Honcho

01.07.13

Obama Picks John Brennan as CIA Chief

John Brennan’s name was first floated in 2008 to head the CIA—and now he’s back. Eli Lake reports on Obama’s latest nomination. Plus, Daniel Klaidman profiles Brennan.

For John Brennan, President Obama’s choice to be the next CIA director, the second time is a charm. Brennan’s name was first floated for the job after Obama’s historic 2008 election. But that time the Democratic Party’s progressive base opposed the nomination, claiming Brennan was a senior official at the agency as it developed an interrogation regime its critics have called torture.

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and popular blogger for The Guardian wrote Brennan’s appointment “is to cross multiple lines that no Obama supporter should sanction.”

Obama backed off of the pressure and ended up appointing Leon Panetta to the post. Brennan instead became the White House czar for counter-terrorism and homeland security, a job where he built a fiefdom inside the old executive office building near the White House. From that perch, Brennan and his staff would approve the specific targets in the secret drone war in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.

With Brennan going to the CIA, that authority will likely go with him to the agency. Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials said David Petraeus, who helmed the CIA until he resigned in scandal last year over an adulterous affair with his biographer, often fought with Brennan over the future of the drone program and who would have the authority to make the targeting decisions.

In Obama’s first term, Brennan earned the trust of the president for some of the biggest tasks in national security. He briefed the press, for example, after the near terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009. He later briefed the press on the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But Brennan in that briefing said the al Qaeda leader died in a firefight, a claim the White House later retracted.

In choosing Brennan, Obama has also passed over for now Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA who played a key role in supporting the initial intelligence that found bin Laden’s location.