Brennan boasts a 25-year intelligence career and an expertise in counterterrorism, skills that should aid President Barack Obama as deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism. But his presence in the White House is also troubling to some who question his involvement in Bush-era interrogation tactics.
A fluent Arabic speaker, Brennan is known for being smart and tough-as-nails. According to George W. Bush CIA director George J. Tenet, Brennan once confronted a top Iranian spy in the streets of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
But his connections in the intelligence community have also gotten Brennan in trouble. Brennan was Obama’s top pick for CIA director, but he withdrew his name in November 2008 after he was attacked for his earlier statements in support of the Bush administration’s advanced interrogation techniques. Instead, Obama appointed Brennan to a White House job that does not require Senate confirmation.
Brennan's was further empowered when President Obama combined the homeland security and national security functions of the National Security Council, with the homeland security portfolio under Brennan. Brennan has "direct and immediate" access to the president. White House statement, May 26, 2009
The “very important difference now as opposed to in the previous administration is that President Obama I think has been able to connect to the world in a very positive way,” Brennan said in an August 2009 speech. Tapper, Jake, ABC's "Political Punch Podcast," Aug. 7, 2009
Path to Power
New Jersey native Brennan graduated from Fordham University in 1977 after a year of intensive Arabic and Middle Eastern studies in Cairo. He earned his J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin before joining the CIA as an intelligence director in 1980.
Brennan held a series of positions at the agency in America and abroad; he worked in Saudi Arabia and in Washington on Near Eastern and South Asian analyses. In the 1990s, he led counter-terrorism efforts for a variety of programs and worked closely with Tenet, who appointed him as his chief of staff in 1999.
Brennan was named CIA deputy executive director in March 2001 and served in that post until 2003. In 2004, he accepted a job at the National Counter-Terrorism Center, where he revamped the government’s monitoring of terrorist activity by incorporating information from across agencies. He also increased the number of analysts and compiled one of the most comprehensive reports on terrorism across the world. “We want to make sure that we are looking at it [terrorism] openly and as exhaustively as possible,” Brennan said in 2004. He also created the terrorist watch list, which contains names and data on thousands of suspected terrorists and is accessible to law enforcement officials, during his tenure.Transcript of Secretary Tom Ridge and TTIC Director John Brennan During Media Availability, Department of Homeland Security, Oct. 10, 2004
In 2005, Brennan left government for Analysis Corp., a Fairfax company that provides support to the government’s counter-terrorism efforts.“New At the Top: John O. Brennan,” Washington Post, Dec. 12, 2005 He returned to politics in 2008 as a senior adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. He was the top contender for the CIA director before he withdrew his name in November 2008 amid concerns that Brennan had condoned the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques of high-value terrorist detainees.
In January 2009, Obama appointed Brennan deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism.Mazzetti, Mark, “Candidate for CIA Post Withdraws His Name,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2008
Brennan’s number-one priority will be protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks. He sees the “war on terror” not as a battle, but rather a global campaign to stamp out terrorism.“Interview: John Brennan,” Frontline
In an August 2009 speech before the Center for Straegic and International Studies, Brennan outlined the ways in which Obama's war on terror is different than George W. Bush's, pointing specificaly to efforts to close Guantanamo Bay prison, diplomatic efforts and mending fences with important U.S. allies. He said Obama was actively confronting Al Qaeda in what amounts to the group's safe haven in Pakistan.Tapper Jake, ABC News, "Political Punch," Aug. 7. 2009
"Tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans,” Brennan said, “and these practices have been rightly terminated and should not, and will not, happen again," he continued, describing them as a "recruitment bonanza for terrorists."
Brennan also sought to portray Obama as a decisive commander-in-chief who was unafraid to aggressively confront Al-Qaeda, saying that he approved a "number of actions and initiatives against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups" since becoming president.Tapper Jake, ABC News, "Political Punch," Aug. 7. 2009
Though he didn't name Bush, Brennen said that his new boss “rejects an absolutist approach or the imposition of a rigid ideology on our problems. Like the world itself, [Obama's] views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological.” Tapper Jake, ABC News, "Political Punch," Aug. 7. 2009
Brennan was a top aide to former CIA head Tenet after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11; since then, it has been revealed that the CIA used harsh interrogation methods against terrorist detainees, including waterboarding, sparking a controversial political debate over the meaning of torture. But Brennan has since sharply distanced himself from the CIA program.
In August 2009, President Obama handed Brennan ultimate power over the conduct of his war on terror when he named him the head of a new task force that would be charged with overseeing the Justice Department's high-value detainee interrogation program. Gerstein, Josh, Politico.com, "White House to Set Up New Interrogation Team," Aug. 24, 2009
In an August 2009 interview with ABC's "Political Punch Podcast," Brennan answered critics who have attacked him for his role at the CIA while such tactics were employed.
“I personally was always opposed to waterboarding and certain types of techniques, and I think there were people who supported me in that and were able to acknowledge that I was a critic of that when I was in the agency,” Brennan said. “What I want to do is make sure that the United States really projects an image, and its actions convey its strong commitment to individual rights and dignity and waterboarding was not in keeping with that.” Tapper, Jakes, ABC's "Political Punch Podcast," Aug. 7, 2009
Speaking about his CIA tenure, Brennan told ABC: "I was involved in a lot of things supporting our national security. I felt good about them, and I wanted to maintain my involvement in these national security initiatives and programs so I don’t have any regrets about what I did while I was in the Agency."
He added: "I'm frequently surprised at what I see I am reported to have been involved in or to have said because there's quite frankly a lot of misrepresentations out there in the press.”
But Brennan has previously defended the CIA's tactics. In a 2005 interview with Jim Lehrer, Brennan defended the use of extraordinary rendition, saying it is “an absolutely vital tool.” Critics of the practice, which involves arresting detainees in one country and transporting them to another (often without any public notice of the arrest), charge that it is often a tactic used to move suspects to countries that are willing to use torture.Lehrer, Jim, "Debating Rendition Tactics," NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Dec. 5, 2005 On CBS in November 2007, Brennan said that enhanced interrogation techniques have generated “a lot of information … that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists.”"Media downplay former CIA official Brennan's support of 'enhanced interrogation techniques,'" Media Matters, Jan. 7, 2009
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Brennan changed that stance, saying repeatedly that the Obama administration would not condone torture. He also called himself a “strong opponent” of the CIA’s techniques in 2008, and has specifically opposed water boarding.Mazzetti, Mark, “Candidate for CIA Post Withdraws His Name,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2008
However, these assurances were not enough to assuage bloggers and some human-rights advocates, who called the choice dangerous.Weiner, Rachel, “John Brennan, Torture-Tainted CIA Prospect, Alarms Obama Supporters,” Huffington Post, Nov. 21, 2008 “Appointing John Brennan to a position of high authority would be to affirm and embrace, not repudiate, the darkest aspects of the last eight years,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, a liberal lawyer and blogger for Salon.com.Greenwald, Glenn, “The list of the governments that have persecuted journalists,” Salon, Nov. 21, 2008
When he withdrew his name from consideration for CIA head, Brennan cited these criticisms as the reason, saying he did not want to distract from the work of the transition team.
Brennan, like many intelligence community members, is a staunch supporter of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the U.S. to collect information through wiretapping and other methods.
National Public Radio reported that Brennan convinced Obama to support reauthorizing the FISA bill, with some new restrictions, in July 2008 by arguing that the program is “essential to the fight against terrorism.” Brennan supports granting telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for providing information to the government after 9/11 because they were “told to do so by the appropriate authorities that were operating in a legal context.”Gjelten, Tom, "Election 2008: Candidates on the Issues: Candidates' Long-Held Intelligence Views Shift," NPR, July 7, 2008
Brennan has suggested that a team of executive, legislative and judicial representatives work together to oversee the implementation of FISA and review the process in order to ensure that it is being implemented appropriately.
Brennan has argued that the government should have the right to view citizens’ records and eavesdrop on their communications “if there is probable cause, reasonable suspicion, about the involvement of a U.S. person in something.”“Interview: John Brennan,” Frontline
He has also said that the government should be able to utilize information gathered by private companies (like car rental records or purchases from web sites) in extreme circumstances.“Interview: John Brennan,” Frontline
In a July 2008 paper, Brennan called on the United States to soften its rhetoric towards Iran without relenting on its demands for Iran to cut ties to terrorists. He also called on American officials to reach out to the country and establish a direct dialogue.Brennan, John, “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” The Annals of the American Academy, July 2008
Brennan has advised the U..S. to offer “meaningful carrots, as well as sticks” in its negotiations with Iran. He contends that U.S. officials could afford to relax their stance on certain issues, such as loosening sanctions on the sale of spare airline parts and offering to help negotiate key issues like Israeli-Palestinian relationships.Brennan, John, “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” The Annals of the American Academy, July 2008 http://ann.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/618/1/168
Right now, Brennan is most famous (or some say infamous) for his ties to George J. Tenet, former CIA director under President George W. Bush.
Brennan, who was a top adviser to President Barack Obama during the campaign, is close to Anthony Lake, a national security adviser to President Bill Clinton who ran the Obama campaign’s foreign policy effort.Mazetti, Mark, “John O. Brennan,” New York Times, Nov. 14, 2008