President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, has been one of the president’s closest advisers over the last four years. So it should come as no surprise that Obama wants him to run Langley. And Brennan’s boosters lay out a compelling case.
Brennan has served as Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, overseeing the administration’s approach to fighting al Qaeda. This includes the use of drone attacks, which became the administration’s signature tactic. Osama bin Laden and a significant number of other senior al Qaeda leaders were killed on Brennan’s shift. And Brennan is a 25-year veteran of Langley, meaning he knows the CIA well and can manage the vast intelligence bureaucracy.
That is how the president sees Brennan’s nomination. But this narrative leaves out messy details—complexities that the Senate Intelligence Committee would be well served to explore.
Some have attacked Brennan, for instance, for making favorable comments about the CIA’s detention and enhanced interrogation program. It is heresy on the American left to claim that any good came out of the program, and the issue is likely to come up during Brennan’s confirmation hearing.
During an appearance on CBS News with Harry Smith on November 2, 2007, Brennan said the CIA’s interrogation practices had protected Americans. “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 hard-core 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.”
Brennan was asked about a form of waterboarding during the same interview, and denounced the practice. “I think it is certainly subjecting an individual to severe pain and suffering, which is the classic definition of torture,” Brennan said. “And I believe, quite frankly, it’s inconsistent with American values and it’s something that should be prohibited.” However, Brennan pointed out, only “about a third” of the 100 or so terrorists detained by the CIA since the attacks of 9/11 “have been subjected to what the CIA refers to as enhanced interrogation tactics, and only a small proportion of those have in fact been subjected to the most serious types of enhanced procedures.”
President Obama shuttered the CIA’s detention program—the same one John Brennan said “saved lives”—as one of his first acts in office. The United States has by and large gotten out of the detention business. The highest-profile terrorists captured in Obama’s first term have remained in the custody of American allies, who are often duplicitous.
For example, a Tunisian named Ali Harzi, who is suspected of playing a direct role in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was captured in Turkey at the behest of American officials in October. He was deported to his home country, where he remained imprisoned for months before the FBI finally got access to him. Harzi was interviewed by the Americans for just three hours in December. A Tunisian court recently ordered him released.
There was a time when a suspected terrorist such as Harzi would have been detained at Guantánamo or in one of the CIA’s so-called black sites. Now, America either kills terrorists in drone strikes, thereby forgoing the opportunity to question them and potentially learn life-saving intelligence, or depends on foreign countries’ willingness to keep them in custody.
This raises a host of difficult questions for Brennan to answer. Does Brennan still believe that the CIA’s interrogation program saved lives? If so, why isn’t such a program necessary today? As Brennan himself remarked in 2007, the CIA used “the most serious types of enhanced procedures” (e.g., waterboarding) on “only a small proportion” of the detained terrorists. In fact, the CIA waterboarded only three captured terrorists and discontinued the practice in 2003. Why shouldn’t the CIA or other U.S. authorities still capture and question terrorists at American-run facilities, using techniques short of the “most serious” ones? Does Brennan think that potentially life-saving intelligence is being missed because the United States does not have a robust detention capability? What does he think America’s detention policy for suspected terrorists such as Harzi should be?
On April 30, 2012, Brennan delivered a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. His main theme was that President Obama had encouraged the national security team to be more transparent when it comes to the most controversial issues of the day. “A few months after taking office,” Brennan said, “the president traveled to the National Archives, where he discussed how national security requires a delicate balance between secrecy and transparency.” Obama “pledged to share as much information as possible with the American people ‘so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable,’ ” Brennan continued. Obama “has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible as well.”
There is much to inquire about concerning Brennan’s attempts to maintain this “balance between secrecy and transparency.”
The press has already reported on Brennan’s possible role in various national security leaks. In May 2012, a U.S. official disclosed to journalists that a mole within Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the Obama administration describes as al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, had disrupted a nascent plot to blow up an airliner. AQAP had already attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day 2009 and two cargo planes the following year. AQAP has, therefore, shown its keen interest in attacking the airline industry. This makes the leak of a secret agent inside AQAP’s ranks especially troubling.
Mark Hosenball of Reuters first reported that the night before news of the mole broke, Brennan held a teleconference with “former counterterrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.” During the conversation, Brennan downplayed the seriousness of the plot, saying that the United States had “inside control” over it. A few minutes later, one of the call’s participants, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, made the same claim during an appearance on ABC’s World News Tonight. Clarke concluded during another appearance on ABC a few hours later that the United States “had somebody on the inside who wasn’t going to let it happen.” Reuters reported: “The next day’s headlines were filled with news of a U.S. spy planted inside Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who had acquired the latest, nonmetallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.”
The White House, of course, denies that classified information was divulged during the teleconference and says it is “ridiculous” to suspect Brennan was involved in the leak. “White House officials and others on the call insist that Brennan disclosed no classified information during that conference call and chose his words carefully to avoid doing so,” Reuters reported.
But other than a secret agent within AQAP’s ranks, what could “inside control” possibly mean? Clarke easily made the connection. If Brennan did not leak this information to the press, who did? Does he know? Did anyone leak this intelligence at the behest of Brennan?
Eight months have passed since the leak, and we still don’t know the answers. That is hardly a model of transparency. Meanwhile, the British were heavily involved in the operation and have lamented that it had to be terminated early. Authorities were hoping to collect additional intelligence.
The senators will undoubtedly probe this and other leaks. But they should focus on the other side of this coin as well: transparency.
The existence of a spy inside AQAP is, quite obviously, the type of secret the U.S. government should keep. But the government also routinely classifies information unnecessarily. As a result, information that should be made public isn’t.
During his Wilson Center speech, for instance, Brennan cited the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Brennan said that the al Qaeda master’s files show al Qaeda “is losing badly,” “continue[s] to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates,” and is “struggling to attract new recruits.” What’s more, “some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win.”
Brennan also announced that some of the Abbottabad documents would be released online a few days later by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, and indeed some were. In all, 17 documents were declassified and released. Press accounts reveal that 6,000 or so documents had been translated by that point. This means that well under 1 percent of the cache was made available to the public.
Presumably, the documents selected for release were ones the administration thought would buoy its case about al Qaeda’s impending demise. But reporting on the documents that were not released undermines Brennan’s analysis.
ProPublica cited an anonymous U.S. intelligence official who concluded that bin Laden “managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and Iraq.” Towards the end of his life, bin Laden did not enjoy “the same degree of detailed involvement” he once had, this official said, “but he played a huge role in [the] leadership” of the affiliates.
The Guardian (U.K.) reported that bin Laden’s files show extensive collusion between the Taliban and al Qaeda—a finding that further complicates the Obama administration’s ill-conceived effort to split the two. And Bruce Riedel, a former Obama adviser, told the Hindustan Times that bin Laden’s files show he had a close relationship with the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group closely allied with al Qaeda that was responsible for the siege of Mumbai in November 2008. Riedel explained, in fact, that the files “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.”
How many files, in total, were captured in bin Laden’s compound? Why haven’t more of bin Laden’s files been released? If Obama and Brennan are serious about “shar[ing] as much information as possible with the American people,” then most of bin Laden’s cache should be made available to the public.
There is also the administration’s lack of transparency with respect to the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Brennan is not camera-shy, to put it mildly. Yet in the weeks following the assault, Brennan was missing in action, allowing other administration officials to explain to the public (erroneously) what had transpired.
Four months after the attack, we still have no answers. We can piece together from press reporting several of the al Qaeda-linked personalities and organizations that were responsible, but the administration has not provided any real analysis of the culprits. We know, for example, that terrorists trained by an Egyptian named Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, a longtime ally of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, took part in the attack. The U.S. government reportedly requested that the Egyptians arrest Kashef, and they did.
Has the United States been able to question Kashef? If not, why? What do we know about the role of al Qaeda-affiliated parties in the attack? Why did the administration, including President Obama, insist for weeks that the assault evolved out of a demonstration against an anti-Islam film when we know that there never was a demonstration in Benghazi? Why has the United States not responded with military force against any of the terrorists responsible? None of the Benghazi suspects are in custody. Why?
Senators should seek answers to these questions and more before they vote to approve Brennan’s appointment.