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Obama's CIA Director Wants to Stick Around for Clinton

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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If Hillary Clinton wins the U.S. presidential election in November, John Brennan would like to continue his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials tell me Brennan has signaled in private conversations that he loves the job and would like to keep it if she's elected. Plus, Brennan does not want to be perceived as a lame-duck director, particularly as he leads an ambitious plan to restructure the agency.

At the same time, Brennan has all but taken himself out of consideration to serve in a Trump administration. Speaking last month at the Brookings Institution, he said he would not execute an order to torture captured terrorists or target the families of terrorists, as Trump has promised he would authorize if elected president. 

Brennan first suggested he wanted to stay on as CIA director during an NPR interview in February. He was asked what he'd like to accomplish before the next president takes office. "Well, I don't know when I will leave CIA," he answered. "There are three people who determine that: the president -- whether it's this one or the next one -- myself, and my wife, who's been my partner for the last 37 years."

Brennan has also floated the idea to members of Congress that the CIA director position should be like its counterpart at the FBI, with a 10-year term that would continue over different presidential administrations. In the NPR interview, Brennan hinted at that possibility, saying "Whatever amount of time I have left here at CIA -- whether it be one year or 10 years -- I want to make sure that the next generation of CIA officers are equipped to deal with the challenges that they will face."

Brennan's desire to stay in his job would present two potential problems for Clinton were she to win the election. First, two other qualified former spies are said to covet the top slot at the CIA. Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting CIA director, as well as Michael Vickers, a former CIA officer and undersecretary of defense for intelligence, are widely considered leading candidates for the post in a Clinton administration. 

Morell in particular has been helpful to Clinton. In his memoir and in congressional testimony, he blamed the CIA and the White House for the talking points on the 2012 Benghazi attack that attributed an act of terror to a demonstration over an internet video. Clinton, of course, was secretary of state at the time, and Republicans have leveled most of their criticism of Benghazi at her.

On top of this, Brennan is a lightning rod for the progressive flank of the Democratic Party. In 2008, the White House scuttled his nomination for CIA director after some Democrats and grass-roots groups complained that Brennan was implicated in the CIA's own program to detain and torture high-value terrorists, because he had a senior position at the agency at the time. And in 2014, Senate Democrats rebuked Brennan after he recommended charging Senate staffers for mishandling classified information, when in fact the agency had been monitoring their database searches during an oversight investigation into CIA black sites. 

Brennan has also run afoul of conservatives. In a 2010 speech, Brennan rejected the idea of calling Islamic terrorists "jihadists," a term Clinton herself has used recently. "Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenant of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community," Brennan said at the time, "and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children." Conservatives have long criticized Obama for failing to speak plainly about radical Islam, even though his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, also downplayed the Islamic component of al-Qaeda and other terror groups.

All of that said, Brennan does have the benefit of understanding the intricacies of the U.S. drone war that expanded significantly under Obama. Indeed, he is one of the main authors of that policy, going back to his time at the White House during Obama's first term.

There was a time when Obama endeavored to end that war by the time he left office. It's now clear that Obama's successor will inherit it. Brennan is hoping that if that successor is Clinton, she will also inherit the architect of the drone war that he and Obama can't seem to end.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net