Unlike Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a known
Washington commodity, White House counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan, the
nominee to lead the CIA, is a less familiar figure. But as one of President
Barack Obama's closest advisers, Brennan has unsurprisingly featured as an
important role-player in many of the insider accounts written about the
administration's national security policies. The portrait that emerges from the
books on Obama's first term is one of a man intensely loyal to the president
whose trust he enjoys, sometimes to the point of alienating his colleagues. Among
the insights gleaned, the former Riyadh CIA station chief and fluent Arabic
speaker is clearly one of the most knowledgeable and well-connected senior U.S.
officials when it comes to the Middle East, but he has a habit of sometimes
speaking publicly without all the facts. And he has also taken on the seemingly
contradictory roles as one of the most outspoken champions of the U.S. drone
program while pushing within the administration to limit the use of American
force. Here's a look at what we know about Brennan so far, culled from seven of
the best recent books on U.S. foreign policy:
THE TORTURE PROBLEM
Brennan's CIA appointment is probably one that Obama wanted
to make four years ago, and it seems he would have if not for the concerns of his
own Democratic base over the former Bush administration official's ties to some
of the most controversial post-9/11 CIA policies. Brennan advised Obama during
the campaign and the presidential transition and the two enjoyed an
unlikely rapport from the start, as James Mann recounts in The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White
House to Redefine American Power:
In mid-November, Brennan flew to
Chicago to meet Obama, and the two men talked for about an hour. Brennan was
able to bond with him on the subject of Indonesia, where Brennan had traveled
for a summer in college and where Obama had lived for a time in his youth.
Brennan, who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican and generally mistrusted
ideologies, concluded that Obama was a pragmatic and appreciated the complexity
of intelligence issues.
But complications soon emerged:
When the plan to appoint him [CIA
director] became public, there was immediate opposition, mostly from Obama
supporters. Obama had promised a dramatic break from the policies of the Bush
administration, but Brennan had been on the job as a top adviser to George
Tenet when the agency's most controversial policies were adopted, including the
creation of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the "enhanced
interrogation" techniques. In public interviews after leaving the CIA, Brennan
had supported the need for change in some of the agency's practices, such as
waterboarding, but he had also defended the practice of rendition and other
parts of the post-2001 program. "We do have to take the gloves off in some
areas," he had explained....
As a result, at the end of
November, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for CIA director.
Instead the administration brought him into the White House in a newly created
position as special adviser for counterterrorism and deputy national security
advisor, a position that did not require Senate confirmation. He would soon
come to have more direct and frequent access to Obama than the CIA director or
any other intelligence official, and in many ways more power as well.
Brennan is less of a presence in Bush-era literature. He
doesn't appear in the memoirs of Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, or Donald
Rumsfeld, and gets only passing mention in his old boss Tenet's
book about the period. Brennan has often seemed somewhat ambivalent when it
comes to the question of waterboarding. In Jane Mayer's The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the
War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, he's quoted as
vaguely saying, "It all comes down to individual moral barometers."
Bush-era interrogation methods continued to be an issue for
Brennan in the first year of the Obama administration during the debate over
whether to release the so-called "torture memos" produced by Bush's Office of
Legal Counsel. As Daniel Klaidman writes in Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the
Soul of the Obama Presidency, he
again seemed to be on the fence:
Holder and Craig were the earliest
and most passionate voices in favor of making the memos public. Holder told the
president that "if you don't release the memos, you'll own the policy." John
Brennan initially agreed. But a CIA lobbying campaign ginned up by former
director [Michael] Hayden persuaded Brennan to reverse his position.
As it turned out, Brennan wound up being just as -- if not
more -- influential in the White House than he would have been in Langley. In Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward writes,
"He was known as ‘The Answer Man' because he worked so hard, read raw
intercepts, and talked directly to foreign intelligence services and chiefs."
(Brennan is so heavily featured in Woodward's book that it seems apparent he
was one of the author's primary sources.)
In Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's
Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
describe his role:
From his windowless West Wing basement
office, Brennan became the president's point man on cyberthreats, homegrown
extremism, and threats from al Qaeda and its affiliates. Brennan visited Yemen,
where an Al Qaeda affiliate is especially active and worrisome, four times in
the administration's first two years. He spoke frequently by phone with the
country's mercurial leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime was tottering on
the brink of collapse by May 2011.
Nowhere has this influence been more evident than in the
CIA's expanding counterterrorist drone program, according to David E. Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars
and Surprising Use of American Power:
The CIA, naturally, wanted the
maximum latitude to go after everyone, everywhere. So did John Brennan, the
White House counterterrorism adviser who pressed the case for the judicious use
of drones anyplace where al-Qaeda and its associates travel. His view carried
considerable weight, because it was often Brennan who made the final call on
authorizing specific drone strikes, from his cramped office in the basement of
the West Wing.
But, Sanger notes, Brennan's enthusiasm for drones has
While a staunch defender of the CIA
drone strikes, Brennan also understood that it would take much more than
killing or capturing Al Qaeda fighters to defeat Islamic extremists. As he told
an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington in
December 2010, "A counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the immediate
threat to the exclusion of the more comprehensive political, economic and
development-oriented approach is not only short-sighted but also doomed to
Brennan was clearly indicating the
shape of strategy to come: an official review of American counterterrorism
Brennan actually reined back his drone-happy colleagues in a
May 2011 discussion of a potential strike on 11 senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP) members in Yemen. As Klaidman makes clear, Brennan took full
advantage of his personal access to Obama during these discussions and won the
president over to his side in debates:
Finally, toward the end of the
meeting, Brennan spoke for the first time. Targeting this many militants at
once would represent a dramatic shift in policy, he said. He would not take the
recommendation to the president until a higher-level deputies meeting could vet
the plan. Though he did not explicitly say so, Brennan was opposed to the
broad-based strike. He may have been attempting a deft bureaucratic maneuver to
scale back the operation before it reached the president for approval. He and
Obama were in agreement on kinetic activity: they both believed their surgical
approach was working and that the United States should remain "AQ-focused." How
would it look if we started killing large numbers of antigovernment insurgents
in Yemen -- especially ones who were not clear threats to the United States....
As the push for more sweeping signature strikes continued to issue from the
Pentagon, Brennan began to get irritated. A few days after the Yemen attack,
Brennan decided to roll out the big gun in his arsenal: an unequivocal
statement from the commander in chief. Brennan told Obama that he needed to
clearly state his position on signature strikes so that it would echo
throughout the "interagency," meaning all of the national security
It happened in mid-June, during one
of the president's regular "Terror Tuesday briefings." Brennan, who chaired the
sessions, had planned a "deep dive" on Yemen. At one point during the
discussions, one of the president's military advisers made a reference to the
ongoing "campaign" in Yemen. Obama abruptly cut him off. There's no "campaign"
in Yemen, he said sharply. "We're not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic
conflict. We're going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland --
that's where the real priority is."
One of Brennan's more heated exchanges was with Director of
National Intelligence Dennis Blair following the failed "underwear bombing" on
Christmas Day, 2009. Brennan had been tasked with preparing a report on the
intelligence lapses that had led to the incident. Woodward describes what
Two weeks after the failed
Christmas bombing, around 11 a.m. on Thursday, January 7, 2010, Brennan handed
Blair a copy of the report hours before the president planned to make a statement
and release it.
"This is the first time I have seen
it." Blair said with some dismay, "and you've got the president going on in
three hours?" He read the report quickly.
"This is wrong," he said. The draft
report placed far too much blame on lower-level analysts, simplifying a problem
that was vastly more complicated. "I can't support this."
He was quickly hustled into the
Oval Office to see the president.
"What's the problem?" Obama asked.
"This is incorrect," Blair said,
holding a copy of the report. If I'm asked whether I agree with this report, I
will say no."... Brennan had acknowledged that he let the president down, but he
was steaming with anger. He was following the al Qaeda threats out of Yemen.
Being second-guessed about his report made him bristle.
The release of the report was delayed -- much to the annoyance of Communications Director
Robert Gibbs -- while Blair and Brennan were instructed to come up with a
revised version of the document together. Woodward describes the resulting report
as "vague, repetitive disorganized and obviously hurried."
As Mann writes, it was Blair who ultimately took the fall
for the attempted attack and its handling after the fact:
Blair stayed on the job, but never
recovered his relationship with Brennan or, it turned out, with Obama. On May
18, 2010, the president called Blair in to say he was not satisfied with the
way Blair had been overseeing the intelligence community.... Two days later, the
president called Blair to say he was going to let him go.
Not that Brennan always won the big arguments. Along with
Vice President Joe Biden, he was one of the main skeptics within the
administration of the Afghan surge strategy, preferring a more limited emphasis
on counterterrorism. Woodward describes a key October 9, 2009, strategy
Why are we contemplating this in
Afghanistan? Brennan asked. He could not realistically envision a fix.
"If you're talking about a
completely uncorrupt government that delivers services to all of its people,
that end state won't be achieved in my lifetime," Brennan said. "That's why
using terminology like ‘success,' like ‘victory' and ‘win,' complicates our
He said they needed to identify
milestones that would measure progress in Afghanistan and align the resources
with those milestones. There are very few al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The
intelligence analysis indicated the Taliban might not even want al Qaeda back
if it reestablished control of the government. Hosting al Qaeda had cost the
Taliban Afghanistan in 2001. Why would al Qaeda want to go back to Afghanistan,
where the U.S. and NATO already had 100,000 ground troops?
No, Brennan said, they needed to
think about places like Yemen and Somalia, which are full of al Qaeda.... "We're
developing geostrategic principles here, and we're not going to have the
resources to do what we're doing in Afghanistan in Somali and Yemen."
Oddly, Obama seemed to ignore the concerns Brennan raised in
"The fact that we agree on these
pillars of a strategy belies the notion of huge divisions among the team here
and it provides a basis for moving forward," Obama said, overlooking
substantial disagreements. Biden and Brennan, for example, were not on board.
Interestingly, Brennan's opposition to the surge put him at
odds with his CIA predecessor, David Petraeus:
Brennan said, "The counterterrorist
program will continue regardless of the decision on any of these military
options." Adding troops would be basically irrelevant. He was very skeptical of
making a five-year investment in counterinsurgency, indicating he doubted it was
worth the blood and treasure with respect to the goals. In his view, the focus
should be on training the national army and police in order to turn the war
over to the Afghans...."It will take a generation to develop an Afghanistan that
can achieve modest governmental goals and consolidate those gains." He
underscored the importance of the operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
As Petraeus heard Brennan's
argument that the focus should be on training the Afghan army and police, his
thoughts went straight to what had happened in Iraq. There had to be a level of
security and safety first -- something provided by having more boots on the
ground -- before local security forces could take over.
According to Woodward, Brennan also clashed with current
acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, who will presumably now stay on as
his deputy. The dust-up came during a 2009 war game which simulated terrorists
detonating a small nuclear device in Indianapolis. According to the set up of
the game, the terrorists had access to about 17 kilograms of fissile material,
which Brennan said was enough to make two bombs. Morell decided to think
outside the box:
Michael Morell, named deputy
director of the CIA a month earlier, raised a different problem. According to
his calculation, there was likely enough fissile material for yet another bomb.
"We haven't found the third bomb," Morell said.
"Brennan went ripshit," recalled
one senior participant. This was designed as a two-bomb scenario, not three.
"And he's trying to wrap it up neatly and tidily, but Morell kept wondering if
there was a third bomb. What about the third bomb? And they couldn't wrap it
up." This participant said the whole exercise was "dumbfounding" and
"surrealistic," demonstrating that the administration seemed woefully
unprepared to deal with such an attack.
Brennan has been widely praised for his role in formulating
the counterterrorism strategy that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But
in the days immediately following the attack, he irritated many in the Pentagon
with a press conference that gave a widely inaccurate description of the Abbottabad
raid. Sanger writes:
Brennan gave the impression that
bin Laden was armed and died in a firefight; almost as soon as the seventy-nine
SEALs involved were debriefed, the world learned that only Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,
the courier, got off a shot. Brennan said bin Laden used a woman as a human
shield; it turned out she actually rushed the SEALs. Brennan described the
al-Qaeda leader as living a luxurious lifestyle in his Abbottabad villa. While
he lived better than many in Pakistan, the pictures of his apartment actually
revealed something closer to squalor. At the Pentagon, top officers fumed at
Brennan's blow-by-blow description of how the SEALs operated; they believed
that the former CIA officer had given away operation secrets never shared
outside the tribe. (In fact, it appears no real secrets were divulged.) No one
was angrier than Mullen himself, who still fumed about that news conference
nearly a year later.
According to Gregory D. Johnsen's The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and
America's War in Arabia, Brennan was also a bit out of his depth when
addressing the public following the Christmas Day attack:
In fact, the US seemed confused as
to the exact nature of the AQAP. Brennan described it as "an extention of
al-Qaeda core coming out of Pakistan," while the State Department more
accurately treated it as a distinct terrorist group with its own hierarchy and
THE AWLAKI HIT
According to Johnsen's account, Brennan was the leading
proponent of the theory that U.S.-born jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki was the driving
force behind AQAP's decision to target the United States:
Under interrogation in Michigan, Umar
Farouk had admitted that a man, whom the government later identified as Awlaki,
had recruited him and instructed him on the mission. Those conclusions meshed
with what John Brennan and his team had found during their review of the US
intelligence system. Until late 2009, the investigators discovered, AQAP had
been focused on attacks inside Yemen. This raised a key question: why the
sudden shift to targeting the US? The answer, many believed, was Anwar
al-Awlaki. Their theory was that as Awlaki advanced up the ranks of AQAP, he
had rechanneled the energies of a skilled subset of operatives into plots
against the US.
In Johnsen's view, Brennan "oversimplified a complex
organization" and overhyped Awlaki's role. His focus on the American cleric was
to have profound consequences for U.S. counterterrorism strategy -- and perhaps
Awlaki-centered view prevailed, and the White House's Office of Legal Counsel
started work on a memo that would provide the legal framework of the Obama
administration to kill an American citizen without ever charging him in court.
Basing their memo on what the intelligence agencies concluded about Awlaki's
role within AQAP, White House lawyers eventually argued that the US was legally
within its rights to kill the fugitive cleric if he could not be captured.
This, the memo argued, would get around the long-established presidential ban
on assassination as well as the Bill of Rights...
Overall, the impression authors have given of Brennan's
views meshes closely with Obama's: both have sought to keep the focus of U.S. counterterrorism
operations on al Qaeda and pushed the limits of legal and constitutional
standards to do so, while simultaneously worrying in public about the dangers
of taking military action outside of a legal framework. Agree with them or not,
the president and his new CIA director are likely to see eye to eye.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images