John Brennan is no Chuck Hagel. That much was clear from the confirmation hearings on Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. Unlike Hagel, who stumbled and mumbled through his performance, Brennan demonstrated a deep knowledge of his brief and answered (or gamely parried) tough questions with great self-assurance and forcefulness.
But several of Brennan’s answers before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were problematic. Indeed, his three and a half hours of testimony raised important questions on two issues central to his nomination: the politicization of intelligence and the Obama administration’s approach to fighting radical Islam. Brennan will face additional questions in both areas at a closed hearing on his nomination on February 12. He should.
During the hearing last week, several senators asked Brennan about the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) used by the CIA during the Bush administration. In a 2007 interview, Brennan offered a broad defense of the program. “There [has] been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hardcore terrorists,” Brennan said. “It has saved lives,” he continued. “And let’s not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse at all for the deaths of 3,000 innocents.”
In the same interview, however, Brennan criticized waterboarding as “inconsistent with American values” and “something that should be prohibited.” That wasn’t good enough for many Democrats, who not only believed that EITs were immoral but also desperately needed them to be deemed ineffective, even if the evidence demonstrated otherwise. So Democrats on the intelligence committee undertook a “study” of EITs in an effort to discredit them further. Not surprisingly, the report questions the practices’ effectiveness.
When Brennan was asked for his thoughts on the 350-page executive summary—again, prepared only by Democrats—he testified that it had changed his mind. “I must tell you, senator, that reading this report from the committee raises serious questions about the information that I was given at the time and the impression I had at that time. Now I have to determine what, based on that information as well as what CIA says, what the truth is.”
So Brennan trusts a partisan report produced by senators whose conclusions were announced before the study was even commissioned as much as his own firsthand, contemporaneous knowledge of the effectiveness of the program while he was at the CIA? As Senator Saxby Chambliss pointed out, Brennan received more than 50 emails on the results of interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, one of three al Qaeda leaders to be waterboarded. Brennan’s predecessors who have spoken about the issue publicly—Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta—have acknowledged that EITs produced valuable information. And a close look at the CIA inspector general’s report on EITs leaves readers with one inescapable conclusion: They worked.
If Brennan’s apparent change of heart on EITs causes concern about his ability to put analysis ahead of politics, his comments on Ali Harzi, a suspect in the Benghazi attacks last fall, raise questions about the Obama administration’s approach to radical Islam and—more immediately troubling—Brennan’s veracity.
Did John Brennan lie under oath? The answer appears to be yes.
Here’s the backstory. Senator Marco Rubio asked Brennan about Harzi, who was detained in Tunisia and eventually released by the Tunisian government. When Rubio asked why the United States couldn’t prevent Harzi’s release by the Tunisians, Brennan responded that the United States must respect Tunisian law and traditions. “The Tunisians did not have a basis in their law to hold him.” And when Rubio pushed further, Brennan dismissed his concerns and made a claim that simply isn’t true.
“We didn’t have anything on him, either,” Brennan said. “If we did, we would have made a point to the Tunisians to turn him over to us, but we didn’t have that.”
We didn’t have anything on him?
First, Harzi had a history. He’d been detained by the Tunisian government for five years, from 2006 to 2011, on terrorism charges. Among other concerns, he was then seeking to join his brother, a midlevel operative in Al Qaeda in Iraq. Second, after the Benghazi attack Harzi was detained in Turkey, at least in part on the basis of intelligence provided to the Turks by the U.S. government. Third, Harzi was held in Tunisia for three months on the strength of intelligence the U.S. government collected about his involvement in the Benghazi attacks. According to the Daily Beast, that intelligence included real-time social media updates from Benghazi about the unfolding attack. Fourth, Harzi’s own lawyer says that the Tunisian courts are still monitoring Harzi because he remains charged with membership in a terrorist group.
If Brennan believes the U.S. government doesn’t have “anything” on Harzi, it’s hard to find others who share that assessment.
“He was involved,” one U.S. official familiar with the investigation told The Weekly Standard. This view echoed those of several intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Fawzi Jaballah, an adviser to Tunisia’s justice ministry, said the Tunisian attorney general opposed the release. Interior minister Ali Larayedh said in a TV interview that Harzi is “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested during her final appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is evidence of Harzi’s involvement—just not evidence that can be presented in court.
“Upon his release, I called the Tunisian prime minister,” she testified. “A few days later [FBI] Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister. We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released because at that time—and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length—there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court.”
Of course, not having evidence that can be presented “in an open court” is very different from not having “anything on him.” Would an FBI team spend five weeks on the ground in Tunisia if the U.S. government had no evidence of his involvement in the attack? And why would the FBI director discuss Harzi with the prime minister of Tunisia if the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him”?
The short answer: He wouldn’t. Three sources familiar with the investigation tell The Weekly Standard that one of the main reasons for Mueller’s mid-January stop in Tunisia was to press the Tunisian government for help with Harzi. And no one among the dozen U.S. officials spoken to for this story agreed with Brennan’s characterization that the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him.” Harzi was not the most important figure in the Benghazi attacks, but there is no doubt the United States has evidence of his involvement.
Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Frank Wolf worked with the State Department and the FBI to get the Tunisian government to allow the FBI access to Harzi. “There was a sense of urgency from the FBI in all of my discussions about him,” says Graham. “The FBI guys I talked to felt very strongly that this guy was involved. He was a prime target.”
Wolf, who has spoken regularly to senior State Department and FBI officials, says he had the same understanding. “The FBI team that went over there to interview him—they believe he was there [in Benghazi] and has a lot of information. I’m told he remains a person of significant interest.”
An FBI spokesman tells The Weekly Standard: “I don’t think there’s anything we can say on the record while this is under investigation.”
Brennan’s eagerness to downplay Ali Harzi should concern senators for another reason. It’s consistent with the Obama administration’s response to jihadist attacks and radical Islam more broadly. So when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, the president falsely claimed he was “an isolated extremist” long after it was clear that he was a committed jihadist with strong ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And when Faisal Shahzad sought to blow up an SUV in Times Square, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano called it a “one-off” attack by an unaffiliated individual, ignoring claims of responsibility from the Pakistani Taliban.
And on Benghazi, the Obama administration’s official line, as articulated by Susan Rice five days later, was that the attacks that killed four Americans were “spontaneous” and the result of an anti-Islam video. She said this despite a report from the CIA station chief in Libya that the assault had been a terrorist attack and also claims from the nation’s two top defense officials—Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey—that they knew this on the night of September 11. And Brennan’s claims of transparency notwithstanding, the White House still refuses to produce 70 emails that top administration and intelligence officials exchanged in preparing the “talking points” for Rice’s television appearances.
John Brennan may not be Chuck Hagel. But that’s not a reason to confirm him.