The President's Man

John Brennan took over the CIA after years working for Barack Obama. Now he's on the hot seat as lawmakers demand to know whether the CIA spied on Congress.

This story has been updated.

On Saturday, CIA Director John Brennan will mark his first year at the helm of America's most storied intelligence agency. But this is probably not the way he planned to celebrate his anniversary: publicly trading recriminations with members of Congress over one of the darkest chapters in the CIA's history.

Late Wednesday evening, Brennan issued a combative statement in response to news reports that some lawmakers have accused the CIA of interfering with a three-year long Senate investigation of whether the CIA tortured suspected terrorists and whether brutal interrogation tactics such as waterboarding produced useful information about potential attacks. Lawmakers reportedly also accuse the agency of not disclosing documents that bolster their findings. The Senate report, which remains classified and hasn't been released publicly, is said to be a blistering indictment of the interrogation program and an account of how the CIA misled members of Congress about it. "The report concludes the committee was systematically lied to over a period of years, and that's true," a former intelligence official told Foreign Policy.

And yet the most explosive part of the story may be yet to come, and it's one that will put Brennan, and his close ties to President Barack Obama, squarely in the spotlight. The question remains of whether the president or his advisers knew that members of Congress accused the CIA of interfering with their investigation, when they knew it, and what, if anything, the president did in response. On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), alluded to the question in a letter to Obama. "As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review," a reference to an agency document that reportedly backs up the committee's conclusions and that the CIA allegedly didn't disclose during the investigation. Udall called the action, about which he didn't elaborate, "incredibly troubling."

A White House spokesman would not comment on what Obama was or wasn't told. Asked publicly by a reporter this week whether he had any response to other accusations that the CIA had monitored the computers of congressional investigators, the president gave no answer.

Brennan, a former CIA officer who returned to the agency in 2013 after four years as Obama's counterterrorism adviser, has been dogged by quiet criticism that he was and remains too politically close to the White House. That's an allegation that Brennan's defenders dispute. Among some of those who have served with him, he was known as "the cardinal," and they considered his motives to be devoid of political influence and beyond reproach. But Brennan was also the most forceful and reliable public defender of the Obama administration's most politically divisive intelligence programs, including the CIA's use of drones to kill terrorist suspects. In 2012, Brennan gave a major public address justifying the program, which he helped run from the White House. It's generally viewed as the most spirited defense the Obama administration has ever given of the lethal use of drones and targeted killing of terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens.

The question facing Brennan now, say former intelligence officials who maintain close ties to him, other CIA leaders, and congressional staff, is how to publicly defend the agency, maintain its credibility, and repair ties with its Senate overseers. Judging by the rebukes coming from both Brennan and lawmakers, that won't be easy. Failure, meanwhile, would have lasting repercussions, including a virtually certain Senate push to bring the agency's routine operations and most sensitive missions under more aggressive and intrusive congressional oversight.

The current scandal began earlier this week after several high-ranking Senate Democrats claimed that the agency improperly monitored the work of Senate Intelligence Committee staff reviewing classified CIA documents about the agency's harsh treatment of captured terror suspects and that the agency withheld the existence of the internal report that largely corroborates the committee's own findings -- namely that waterboarding and other brutal tactics failed to produce useful intelligence.

Lawmakers are calling for answers, and Brennan wasted no time defending his agency.

"I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts," Brennan said on Wednesday. "I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the Executive Branch or Legislative Branch. Until then, I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and Congressional overseers."

The CIA may have ammunition for firing back at its critics. According to a report by McClatchy, congressional aides involved in preparing the Senate report removed classified documents that they weren't authorized to have from CIA headquarters. The FBI is also now investigating the removal of classified documents from a CIA facility in Northern Virginia, according to reports. The CIA inspector general has also referred to the Justice Department questions about whether agency officials monitored Senate staff members' computers, reports said. Agency officials declined to comment, but a fuller statement from their side is expected in coming days.

For Brennan, the public controversy marks perhaps the most significant test of his leadership, as years of bitterness between Langley and the Hill have now spilled over into public view. The relationship between the spies and their overseers in the Senate are poisoned and at a low point, despite the fact that on other controversial matters, including NSA surveillance, the committee and especially its chair, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have generally been strong defenders of the intelligence agencies.

"The Senate Intelligence Committee oversees the CIA, not the other way around," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a statement. "Since I joined the Committee, the CIA has refused to engage in good faith on the Committee's study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. Instead, the CIA has consistently tried to cast doubt on the accuracy and quality of this report by publicly making false representations about what is and is not in it."

Another committee member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has implied publicly that the agency may have violated a criminal statute meant to combat illegal computer hacking, suggesting that the CIA may have monitored the use of computers by Senate staffers who were combing through millions of pages of classified documents on the interrogation program.

If the CIA were found to have spied on Senate committee computers, it would be a scandal of monumental proportions and might well end with Brennan's resignation. A former senior intelligence official said he couldn't conceive of a scenario in which clandestinely monitoring congressional computers would have been permissible under law.

But it's not clear whether Senate investigators were using their own computers or those furnished by the agency when they reviewed documents at a CIA-controlled facility. (White House and intelligence officials, as well as congressional staff, declined to comment on that question.) Several former officials said it was highly unlikely that the staff would have been allowed to bring their own computers into a secure facility, and if the CIA was monitoring its own computers, it's not clear how that continues an illegal act.

But that the question is even being raised reveals how profoundly hostile and distrustful the investigation into interrogation practices has been. That's the breach that Brennan has to try to repair.

Brennan's return to Langley was greeted skeptically by many CIA employees, who hadn't considered him to be director material, former officials said. He was generally viewed as a White House loyalist, which is not unusual for a CIA chief. But had Brennan not hitched his wagon to the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, three years after he'd left the agency and embarked on a career in business, he would almost certainly have never been considered for the top job. He'd had a successful career, with a tour as station chief in Riyadh, and at the CIA ultimately rose to deputy executive director, a senior leadership position. But a final position as director of what became the National Counterterrorism Center was seen as a sort of graceful transition from a career in public service, with little expectation that he'd return. That all changed when Obama won election in 2008 and Brennan joined the new president in the White House the next year after serving as a national security adviser to the campaign.

In general, current and former officials say, Brennan has shown himself to be a strong defender of the agency's interests, and a stabilizing force after the brief, disastrous tenure of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who stepped down in 2012 amid a sex scandal. And having a CIA director who has the president's ear brings distinct though less tangible advantages.

Brennan has also been an effective guardian of the CIA's budgets. It stood at nearly $15 billion in 2013, a 56 percent increase since 2004, according to classified documents revealed by Edward Snowden, and there is no sign that the spigot will be turned off. Intelligence insiders credit Brennan for helping to maintain the flow. He has also managed to hold onto the CIA's drone program, despite public assurances from Obama that it would be transferred to the military.

Before Brennan returned to public service, he didn't embrace forceful executive powers so enthusiastically. "After 9/11, there was a need for urgent action, and sometimes without the fullest of discussion," Brennan said in an interview with this reporter in 2008, before he joined the Obama campaign. "Where I fault the [Bush] administration is that after the heat of 9/11 dissipated a bit...that's when it should have embarked to engage meaningfully with the [congressional] oversight committees and the judiciary, to put in place those programs for the longer term."

It remains to be seen whether Brennan will -- or can -- collaborate so peacefully with the CIA's overseers. Former officials doubted that the current controversy over interrogations would literally cost the agency in dollars. But its credibility is now on the line. If history is any guide, Brennan may do well to follow the lessons of a previous director, Leon Panetta, who won the admiration and the loyalty of the CIA rank-and-file when he publicly and forcefully defended the agency over similar allegations that officials had misled Congress about interrogations.

In that fracas, Panetta stood up to Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, who said the agency wasn't telling overseers the full story about brutal techniques it used on detained terrorists, including waterboarding. "There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," Panetta said in a message to CIA employees, a curious choice of words for a man who had no experience at all in running intelligence programs. "My advice -- indeed, my direction -- to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country." Pelosi backed down, and the controversy subsided.

"They liked Panetta. They couldn't stand Petraeus. Brennan, I think people said, ‘Well, maybe,'" a former senior intelligence official said about employees' reaction to the director's return. "But it was a skeptical maybe. And it's still a skeptical maybe."

Coming days will show whether Brennan convinces his employees he has their back, and the president's.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images News


Troubled Waters

Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over a plan to dam the Nile River.

Egypt's musical-chairs government faces enough challenges. So why is a construction project almost 1,800 miles from Cairo provoking fears over Egypt's national survival?

Egypt and Ethiopia are butting heads over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Cairo worries that the megaproject, which began construction in 2011 and is scheduled to be finished by 2017, could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River right at a time when it expects its needs for fresh water to increase. Brandishing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that the Nile's waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects.

Ethiopia, for its part, sees a chance to finally take advantage of the world's longest river, and says that the 6,000 megawatts of electricity the dam will produce will be a key spur to maintaining Africa's highest economic growth rate and for growth in energy-starved neighbors. The hydroelectric plant will provide triple the amount of electricity generating capacity in all of Ethiopia today. But the spat threatens to poison relations between two of Africa's biggest countries.

"The construction of [the dam] could propel a new era of regional cooperation, but past history suggests it will more likely result in continued sniping between Egypt and Ethiopia," David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told Foreign Policy.

The dispute has heated up again, after a fresh effort to iron out the differences at the negotiating table collapsed. Egypt has sought to get the United Nations to intervene, and reportedly asked Ethiopia to halt construction on the dam until the two sides can work out an agreement, which Ethiopian officials rebuffed.

"The upper riparian states have the right to use the Nile for their development as far as it doesn't cause any significant harm on the lower riparian countries, and that is why Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam," Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti told reporters in late February.

A former Egyptian irrigation minister said March 5th that Egypt is doing too little to forestall the dam, and highlighted the risks to the country's water supply. Italy's ambassador to Egypt has reportedly offered Italian help in mediating the showdown; an Italian firm is constructing the dam.

The dam has been a glimmer in Ethiopia's eye since U.S. scientists surveyed the site in the 1950s. A lack of cash and Egypt's strength forestalled any development -- but that appears to have changed in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt's three years of domestic political upheaval.

For most of the twentieth century, Egypt and Sudan divvied up the Nile's water between them. A 1929 treaty with British African colonial possessions gave Egypt the right to more than half the river's flow; a 1959 treaty upped Egypt's share to about 66%. The rest was allocated to Sudan -- while Ethiopia, whose highlands are the fount of most of the Nile's waters, was excluded from discussions.

"It is only Egypt and the Republic of Sudan that consider the 1929 and 1959 agreements as legally binding on all the Nile River riparian states," John Mbaku of the Brookings Institute Africa Growth Initiative, told FP.

"The Ethiopians may have undertaken what appears to be unilateral action because of Cairo's unwillingness to join other riparian states in renegotiating" those accords, he said.

Ethiopia began pushing back seriously after concluding its own water rights deal with other upstream nations, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, in 2010. The protests in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and Egypt's three years of domestic turmoil provided a key opening for Ethiopia. It laid the first stone on the construction project in the spring of 2011 and says the dam is now about one-third complete.

"With all of the chaos in Egypt, Ethiopia caught a break. It has clearly benefited from the distractions of the government in Cairo," Shinn said. In 2012, Sudan threw its weight behind the project, driving a wedge between the two downstream users of the river and complicating Cairo's hopes to block construction.

The dispute over the Blue Nile dam is hardly the only case of water-driven tensions. Chinese control over the headwaters of major rivers in Asia, and ambitious plans for hydroelectric development, has sparked concern among a dozen downstream neighboring countries. Brazil and Paraguay locked horns for years over the massive Itaipu dam. Even Western U.S. states are squabbling over water rights to the dwindling Colorado River, especially important now that the region suffers a prolonged drought.

But Egypt sees the Ethiopian project as an existential threat. A government study concluded, "Water security is the gravest threat facing post-revolution Egypt." Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi vowed last summer that Egypt would not lose "one drop" of Nile water to the Ethiopian dam, proclaiming, "Our blood is the alternative." Egyptian politicians were caught on camera last June urging Morsi to back armed rebels to sabotage the dam's construction. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's putative next president, warned Ethiopia last summer the country might resort to military action to stop the dam, and earlier this month he discussed the dam's threats in a visit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Egypt's fears stem from the dam's possible impacts on the Nile as it flows downstream through Sudan and eventually to the Mediterranean. The Nile provides both water for Egyptian agriculture, and also electricity through Egypt's own Aswan dam.

The big problem: There has been no public discussion of the downstream impacts of the Ethiopian project. An international panel of experts, including representatives from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, presented a report last summer to the three governments, but it has not been made public.

Leaks of the report suggested that Egyptian power generation could indeed suffer -- but the lack of clarity muddies the issue even for water experts, because it is unclear just how quickly Ethiopia might move to fill the dam's reservoir after construction is finished. Filling it sooner would definitely choke water flows downstream, but would enable power generation more quickly; filling it gradually would push back the potential benefits of the dam for decades. Ethiopia has spoken publicly of filling the dam's reservoir in five or six years.

"There's a suggestion (in the panel report) that the electricity generation at the Aswan Dam could be affected quite significantly," Michael Hammond, a water engineer at the University of Exeter, told FP.

"However, it's inherently uncertain because we don't know whether we'll have ten wet years or ten dry years during the filling process," he said.

Jennifer Veilleux, a PhD candidate at Orgeon State University who has done extensive field work on the impacts of the Blue Nile dam, notes that Egyptian fretting about the dam's impact on agriculture tend to focus on poor farmers. But Egypt has used the abundant Nile waters to become a major exporter of water-thirsty crops, such as cotton, which in turn has given Egypt the highest level of economic development among all Nile Basin countries.

"Why does Egypt have the right to use the Nile for economic development, yet the Ethiopians don't?" she asks.


AFP - Getty