Special Update: Brennan Nomination and Challenges for the Intelligence Community

January 9, 2013

As President Obama nominates John Brennan to be the new Director of the CIA, the Agency and the shape of U.S. espionage face challenges much bigger than one individual. Congress and the administration will have to work with CIA leadership to ensure the wrongs of the past are not repeated; rebalance away from the CIA’s extreme focus on counterterrorism and paramilitary operations; and make a clear case against ineffective and unconstitutional policies and for effective transparency, rule of law and oversight. Brennan is a 25 year veteran of the CIA, who has been the President’s main advisor on counterterrorism and homeland security issues for the past four years. Brennan takes the lead at the CIA at a time when the agency and the national security community are facing a number of important questions and challenges about the future of U.S. intelligence missions and functions. These are vital questions that the new CIA Director, the rest of the administration and Congress must work together to answer.

Brennan a career civil servant and one of the architects of the campaign that has decimated al Qaeda. CNN describes John Brennan’s background in the intelligence and national security community: “Brennan, 57, joined the CIA after responding to a want ad in the newspaper and spent 25 years there developing a deep knowledge of the Mideast and fluency in Arabic.” His posts reportedly have included CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, President Bill Clinton’s daily intelligence briefer, chief of staff to the CIA Director, and deputy executive director of the agency. He also set up the multiagency National Counterterrorism Center.

Brennan’s tenure at the White House has twinned strong public support for U.S. values and the rule of law – including closing Guantanamo and prohibiting the use of torture — with the dramatic expansion of targeted killing and drone programs. With spurious arguments about Benghazi and whether Brennan is “soft-on-jihad” threatening to take over the public debate, the CIA and Congress, no matter who runs the agency, must urgently address questions around transparency, the rule of law, and rebalancing the CIA’s activities in a post-post 9/11 world. [CNN, 1/9/12. John Brennan, 3/8/11]

Updating, refocusing, sharpening oversight of intelligence and counterterrorism institutions are urgent tasks. A new director will be important and will from Congress and the administration to tackle post 9/11 hangovers is equally vital:

Draw a line under torture. Brennan has been criticized for a purported role in the Bush-era CIA use of torture in interrogations. He has spoken strongly against it in the last four years; the real challenge for Washington is to ensure no future Administration overturns the Obama ban on it, and to take seriously so that the wrongs of the past are not repeated.

Oppose clearly new damaging laws on torture and detention. There is now an annual debate over detention and interrogation procedures that military experts say are unconstitutional, ineffective and hurt U.S. security. The Huffington Post reports on this year’s bill: “President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 on [last] Wednesday, despite his own threat to veto it over prohibitions on closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Civil liberties advocates had roundly criticized the bill over Guantanamo and a separate section that could allow the military to indefinitely detain American citizens on suspicions of supporting terrorism.” [Huffington Post, 1/3/13]

Bring greater transparency and rule of law to targeted killing and the drones program. The Washington Post reports, “Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency. Still, during Brennan’s tenure, the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and opened a new base for armed drones in the Arabian Peninsula.” [Washington Post, 10/24/12]

Put intelligence collection back in front of the CIA’s role, and return paramilitary activity to Pentagon scrutiny. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius explains, that over the past few years, particularly under the direction of General David Petraeus, “the CIA’s traditional mission of stealing secrets was morphing into a wider role that increasingly stressed paramilitary covert action.” Ignatius adds, “the Petraeus-era CIA had a hidden defect, quite apart from any errant e-mails, which was that the paramilitary covert-action function was swallowing alive the old-fashioned intelligence-gathering side of the house… The CIA inevitably will continue to mount some paramilitary operations… But one resolution for the post-Petraeus CIA should be to put intelligence collection back in the driver’s seat at the agency.” [David Ignatius, 11/13/12]

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