Four years in President Barack Obama’s White House and a role in overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden have helped CIA Director-nominee John Brennan overcome a political taint from agency use of interrogation methods that once doomed his prospects for the job.
Republican lawmakers focused instead yesterday on national security leaks as likely questions for Brennan’s confirmation hearings while human-rights advocates concentrated on the Obama administration’s use of drone attacks for targeted killings after his nomination was announced.
Brennan’s senior post in the CIA under President George W. Bush was so politically damaging four years ago that he withdrew from consideration for the director’s job after objections from some Democrats. Human-rights groups had voiced concern that he supported, or failed to stop, harsh questioning techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
Chosen instead to be White House counterterrorism adviser, Brennan has been at Obama’s side for some of the most dramatic moments of his presidency. That has included a key role in planning the operation to kill or capture bin Laden and overseeing fixes to security failures exposed by an airliner bombing attempt on Christmas Day in 2009.
Obama praised Brennan at a White House ceremony yesterday as “one of our nation’s most skilled and respected intelligence professionals.”
Brennan and Obama have “a real personal bond and trust,” said Michael Leiter, director of the government’s National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011. “Over the past four years, they have worked together incredibly closely and they have talked probably every day.”
Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterterrorism center, compared Brennan’s path under Obama to the trajectory of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s career.
Gates withdrew his nomination to be CIA director in 1987 after controversy over his role at the agency during the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1991, after serving on President George H.W. Bush’s White House staff, he was nominated again for the CIA post and confirmed.
“The issues hadn’t gone away,” said Pillar, now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in Washington. “It’s just that time had passed. It’s similar with this one.”
Brennan, 57, left the CIA in 2005 after a 25-year career that included stints in its covert-action and analytic units. He would replace retired Army General David Petraeus, who resigned as director in November, citing an extramarital affair.
Republican lawmakers stressed national security leaks in their misgivings with Brennan. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican leader, expressed concern in a statement that Brennan hasn’t been “exonerated” yet as a source of the leaks.
“John Brennan has not been absolved of responsibility for the slew of high-level security leaks that have characterized this White House,” Cornyn said. “This investigation needs to be resolved before his nomination can move forward.”
Cornyn and other Republicans have cited leaks they say appeared geared toward burnishing Obama’s national-security credentials. Among unauthorized disclosures were that the U.S. and Israel created the Stuxnet computer virus that damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuges; that Obama personally approves targets for drone attacks; and that a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner was foiled because intelligence officials had infiltrated the terror group.
“Brennan will need to answer questions about his role in recent disclosures of classified information before I can support his nomination,” Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican and member of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a prepared statement.
Obama has denied that White House officials leaked classified information, calling the notion that they would do so “offensive.” Attorney General Eric Holder has named two prosecutors to investigate the leaks.
Brennan’s record as deputy executive director of the CIA under President George W. Bush and the agency’s use of harsh interrogation techniques remain a concern for at least some senators.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a statement that he planned to examine what role Brennan may have had “in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”
Brennan defended the CIA’s rendition program, in which suspected terrorists were sent for questioning to nations that in some cases practiced torture, as an “absolutely vital tool” in a 2005 interview on PBS television’s “Newshour.”
He said in a 2007 interview on CBS Corp.’s “The Early Show” that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation tactics” had “saved lives.” Still, in the same interview he said that waterboarding is “inconsistent with American values, and it’s something that should be prohibited.”
Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer and National Security Council official who once worked for Brennan, said his former boss was never in favor of waterboarding or other extreme measures, never pushed for them and argued internally that they were ineffective and prone to producing inaccurate intelligence.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said that while his group won’t take a position on Brennan’s confirmation, it will be urging senators to use the debate to draw out more specifics about Brennan’s view of the future of the drone program to kill terrorist suspects. The group wants to see the program turned over to the military.
“We would expect and hope that the Senate asks him substantive questions, especially about the legal basis for the drone program and whether he thinks the CIA should retain its lead role in managing that program,” Malinowski said. Brennan may be supportive of transferring much, if not all, of the program to the Pentagon, he said.
Malinowski said Brennan is seen as a complicated figure because he’s regarded as an influential member of the administration who has sided with human-rights groups on other issues. Among other things, he said, Brennan was supportive of holding civilian trials in the U.S. for the Sept. 11 defendants.
“On a lot of issues, he’s been very much actually on the side of the angels, in my point of view,” he said.
The Arabic-speaking Brennan is highly regarded by past and future colleagues at the CIA, who said he possesses a rare combination of experience, intellect and independence.
“He is a real believer that the job of an intelligence officer is to describe things the way they are, not the way people want them to be, and then to let the policy makers decide what to do,” Cannistraro said. “He’s methodical, and he looks at everything.”