Brennan's rise to top of CIA
The Irish-American set to head the agency is not without critics
Four years ago the newly elected President Barack Obama was poised to nominate the CIA veteran John Brennan to head the intelligence agency he had served for a quarter of a century. But human-rights advocates, and a sizeable chunk of the liberal base that had just got Obama elected, thought otherwise.
Brennan, his critics claimed, had condoned, or at least did nothing to stop, the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation techniques that many considered torture.
Brennan served instead as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. He oversaw a war against Islamic extremists that replaced the idea of capturing them for intelligence purposes with the idea of killing them. He became the chief architect of drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He draws up the “kill list” that Obama signs off on.
Brennan went from defending the harsh treatment of terrorist suspects to defending their assassinations. And yet he is now Obama’s nominee to head the CIA. His liberal critics haven’t gone away, but Obama won’t listen to them.
His conservative critics, meanwhile, are in a quandary: do they really want to attack somebody for being too tough on suspected terrorists?
The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists to countries where torture was rampant became common in a CIA where Brennan was a senior official. They became the chief rallying points of the anti-war movement in Ireland.
So it is ironic that Brennan is the son of Roscommon natives, Owen and Dorothy. His father worked as a blacksmith on the McCalmont estate in Kilkenny (now the site of Mount Juliet). They still have relatives in Roscommon, and Brennan has been reported as saying he would like to retire there.
The family settled in New Jersey, and John went to a Catholic high school before enrolling at Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York. There he became interested in Islamic studies, and he visited Indonesia before studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. He was on a bus to class when he read an advertisement looking for CIA recruits. He said he joined out of a combination of wanderlust and patriotism.
Brennan, who is 57, has spent 25 years in the CIA, mostly as an analyst. His fluency in Arabic and experience as station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, propelled his rise in the agency as the threat from Islamic extremists grew. From 1999 to 2001 he was chief of staff, and after the 9/11 attacks he created the CIA’s counterterrorism centre, co-ordinating intelligence from international allies.
He is an admirer of Islamic culture, and he objects to the use of “jihad” to describe the exploits of extremist militants like al-Qaeda. “Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam,” Brennan once said. In speeches he regularly refers to Palestine and al-Quds, the Arabic for Jerusalem.
He was given much credit for the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, but his claim that bin Laden hid behind his wives to avoid being shot by navy Seals led to a retraction by the White House.
His critics howled in 2011 when Brennan asserted no innocent or unintended targets had been killed by US drone strikes. Medea Benjamin, of the peace group Codepink, opposes Brennan’s nomination, saying drone attacks are illegal and have killed hundreds of innocents and increased hostility to the US.
Yet Brennan retains the confidence of Obama, who lauds his work ethic, saying: “I’m not sure he slept in four years.”
Brennan claimed he opposed the abuse of suspected terrorists during the Bush administration. He insisted he opposed “coercive interrogation tactics,” including waterboarding. But some former CIA officials don’t recall him voicing internal reservations.
On CBS in 2007 he defended “these interrogation procedures that the agency has used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives.”
Brennan says he supports closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, as well as releasing some of the secret legal opinions the Obama administration used to justify targeted drone killings.
If approved, Brennan will inherit an agency that, aside from a leadership vacuum caused by the scandal-induced resignation of its former director David Petraeus, faces more existential questions. Should it remain at the heart of the clandestine war against terrorists or resume its traditional role as a spy agency that emphasised long-term intelligence gathering and analysis?
Those who know Brennan expect something of a hybrid, with a strong endorsement of the cutting-edge, paramilitary role.