No politically appointed official in U.S. history has played such a prominent role in killing so many people outside of a war zone as John Brennan. He has been a "close advisor" to President Barack Obama since November 2008, was a Team Lead for the president-elect's review of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), and has served as homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, with the rank of assistant to the president, since the first day Obama entered office. Brennan does not merely fill a White House position, but also meets with the president several times a day and -- according to administration officials -- serves as "a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Obama."
Brennan plays the essential role in shaping and implementing Obama's vision for protecting the United States, its allies, and its interests from politically motivated violence. The predominant counterterrorism tool under Obama has been targeted killings in non-battlefield settings, and Brennan reportedly oversees and manages the 100-person inter-agency process that nominates and vets suspected militants and terrorists for the United States' various kill lists -- implemented by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Obama's has been a "lethal presidency," and Brennan is the Lethal Bureaucrat. Despite his close relationship to Obama and preeminent duty in coordinating the kill lists, he flies largely under the mainstream media's radar.
First, it is important to understand the scope of what Obama has authorized in comparison with his predecessor. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been an estimated 393 targeted killings -- in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Philippines. (President George W. Bush also authorized an October 2008 raid six miles inside Syria to kill Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi-born senior operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as several of his bodyguards and several civilians.) Under Bush, there were roughly 50 targeted killings; under Obama there have been 343 in less than half the time -- 95 percent of them by Predator or Reaper drones. At least 2,000 people have been killed by U.S. targeted killings since Obama entered office.
Brennan is especially well-suited for his position at the intersection of lethal covert operations and bureaucratic management. He spent a quarter-century in the IC, serving in wide-range of distinguished roles, including as Middle East chief of station, daily intelligence briefer for President Bill Clinton, and -- from 1999 through 2005 -- chief of staff to CIA Director George Tenet, deputy executive director of the CIA, and head of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, later named the National Counterterrorism Center. It was during these years that Bush authorized the CIA to use enhanced interrogation techniques (i.e., torture) by its agents, and transferred hundreds of people into the extraordinary rendition program where many were tortured by foreign intelligence agencies.
In 2005, Brennan retired -- as he claimed -- "to lead and shape the future direction of The Analysis Corp (TAC)," an intelligence consulting firm where he was president and CEO. While running TAC, according to a corporate press release: "Brennan leveraged his knowledge of intelligence matters and his expertise on terrorism and security issues to guide the company's rapid corporate growth and innovative business strategy." During this time Brennan also appeared on TV to discuss the Bush administration's controversial counterterrorism policies. In 2005, on PBS' Newshour he described extraordinary rendition as "an absolutely vital tool," which "without a doubt has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives." In 2007, he told CBS News that waterboarding was "the classic definition of torture," which is "inconsistent with American values and it's something that should be prohibited."
In 2007, Brennan also became a foreign-policy adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, though he never met Obama until the president-elect summoned him to Chicago just after the election in November 2008. Upon meeting, as Daniel Klaidman writes: "Their views were so complementary that Obama found himself finishing Brennan's sentences." In this campaign role, Brennan gave interviews to tout Obama's IC priorities, noting that Obama believed that covert action "cannot be done by a single branch of government," with oversight by both Congress and the courts a must for such activities. Brennan's rumored nomination to become CIA Director was resisted by progressives and psychologists, who sought a clean break from Bush's global war on terror approach. Brennan withdrew from consideration for the position in a Nov. 25, 2008, letter to Obama, complaining that, "The fact that I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored."