennan.
"A person in that kind of position is going to be making decisions that are critical to the security of our nation and that, at times, are decisions of life or death. The president needs someone in that position who has good judgment -- someone who will not shirk from tough decisions but at the same time will think through all the ramifications and listen to all sides of an issue," he said. "In the national security context there are very important values at stake.
"There's national security on one hand, civil liberties on the other, as well as important implications for our relations with foreign governments. You want to make sure you've got somebody in that position who's measured, cool-headed and thinks before he acts. The president has that kind of man in John Brennan."
Officially, Brennan answered to the director of National Intelligence (DNI), who was Admiral Dennis Blair for the first year of the Obama administration. But the president never warmed to Blair and Brennan increasingly became Obama's de facto intelligence chief.
Michael Hayden, a former CIA chief, described Brennan as "the actual national intelligence director".
Lowenthal said he agreed with that statement to a point. "Brennan certainly had a lot more sway than most people would have in a similar position. Access is everything, right? And being in the White House, being in the West Wing, is a lot more access than coming in for the briefing.
"It probably was easier when Dennis Blair was DNI because Blair and Obama didn't hit it off. I know Dennis Blair well. The chemistry [with Obama] just didn't happen. And so here you have a guy [Brennan] who clearly does have that chemistry and who the president trusts."
Obama had Brennan assess how a Nigerian al-Qaida supporter came close to blowing up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. His conclusions did not sit well with an array of agencies and individuals he accused of failures, including Blair, who was forced out as director of national intelligence.
James Clapper, an air force general, replaced Blair -- but the widely held view within the administration was that Brennan was already doing the job, even if he didn't hold the title.
When the US military finally hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden, it was Brennan who gave the official account of the operation -- wrongly claiming that the al-Qaida leader died in a shootout hiding behind women.
But it is the role of chief apologist for the drone strategy, and as architect of a framework the administration says gives the killings a legal and moral underpinning, that Brennan has played his most influential role in the White House. Critics say the legal arguments are no more valid than those Bush's justice department came up with to authorise torture.
The ground war in Afghanistan, the Guantánamo prison and trials, and other legacies of the Bush era are not easily pinned on Obama. But the president has taken ownership of the drones strategy, rapidly expanding its use far beyond the last administration's.
For the first time in US history, a president regularly signs off on the killing of named individuals, which has drawn criticism that he is acting as judge, jury and executioner. "Obama has used drones four times as often as George Bush," said Lowenthal. "I think that's a very interesting statistic because the drones allow you to do things but they don't put US lives at risk. In many respects, it fits the way in which Obama likes to approach a lot of his foreign policy problems -- to be engaged but not to have too much at risk."
Brennan has been at the forefront of that strategy, and its public defence in the face of unease about the kill lists, the targeting of citizens and civilian casualties.
In 2011, he defended decisions on when to launch drone strikes and who to kill as "carefully, deliberately and responsibly" made and said they were "in full accordance with the law", adding they were "ethical and wise".
"We only authorise a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing," he told a conference at the Woodrow Wilson centre. "This is a very high bar."
Brennan avoided a question about another kind of strike that has more frequently resulted in civilian casualties, launched not against known individuals but men exhibiting a particular form of behaviour which could suggest terrorist activity, such as a group climbing on to the back of a lorry.
Perhaps the most telling part of Brennan's public relations offensive was his claim that Obama's counter-terrorism strategy was not very different from Bush's -- a situation some attribute to Brennan's considerable influence.
"In many respects, these specific counter-terrorism goals are not new. They track closely with the goals of the previous administration. Yet this illustrates another important characteristic of our strategy. It neither represents a wholesale overhaul -- nor a wholesale retention --of previous policies," said Brennan in a 2011 speech. "President Obama's approach to counter-terrorism is pragmatic, not ideological. It's based on what works. It builds upon policies and practices that have been instituted and refined over the past decade."
Brennan's attempts to portray himself as a moral force in a messy business is likely to come under challenge at his Senate confirmation hearing. The American Civil Liberties Union has urged senators to scrutinise his claims.
"The Senate should not move forward with his nomination until all senators can assess the role of the CIA -- and any role by Brennan himself -- in torture, abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during his past tenure at the CIA, as well as review the legal authorities for the targeted killing programme that he has overseen in his current position," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, a member of the intelligence committee, which holds the confirmation hearing, said he intended to press Brennan on "the crucial legal, strategic, and oversight considerations pertaining to the CIA's counter-terror operations".
Senator John McCain, an outspoken critic of the CIA's use of torture, said he wants to hear from Brennan on "what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programmes while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defence of those programmes".
Wainstein said any CIA chief worth appointing was likely to have a controversial past. "You can't spend time in the high levels of the national security field without having to make tough, sometimes controversial, decisions," he said.
"If we want seasoned professionals in those jobs, then we'll necessarily be looking to people who have made tough decisions during their career. The fact that a candidate has made tough decisions in controversial areas along the way should not be a disqualifier for confirmation. If anything it should be seen as a positive attribute."
Wainstein said Brennan would make a "very formidable director of the CIA". Lowenthal agreed but said agency staff were likely to be in two minds about Brennan.
"The CIA can often treat outsiders like bacilli. Clearly John does not have that problem. The fact that he has access to the president will be seen as a good thing. The concern among some people will be: is he the president's representative to the CIA or the CIA's representative to the president?" he said.