Brennan last month informs Obama about the Newtown shootings
Brennan last month informs Obama about the Newtown shootings
Pete Souza (White House)
Micah Zenko

John Brennan, White House homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, has been nominated to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Since David Petraeus resigned from the position on November 9, it had been rumored that the position was Brennan’s for the taking. Several people in the administration believed he would defer the move to the CIA's Langley headquarters, since it would effectively be a demotion from his current position, which allows him to meet with President Obama constantly as — according to Obama administration officials — ”a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Obama.”

Moreover, Brennan would at times call CIA officers directly from the White House, without clearance from Petraeus; a practice one suspects he will not appreciate if he occupies the director’s seventh floor office.

After previously serving in the Intelligence Community for a quarter-century — including as the chief of staff to former director George Tenet — overseeing the CIA may have been too prestigious a job to turn down. It was also said that he was exhausted by all the duties of his current job unrelated to intelligence or counterterrorism, like coordinating the inter-agency response to Hurricane Sandy, and drafting an executive order on cyber security regulations, because Senate Republicans were unwilling to endorse even minimal responsibilities for the private sector to protect their computer systems. As one White House counterterrorism official told me recently, Brennan was by far the hardest-working individual among hard workers, and genuinely a nice guy.

Brennan has been at the forefront in the Obama administration’s vast expansion of its program of targeted killings in non-battlefield settings. Whereas there were roughly 50 targeted killings in the presidency of George W. Bush, there have been approximately 360 under President Obama.

Brennan has overseen and managed the hundred-person interagency process that nominates and vets suspected militants and terrorists for the United States’ various kill lists—implemented by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Moreover, as an executive branch appointee, he has been unaccountable outside of the executive branch for his decisions, since he is not required to appear before Congress or to answer a congressional subpoena. However, he has made several public speeches and statements about limited aspects of the program, some of which are preposterous and in no way supported by reality.

Behind the scenes Brennan has been one of the administration’s stronger proponents for partially explaining certain justifications for the targeted killing program. The reason for this is that many veteran policymakers recognize that the Bush administration’s policy of denying the existence of late-night explosions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was unsustainable. To protect the program from externally-imposed limits via domestic or international pressure, the Obama administration had to provide its own carefully crafted policy and legal justifications. Where controversy or probing questions arose, such as whether the United States conducts signature strikes against anonymous suspected militants, the Obama administration has remained silent.

The Bush administration engaged in the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to third-party countries, torture, and warrantless wiretapping. Ultimately, domestic political pressure led to significant reforms or termination for all three. Brennan and others fear this could happen with targeted killings as well.

Wide descretion

It is not clear whether Brennan would or could provide greater openness of the targeted killing program from Langley than his office in the White House basement. First, the Obama administration is not sure if or how they might further “reveal” aspects of the program, though they expect tougher questioning from the UN special rapporteurs and when they next subject the United States to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process. Second, since agency operations are covert, meaning they cannot be acknowledged by the U.S. government, it is unlikely that Brennan can make drone strikes suddenly more transparent where the CIA is the lead executive authority. Third, if the director of national intelligence James Clapper exercises his statutory authority as the boss of the CIA director (which he was reluctant to do under Leon Panetta and Petraeus), then Brennan will have less ability to speak directly with the White House and probably less influence.

Brennan will continue to have wide discretion over who, when, and how often the CIA conducts drone strikes in Pakistan, but this was already the case under Michael Hayden, Panetta, and Petraeus. As the Wall Street Journal reported a senior intelligence official saying, Petraeus voiced “caution against strikes on large groups of fighters what CIA officers call ‘crowd killing’,” and “has occasionally overruled recommendations of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and declined to authorize some strikes that could create friction with Pakistan.”

However, as Greg Miller revealed regarding the Obama administration’s “Disposition Matrix,” the targeted killing program really has become institutionalized, with clear lines of authority, processes, and rules. Hundreds of people have been exposed to it, and ensure its sustainability, making it far bigger than any one person—even John Brennan. As one senior official stated in October: “What is scary, is the apparatus set up without John to run it.”

It is worth noting that when it was leaked that Brennan would be nominated as CIA director in November 2008 (which made Obama furious), this was strongly resisted by progressives, human rights groups, and psychologists (opposed to the CIA’s use of torture while Brennan was a senior official), who sought a clean break from Bush’s global war on terror approach.

Brennan withdrew from consideration for the position in a November 25, 2008, letter to Obama, complaining: “I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions…Indeed, my criticism of these policies within government circles was the reason why I was twice considered for more senior-level positions in the current administration only to be rebuffed by the White House.”

Nobody can say he has not been directly and intimately involved with the Obama administration’s controversial policies and actions. It will be interesting to see if these same progressives and human rights groups oppose Brennan’s nomination 50 months later, and very revealing if they do not.

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