Skip to comments.Brennan steps out of the shadows
Posted on 01/09/2010 4:23:48 PM PST by jazusamo
Nearly every public statement by President Barack Obama these days contains a reference or two to "my counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, John Brennan." Once a rare TV guest, he did four Sunday shows back-to-back. White House briefings and releases are peppered with mentions of the newly ubiquitous adviser sometimes referred to simply as "John" by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Some of Brennans associates even think the White House is maneuvering him to become Director of National Intelligence or CIA director in time.
Taken together, it's an abrupt step into the public eye by an intelligence veteran who has spent most of his 25-year career in the shadows. Brennan has had some stumbles in these early outings, but the steely persona conveyed by the square-jawed CIA veteran could be just what Obama needs to help beat back GOP claims that the president is soft on terrorism.
"He's a very intellectual, well-read, bright guy," said Fran Townsend, who worked with Brennan while serving as President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser. "But there's something of the North Jersey, tough-Irish-cop demeanor that comes across."
Even Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a prominent critic of the Obama Administration's approach to counterterrorism, says, He looks like a tough guy.
In reality, Brennan is more front office than hard-bitten field agent, a Fordham University graduate who speaks Arabic and spent two decades working at the CIA. Said one Brennan associate, "Brennan is no street guy. He's been an analyst his entire career...save for one tour [in Saudi Arabia]."
Some Democrats remain uneasy about Brennan's time in the Bush administration, where he worked on some of the interrogation policies Obama vowed to change. Liberal opposition helped scuttle Brennan's chances at one of the top intel jobs when Obama took office.
But that experience under both Bush and Bill Clinton also made him unique in an administration that lacked a stand-out national security persona, no Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld (the post 9/11 version, that is) that instantly reassured the American public: we know what we're doing here.
National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said turning to Brennan only made sense, given the nature of the crisis. "John is obviously the president's most trusted adviser on this matter and has been working, in a classic 'no drama Obama' way through these issues throughout most of the year," McDonough told POLITICO.
Brennan also won his stripes with some Democrats with his comeback to Vice President Dick Cheney last Sunday, after Cheney questioned whether Obama understands the nation is at war. "Either the vice president is willfully mischaracterizing this president's position . . . or he's ignorant of the facts," Brennan said.
McDonough said there was "nobody better" to deliver the rejoinder to Cheney. "Like all great analysts at the CIA,...[Brennan] deals in facts and can analyze the facts, and in the case of the vice president, the discordant facts. I think John was perfectly prepared to respond to the charge."
Many observers view Brennan's suddenly public role as something of a battlefield promotion. His Sunday show star-turn last week, they argue, was prompted in large part by the unavailability or undesirability of other players.
Putting forward Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would have only led to more battles over her initial claim that "the system worked." CIA Director Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair have been locked in turf battles. Picking either might have seemed to favor one over the other -- or to pin one agency with the blame for the intelligence breakdown in the Christmas Day plot. National Security Adviser Jim Jones could have been tapped, but his strengths are more in the foreign policy area, and he's nearly as much of a TV novice as Brennan.
So Brennan got the nod.
"The guy has a phenomenal personal history at the most senior levels of intelligence work," said Rand Beers, a senior Homeland Security official who worked on counterterrorism in the Clinton White House. "He is the most logical person to do it. He carries tremendous expertise, knowledge and background on this around it his head. He did not have to be briefed. He did not have to be prepared to walk out on that stage. He knows that stuff cold."
Still, reviews of Brennan's on-air performance have been mixed. While he calmly parried the questions and displayed a depth of knowledge few other officials could match, on a couple of occasions he provided fodder for attacks on the administration.
Some jumped on his statement that there was "no smoking gun" in the intelligence that could have predicted the Christmas Day attack.
"Janet Napolitano, Part 2," King scoffed about Brennan's comment. "He basically said there was no smoking gun. Now, everybody says there was....I didn't think it was such a great debut at all."
"I like [Brennan] and I respect him, but I cringed when he said that," Townsend said. "You knew the media and the punditocracy were going to say, 'Well, what about these two facts?' ...Somebody who had more media experience would have tried to avoid that."
Another infelicitous moment came when Brennan explicitly discussed plea bargaining with the suspect in order to get intelligence -- a prospect that sounds more like negotiating with Al Qaeda than taking the fight to them, as Obama has promised.
Even the Cheney retort led the intelligence veteran into the line of fire, with some Republicans crying foul. "It's clear from his performance on the talk shows that he's become very political," said John Lehman, a former Navy Secretary who served on the 9/11 Commission and advised Republican John McCain's presidential campaign. "He sounds totally different than when he headed up the counterterrorism center. He sounds like a politician...He's a 30-year intelligence professional so obviously they trot him out just the way Clinton trotted out various generals who ended up running for office."
However, one Democratic strategist said Brennan's nonpartisan pedigree takes the edge off the GOP salvos. "In some ways, he's the Robert Gates of the intelligence community. He's the guy who's not ideological," said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network, referring to the Pentagon chief, a Bush holdover.
A crack in the tough-cop image appeared only once in public in recent weeks, on Thursday, when Brennan seemed to choke up during a press briefing as he expressed regret for the government failures that allowed the Christmas Day bombing to nearly succeed.
"I told the President today I let him down," Brennan said with a tremble in his voice. "I am the President's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. And I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team."
Before the Christmas Day bombing attempt, Brennan made few appearances on TV and kept a relatively low public profile. In August, he gave a broad speech on counterterrorism policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And just four days before the attack, he spoke at Arlington National Cemetery to family members of victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing.
The White House notes that Brennan has occasionally briefed on other issues, like H1N1 flu or the threat posed by drug-related violence in Mexico.
As for whether Brennan was eager to be dispatched to the Sunday shows, McDonough said: "I think John is very comfortable doing whatever assignment he feels is necessary to advance the national interests...Given that he was running the [intelligence] review, I think he very much agreed with the importance of getting out there and explaining it to the American people."
Other counterterrorism advisers have sometimes struggled to get face time in the Oval Office. Just before the Christmas plot, Brennan said that he meets with Obama in the Oval Office on "most days." During the transition, Brennan was considered for CIA director, but took himself out of the running after liberal critics charged he was too closely tied to Bush-era interrogation and surveillance policies.
Brennan has said he objected, albeit privately, to water-boarding, but he acknowledges approving of other aspects of the "enhanced interrogation" program. He's suggested reports about his involvement in other controversial policies were inaccurate, but has declined to be more specific because the programs remain classified.
Brennan's shots at Cheney have won plaudits from some liberal bloggers, but some remain convinced that Obama is making a grave mistake by relying on figures with history in the Bush administration, like Brennan and former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin, tapped on Friday by Blair to review potential intelligence weaknesses.
"It's the same crowd. It's appalling," said Melvyn Goodman, a former CIA analyst who spoke out during the transition against giving the CIA director post to Brennan. "I've seen nothing in the last few days to change my mind....The whole Brennan emergence has just been very curious to me."
However, Beers said any concern that Brennan is pulling punches to cover for himself or others in the intelligence establishment is unwarranted.
"I think it is totally misplaced," Beers said. Beers, who was at Tuesday's Situation Room meeting with top administration officials, said Brennan was specific and unforgiving about the errors. "I heard him tell the president in the Cabinet meeting the truth. It was unvarnished," Beers said. "It really was a truth-telling that the Cabinet members all sat through and listened to....It was not uncivil, but boy, was it candid."
Michael Scheuer yesterday on Fox wouldn’t comment on Brennan. Only to say he worked with him and he would be prejudiced. He went on to say he would not expect for him to deliver any bad news to Zero. He’s a yes man.
After viewing his performance and responses on news TV last week, I would not let this John Brennen pickup my garbage. What an empty suit, and....not too bright to boot!!!! Another Obama deadbeat!!! God protect us because POTUS Barack Hussein Obama and his incompetent intelligence and homeland security appointments sure won’t.
The slimy Brennan is a perfect fit for obamao.
He’s also the man who ran the security company that breached candidates passport files during the presidential election.
Thanks, I suspected as much after his TV appearances. His comments on Dick Cheney kinda said it all about his allegiances.
Kinda wonder if Brennan’s firm is still handling passports and whether the undie bomber’s passport went through his firm.
That’s a thought. Kind of a coincidence about his firm checking out candidates passports and him giving a max contribution to Zer0, I’m not much of a fan of coincidence.
.......What an empty suit,.....
That is not completely true. He was apparently a qualified and productive analytical professional.
He was promoted to his level of incompetence...... the Peter Principle proved yet again.
The Peter Principle
In a hierarchical organization, people get promoted to their level of incompetance
The contract employee who actually breached the passport files was a Washington, D.C. police lieutenant.
Oddly, he ended up dead -- in the car, in front of a church, with a bullet in his head -- not long ago.
Musta been a coincidence...
Yep, I’d bet Brennan has been sleeping better since that incident.
Brennan is a weasel and a yes man. If his lips are moving he is lying!!
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