After Petraeus

Who Is John Brennan, the Man Touted to Be the Next CIA Director?

Daniel Klaidman on John Brennan, the counterterrorism chief who is the face of the drone program and touted as the next CIA director.

In the wake of the ignominious downfall of David Petraeus, two contenders have emerged as his most likely successor as head of the CIA, according to three senior administration officials. They are John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, and Michael Morell, the current acting director and a three-decade veteran of the agency. These sources say that Brennan, who spent 25 years in the CIA and is especially close to Obama, would have the inside track, but it’s unclear that he plans to stay for a second Obama term.

“It’s John’s if he wants it,” says one of the sources, who declined to be named discussing a sensitive presidential personnel appointment. Before the election—and the Petraeus scandal—Brennan had let colleagues know he was seriously considering leaving government. He seemed ready to move on after four grueling, stress-inducing years in one of Washington’s most high-stakes positions. But since the vacancy at the spy agency opened up, there are indications he may have had a change of heart. "He’s leaving the door open,” says one associate.

Other candidates who have been mentioned for the CIA job include Michael Vickers, a Pentagon official who oversees military intelligence, Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Jane Harman, a former nine-term member of Congress and national security expert who now runs the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, and is a member of the Newsweek/Daily Beast Co.’s board. None is currently considered a serious contender, though that could change.

A confirmation hearing for the next CIA chief would offer a public appraisal of the Obama administration’s approach to the war on al Qaeda as well as an assessment of its handling of the turmoil in countries like Libya and Syria. Both Brennan and Morell have been intimately involved in the administration’s most lauded successes, like the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, and it’s more controversial counterterror tactics, including its relentless drone program.

Some believe Morell would be the safest choice, a career intelligence official with bipartisan credentials having served as a high-ranking intelligence adviser to both George W. Bush and Obama. Morell also earned Obama’s trust when they went through the planning of the bin Laden operation, and, crucially, he has developed good relationships on Capitol Hill. But his history in the Bush administration carries some baggage. Morell was present during the infamous August 2001 briefing in which Bush received an intelligence report titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Moreover, as President Bush’s top intelligence briefer, Morell bears some responsibility for passing on inaccurate reports that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—a massive intelligence failure that many believe drove the U.S. to invade and occupy Iraq. While Morell is for the most part popular within the agency, regarded as a low-key, academically minded analyst, some former CIA officials worry about a tendency to tell his political superiors what they want to hear. They remember the retired CIA analysts who came out of the woodwork to doom Robert Gates’s first nomination to the CIA by Ronald Reagan wielding a similar allegation.

There is little doubt that Brennan would be the favorite within the White House, where he is revered for his slavish devotion to his job and a non-ideological approach to counterterrorism. A physically imposing man with deep-set eyes, close-cropped hair, and a severe countenance, Brennan commands enormous respect among his colleagues. He is often called “Mr. Brennan” by younger White House aides, who know he is a veteran of the dark corners of the terror wars. Less thrilled with the appointment would be upper-echelon officials within the intelligence community, who say Brennan has interpreted his close relationship with the president as a license to micromanage their work. Another source of controversy, no doubt, would be his close association with the administration’s targeted-killing operations. More than anybody else, Brennan has been the public face of the secret drone program, a lightning rod for liberals and civil libertarians. This week The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by a Princeton University professor arguing that Brennan’s supervision of targeted killings in Yemen should disqualify him for the CIA job.

Brennan’s been here before. Four years ago, he was Obama’s top choice to lead the CIA. The two men met for the first time at a transition meeting in Chicago. It took little time to realize they were almost completely in synch when it came to counterterrorism strategy. They talked about a more “surgical" approach to fighting al Qaeda, rather than a “mow ‘em all down strategy” as Brennan put it. Clearly on their minds, if not explicitly stated, was the high-tech tool that would allow the U.S. to target its enemies without sending in armies of occupation: drones.

But before Obama could formally nominate Brennan to the CIA, the liberal blogosphere erupted in opposition amid charges that the veteran spy had supported the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation techniques. It was a charge Brennan vehemently denied, but the damage was done, and the incoming president seemed loath to pick a fight with the base of his part that had just helped him get elected. Instead, Obama brought Brennan into the White House as his assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security. From his soundproof, windowless basement office, Brennan came to have unrivaled influence with the president on matters of national security and intelligence.

Over time Brennan emerged as the chief architect of the administration’s remotely controlled killing program. Supporters say it has been a ruthlessly effective tool that has led to the strategic dismantling of al Qaeda’s core organization in Pakistan. Opponents charge that it has led to untold numbers of civilian casualties, created blowback in the war on terror, and alienated the international community. Either way, Brennan, who often slips behind the closed doors of the Oval Office to decide with the president who should be targeted and who should be spared, is at the center of the administration’s high-tech killing strategy. What is less known is how Brennan has managed the program.

Though he has been among its most energetic advocates in public, behind the scenes Brennan has at times worked to constrain the program. During most of the first term, he opposed broad-based “signature” strikes in Yemen and Somalia, where the CIA and military wanted to target groups of men who bore certain signatures or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activities but whose identities were not known. The controversial tactic, sometimes called “crowdkilling,” was permitted in Pakistan, under the theory that the CIA knew the territory so well and had developed such good human intelligence that the risk of civilian casualties could be minimized. But Brennan and Obama held the line there—until earlier this year, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began seizing strategic territory in the south of Yemen. Brennan relented, allowing signature strikes in Yemen so long as there was some evidence that the suspected terrorists were planning to strike at America.

More recently, Brennan began an even broader push to restrain the CIA’s targeted-killing machine. He has argued in national security meetings that over the long haul the CIA should probably get out of the targeted-killing business, at least on such a grand scale, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence. Brennan has made the case that going forward the military is the more appropriate institution to handle such lethal operations. Under military supervision, criteria for drone attacks would be more transparent, legal authorities would be clearer, and accountability institutionalized. “John’s view is the military’s the better way to do it,” says one official, who asks not to be named discussing sensitive operational matters.

In the meantime, Brennan has been assembling a “playbook” that is supposed to lay out what one aide calls “the rule of the road” for targeted killings. And as long as the CIA maintains its drone program, aides say he will continue to push for more regularized protocols and transparency. “John believes that all of our counterterrorism operations need to be put into sustainable framework rooted not in ad hoc action but sound legal basis, oversight, and broad interagency participation,” says Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

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There is a deep disconnect between public perceptions about Brennan and how he is viewed internally within the White House. Despite his nearly three decades as an unsentimental and dour intelligence officer, Brennan has been one of the more civil-liberties-minded members of Obama’s national security team, as my book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, details. Outside observers may find that hard to reconcile with his singular role in a “kinetic” program that has led to more than 3000 deaths by some estimates. But more often than not Brennan found himself allied with people like Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer and one of the country’s leading humanitarians, rather than the hawks in the Pentagon or the CIA. Early on in the administration, for instance, Brennan pushed for a more aggressive campaign to close Guantanamo, including allowing some detainees into the United States. He was especially dismayed that Obama’s political team seemed reluctant to energetically engage Congress on terrorism issues, arguing that not doing so was a self-fulfilling sign of weakness. And he was a consistent proponent of civilian trials over military commissions for suspected terrorists.

As far as the CIA’s drone program was concerned, Brennan was one of the administration’s leading advocates for limited, if not full-blown, transparency. He gave numerous speeches himself, and encouraged other high-ranking officials to do so as well. Still, he may have undercut his credibility somewhat when he claimed in June 2011 that during the previous year there hadn’t been “a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.” That assertion was widely challenged, and Brennan later qualified it.

Given his overall record, it is likely Brennan would be able to muster enough support in the civil liberties and human rights communities to offset the likely opposition he’d receive from the left over drones. And in any event, the targeted-killing program maintains broad enough support from the American public that it is unlikely many senators will oppose Brennan’s nomination on that basis. The bigger impediment to taking the job may be his own will. After four years of moving between the shadow wars and the Washington policy wars, Brennan may be too burnt out to take over an agency that is as unwieldy and prone to controversy as the CIA. On the other hand, friends say, he likes the poetry of finishing his career leading the agency he turned to as a young man when he learned that Nathan Hale, the nation’s first spy, was hanged on his birthday.