Did the CIA Chief Just Dare Obama to Fire Him?

Under a sudden avalanche of criticism, CIA director John Brennan said President Obama can ‘ask me to go.’ Will he?

Jason Reed/Reuters

The normally cool and calm director of the CIA, John Brennan, may have flinched Tuesday. After a scathing speech from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the committee that oversees his agency, Brennan largely defended the CIA from charges that it illegally spied on Senate staffers poring through documents related to the agency’s black site program.

But the CIA chief also left open the prospect that he may have been wrong. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan said. “I will go to the president and I will explain to him what I did and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

In Washington, where politicians have mastered the art of the mea culpa, those words would not normally warrant much attention. But for John Brennan, a man entrusted with secrets on everything from Obama’s drone war to his cyber espionage campaign against Iran, Brennan’s talk amounts to a kind of dare.

“I don’t know if Brennan can survive at this point,” said Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, Brennan is a bridge between the intelligence community and the White House. While he was never part of the president’s inner circle during the 2008 campaign, Obama began receiving briefings from Brennan as he prepared for the presidency after the 2008 election. He liked Brennan so much that he initially wanted to make him CIA director in 2009, but that nomination was scuttled after progressives in his own party objected that Brennan was too close to the program to harshly interrogate suspected terrorists in “black site” secret prisons all over the world.

That black site program is once again at the center of controversy for the CIA. But this time, Brennan is the agency’s director and it’s the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that is trying to declassify its own report that is expected to show the rendition, detention and interrogation practices during the last administration were far more brutal than the CIA has previously acknowledged. The documents the CIA said the Senate was not supposed to receive comprised an internal review by the CIA, according to Feinstein, and its conclusions bolster her committee’s own harsh assessment of the agency’s black site program.

At the moment, there appears to be no danger that the White House will throw Brennan under the bus. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had full confidence in his CIA director.

Nonetheless, the investigations into the incident are far from over. The Justice Department is now probing both whether Senate staff members illegally acquired CIA documents they were not allowed to access and whether the CIA violated the law by searching through computers it established for those Senate staffers to review millions of pages of documents relating the agency’s black site program.

Then there is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report itself. While a draft of that document was finished at the end of 2012, the committee and the CIA have gone back and forth for nearly a year and a half over that report.

Feinstein’s floor speech Tuesday was bruising. She accused the CIA’s acting general counsel, who was the lead lawyer for the agency division responsible for the black site program, of trying to intimidate professional senate staffers by referring a frivolous crime report to the Justice Department for the stealing of classified documents. Feinstein also directly contradicted what she said CIA officials had told her committee, saying that at no point were the records sought by her staff off limits to Congress.

“I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate,” Feinstein said. “I have received neither.”

Congressional staffers and intelligence officials told Foreign Policy that relations between the agency and its Senate overseers haven’t been this bad in decades. Hoekstra said Feinstein is right to raise the alarm: “If I were chairman I would be doing exactly what Feinstein is doing. I applaud her.”

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For his part, Brennan defended the CIA’s actions. “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong,” Brennan said.

It’s possible the investigations will vindicate Brennan. But Feinstein has a very different view of the facts and that could put pressure on Obama to let one of his closest advisers go. If Obama decides to do that, though, he could face the same kind of political problems that many observers believe besieged the George W. Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq. During the 2004 election, many of Bush’s closest allies suspected the CIA was orchestrating a leak campaign to discredit the war in Iraq in protest of what they saw as a politicized decision-making process to invade.

“Any agency can undermine just about anyone,” said Hoekstra, who served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during the first two years of Bush’s second term. “We saw that under the Bush administration, there were leaks coming out all over the place. You never knew where they were coming from and some of them were coming from the intelligence community and the objective was to embarrass President Bush.”

If the CIA and the broader intelligence community come to feel the same way about Obama, the White House could find itself as under siege as Bush was in his second term. Then Obama would not only have to face opposition to his foreign policy from Republicans in Congress, but also the bureaucracy of spies that know many of his darkest secrets.