The Untouchable John Brennan
How did the candidate of hope and change turn into the president of secret kill lists, drone strikes hitting civilians, and immunity for torturers? The answer may lie in his relationship with the CIA director, a career bureaucrat turned quiet architect of a morally murky national security policy who isn't going to let a little thing like getting caught spying on the Senate bring him down.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.
“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.
“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community," Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee."
Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”
Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”
Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”
But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama's man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency.
Brennan has been many things: a CIA official, a CEO, and even, briefly, a television pundit. He was a top official at the CIA during the torture years of the Bush administration, and the architect of Obama’s shadowy, controversial drone program. But for all that, he remains largely unknown, the gray heart of United States national security policy. Of the dozens of former and current government officials I reached out to, men and women from both the Bush and the Obama administrations, few seemed to have a handle on him. Some saw him as strong and principled, a warrior-priest who could do no wrong. Others saw him as a yes-man who sucked up to power and got lucky.
Several former colleagues, particularly in the CIA, refused to talk about him. He is vindictive, one explained through an intermediary: “He’ll come after me.” Another initially agreed to chat and then emailed me back a few days later, writing, “Unfortunately, I learned today that, because of my active security clearances and continuing work with the intelligence community, it would be best for me to decline your offer of an interview.”
Brennan himself was of little help. Through a spokesperson, he declined multiple interview requests over a series of months. Two years earlier, I’d argued that he was the wrong man for the CIA based on his counterterrorism approach in Yemen. But now I wanted to get a fuller sense of him, both as a person and as a director, and look at his entire career rather than just a single country. Brennan wasn’t interested. Even relatives were off-limits. At one point I sent his older sister a three-line email, explaining who I was and asking if she “might have some time to answer some questions about him and what he was like as a kid.” She never wrote back. But the next day I received an email from the CIA’s head of public affairs warning me against “harassing the director’s family.”
And yet in almost every public speech he’s given over the past 10 years, Brennan opens with a smattering of personal anecdotes, little crumbs of biographical detail that, along with everything else, form an almost kaleidoscopic portrait of the man and the country he serves. It all depends on the angle, the subtle shift in emphasis that changes everything: inside government or outside, friend or foe, enhanced interrogation techniques or torture, signature strikes or crowd killing, patriot or criminal.
This is Brennan’s story, his life and his career. But it's also ours. The excesses and mistakes of more than a decade of war, what we tolerate and what we don’t. What we’re willing to forgive and what we won’t. Politicians who don’t deliver on their promises, and well-intentioned individuals who bring about great harm. It’s about the man he is, and the country we’ve become. The institutionalization of a post-9/11 national security state, and the unending compromises of a country always at war.
The origin story Brennan prefers, the one he tells reporters, goes something like this: One day in the spring of 1977, during his senior year at Fordham, he was riding the bus to class when he came across a CIA recruitment ad in the New York Times. Brennan was intrigued. He liked history and he liked to travel. Back from a year abroad in Cairo, Brennan had already applied to graduate school, but even he seemed to know he wasn’t cut out for academia. “He never struck me as someone who would go on and get a Ph.D.,” John Entelis, one of his professors, told me last fall. “He just didn’t fit the mold.”
On a campus filled with what another of his former teachers described as “well-groomed hippies,” Brennan fit right in with long hair and an earring. He blended in within the classroom as well, rarely raising his hand or trying to make a point. To his professors, Brennan still carried himself like the jock he had been in high school, like someone who hung out near the back of the room and didn’t appear comfortable speaking in public. “He wasn’t intellectually aggressive,” Entelis said.
But that year in Egypt had given him a case of what Brennan would later call “wanderlust.” And that is why in the spring of his senior year, weeks away from graduating, he was so intrigued by the ad. Even his birthday, Brennan often explains in interviews, seemed to fit. Nathan Hale, often considered America’s first spy, was hanged on Sept. 22, the same date Brennan was born.
Hale was 21 the day the British executed him in what is now upper Manhattan, less than eight miles from Fordham’s campus. Brennan was the same age that spring. Completing the circle was the fact that Hale was born in 1755, Brennan in 1955. For an undergraduate with a romantic sense of history, the parallels must have been powerful. In many ways, this appears to be how Brennan views himself: Hale’s successor and heir — patriotic, idealistic, and willing to do whatever it takes to serve his country.
Three years after that day on the bus, following a graduate degree in government from the University of Texas and wedding the woman he took to his college graduation, Brennan walked into the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as a career trainee making just over $17,000 a year (a "GS-9" on the government's "general schedule" pay scale). Two of the CIA's four directorates, the Directorate of Intelligence and what was then called the Directorate of Operations, got most of the attention. These were, respectively, the analysts who stayed home and the case officers who worked abroad, or in rough agency slang: the nerds and the jocks. Brennan had little doubt. He was a jock.
That lasted around a year. In 1981, Brennan switched to the intelligence side. Of the people who eventually agreed to speak with me, several had theories for the move. Like their views of Brennan himself, some were dark and others more innocuous. But none of them knew for certain. Brennan didn’t talk about it and they didn’t ask. “It was unusual,” one of them told me. “But not unprecedented.” The recruit who had once dreamed of operating abroad was now a deskbound analyst, a nerd.
The CIA did, however, send him to Saudi Arabia for a couple of years as part of a joint program with the State Department. But that wasn’t quite the same. Instead of a covert program with the CIA using the State Department as cover, this was an open one: CIA analysts working as foreign service officers. The State Department, which never had enough people to go around, got a free body, and the CIA got some time abroad for its analysts, who often spent most of their careers in Langley.
None of this, however, stopped Brennan from later suggesting to co-workers that this had been a full-fledged agency position. It was one of those habits powerful men often acquire, revising and editing their stories as they go, shaping everything to fit their audience of the moment. Bosses who had never championed Brennan in life were transformed into mentors in death, and small exchanges took on the flavor of intimate conversations. People who didn’t know Arabic were convinced he spoke the language fluently; Republicans he worked with thought he was one of them, while Democrats left the conversation thinking he was theirs.
By the time Brennan got back to Langley in 1984, the agency was undergoing a culture change. “Loyalty to individuals assumed a much greater role,” wrote former CIA analyst John A. Gentry in a biting critique published years later (and removed from the internet soon after Gentry declined an interview for this story). “Those who adapted to the new rules,” Gentry continued, “experienced often meteoric rises.” Brennan adjusted quickly, finding mentors and winning promotions.
“To get ahead in the Directorate of Intelligence you had to do three things,” Judith Yaphe, who worked in the same office as Brennan, told me. “You had to write well, brief well, and get along with others well. And John knew how to do all three.” Other co-workers noticed a similar set of skills. “John’s got a very good political sense of what people want,” said one former CIA official who worked with Brennan and requested anonymity to talk about a former colleague. “John is very good at managing up.”
For the next few years, Brennan did exactly that, as he worked his way up the agency ranks. The older men who ran the division liked him. Brennan seemed to remind them of a younger version of themselves, and they rewarded him for it with promotions and plum assignments. They saw him as a “rising star, an up-and-comer,” the former CIA official said.
Brennan came into the agency in 1980 as a Middle East specialist in what would turn out to be the final decade of the Cold War, the CIA’s main focus since its founding. Once inside, Brennan started spending time on counterterrorism, a new subfield that few really understood. The CIA established its first counterterrorism center in 1986. Within four years, Brennan was running terrorism analysis for the center. A decade later, the Middle East and counterterrorism, Brennan’s two specialties, would be at the center of a revamped CIA. And, in time, so would he.
To get there, Brennan needed the help of two men: George Tenet and Barack Obama. He met Tenet in the mid-1990s when they were both at the White House, Tenet as a member of the National Security Council and Brennan as the CIA’s daily briefer to the president. Two decades later, just after the 2008 presidential elections, he met Obama for the first time.
Both times the meetings came at just the right moment: before Tenet moved to the CIA and before Obama went to the White House. Each was looking for a guide, someone they could trust. And Brennan made sure he was exactly what they needed: a perfect deputy, loyal and devoted. “John knew how to show his superiors 'I pledge allegiance to you,'” one former co-worker told me.
In 1995, when Tenet left for Langley as the CIA’s deputy director, he took Brennan with him as his executive assistant. The two went well together, patron and guide. Tenet gravitated toward the big issues as he learned how to navigate the CIA’s hallowed seventh floor — where the CIA’s top officials have their offices — while Brennan handled the details and protected his boss. “John was George’s alter ego,” said John Rizzo, a longtime lawyer at the CIA and author of the memoir Company Man, who worked extensively with both men. “He was Tenet’s eyes and ears to the rest of the agency.” Other former senior CIA officials were more blunt: “Brennan is a creature of George,” one of them said. (Through a spokesperson, Tenet declined a request for an interview.)
Later, during a stint as Tenet’s chief of staff, Brennan became notorious for asking, “How will this affect George?” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. The closer the two became, the more Brennan seemed to conflate Tenet with the agency he ran. Loyalty to one meant loyalty to the other. Tenet was the CIA, and it was Brennan’s job to protect him. “Brennan is a very good staff officer,” the same former senior CIA official explained to me. “He’s detailed, and incredibly hardworking. His whole life was serving the principal.”
Brennan followed Tenet up the agency ladder, rising alongside his patron. Tenet would eventually make director and, just before that in 1996, Brennan asked for a promotion of his own. Sixteen years after he’d started at the CIA, Brennan still wanted to be a spy. That’s what had attracted him all those years ago on the bus to Fordham, and that’s what he wanted now. In 1996, Tenet gave Brennan his wish, and made him chief of station in Saudi Arabia. Much like Brennan’s initial move from operations to intelligence, putting a career analyst in charge of a station was unusual although not unprecedented.
But there was a bigger problem. On the government pay scale, Brennan was a GS-15, making somewhere between $70,000 and $90,000 per year. CIA station chiefs are members of a separate pay scale, called the Senior Executive Service, and at the time they were making more than $123,000 per year. Brennan didn’t need just one promotion; he needed three. And that was unprecedented. “I’d never heard of anything like it,” one former senior CIA official told me. Tenet was playing favorites.
On June 25, 1996, shortly before Brennan arrived in the kingdom, a truck bomb struck the Khobar Towers, killing 19 American servicemembers in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks against the U.S. at the time. A few weeks later, Osama bin Laden faxed out a fatwa, declaring war on the United States. Few had heard of bin Laden at the time, and almost no one paid attention to his statement. According to multiple intelligence officials who requested anonymity to talk about classified operations, Brennan’s tenure in Saudi Arabia — like much of the CIA at the time — was marked by caution and convention. He walked a careful line with the Saudis, not wanting to push them too hard.
In early 1998, while in Saudi Arabia, Brennan helped convince Tenet to pull the plug on an agency operation to capture bin Laden. Brennan favored a Saudi effort, which was still in the works, to convince the Taliban to expel the al-Qaeda leader from Afghanistan. But the Saudi talks with the Taliban eventually broke down. The CIA never got another opportunity to capture bin Laden. Years later, Brennan defended his actions, telling a congressional committee, “I didn’t think that it was a worthwhile operation and it didn’t have a chance of success.” Besides, he added, “I was not in the chain of command at the time.”
When Brennan did finally get his chance to take part in an actual operation, al-Qaeda wasn’t even the target. The CIA had put together a disruption campaign aimed at Iranian intelligence, and, according to Tenet’s memoir as well as a U.S. official working in Saudi Arabia at the time, Brennan was supposed to approach one of their agents on the streets of Riyadh and ask if he wanted to work for the U.S. The CIA shadowed the agent for weeks, tracking him back and forth to work and planning the confrontation. But the closer the operation got, the more worried Brennan became. According to the same U.S. official, Brennan asked an FBI agent to borrow a bulletproof vest. “John,” the FBI agent said, “he’s not going to shoot you; he’s going to laugh at you.” Brennan blanched, but insisted.
On the big day, Brennan approached the Iranian’s car and said, “Hello, I’m from the U.S. Embassy, and I’ve got something to tell you.” The agent jumped out of his car, said something about Iran being a peace-loving country, and then sped off.
“That’s not how you recruit an agent,” Lindsay Moran, a former case officer in the Directorate of Operations, told me. “Historically, a number of bad things have happened when an analyst has been put in charge of a station.”
At Brennan's going-away party in 1999, Ambassador Wyche Fowler Jr., a white-haired political appointee and former senator from Georgia, who stood on tradition and spoke in a nasally Southern drawl, gave a glowing retrospective of Brennan’s three years in the kingdom. Sitting at tables in the ambassador’s massive dining room, the men who worked with Brennan on a daily basis tried to square what they were hearing with their own experience. “It was like he walked on water,” a U.S. official who attended the event later told me. “It sounded like John was a god.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Fowler’s voice started to crack and his hand moved toward his eyes as if he might cry. “It was so over-the-top,” the former U.S. official told me. “We were almost embarrassed for him.” Another agent whispered: “Is he drunk?” But that’s how it was between Brennan and his supervisors. He knew how to manage up.
For a while after Saudi Arabia, Brennan hit what several former CIA officials call the “big-time,” going from Tenet’s chief of staff to deputy executive director. Following the 9/11 attacks, he even established his own center, which eventually became the National Counterterrorism Center. But the string of promotions ended when Tenet retired in 2004, in the wake of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Brennan’s career plateaued and he left the agency a year later to run a private intelligence contractor.
“Something was always missing,” Brennan would later say about that portion of his life. At the CIA there was “always something going on, usually something that requires urgent attention,” he said. “Each day’s work comes with a heavy dose of adrenaline.” He tried TV, wrote a few op-eds, and even chaired a quasi think tank for intelligence professionals, but that was all outside work. He wanted to be back on the inside.
When the Obama campaign came looking for intelligence advisers, Tenet recommended Brennan. A few days after the election, and Obama’s rousing victory speech, Brennan met him for the first time. Sitting in Obama’s transition office on the 38th floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicago, Brennan did what he’d always done: He listened and looked for ways to connect. Obama had spent time in Indonesia, and so had Brennan, who spent a summer there in the 1970s. As a college student, Obama visited Karachi, Pakistan; Brennan had studied abroad in Cairo. Both of them believed the Iraq War had been a mistake — Brennan had even drafted an op-ed telling Bush exactly that. And each thought the phrase “war on terror” was ridiculous. Brennan compared terrorism to pollution. The U.S., he said, was focusing more on the downstream effects than the upstream causes. The hour-long meeting went so well that by the end, according to an account by the journalist Daniel Klaidman, “Obama found himself finishing Brennan’s sentences.”
Obama came to see Brennan in much the same way as Tenet had two decades earlier, and initially wanted to make him CIA director. He certainly wasn’t going to retain Michael Hayden. Obama had opposed his nomination in 2006 and hadn’t spoken to him in months.
Still, a former agency official who had been in leadership positions throughout the Bush years wasn’t quite the fresh start that many of Obama’s supporters expected. Within days, as word of a Brennan-led CIA started to leak, more than 200 psychologists and academics released an open letter to Obama begging him to reconsider. Brennan’s nomination, they argued, “would dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration.”
When the torture program started in late 2001, Brennan was deputy executive director of the CIA. And for years after he left the CIA, Brennan defended it. In 2007, when he was an analyst for CBS News, he said, “There have [sic] 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. It has saved lives." In an interview with Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that same year, Brennan insisted that the program had helped keep America safe. “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the C.I.A. was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”
But with Obama’s victory, his public opinion had started to change, just not fast enough for voters who wanted a clean break with the Bush administration. Within days of the petition, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for CIA director.
“It has been immaterial to the critics,” Brennan wrote in a one-page letter he released to the media, “that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation techniques, to include waterboarding.” Instead of the CIA job, Obama ended up offering him a different position, one that wasn’t Senate confirmable: assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
Fran Townsend, a petite blonde woman, had held the job under the Bush administration, and Brennan moved into her old office. “The joke,” Townsend told me last fall, “was that I was the only person who could fit in it.” Brennan was more than a foot taller and several pounds heavier than Townsend, but like her he came to appreciate the benefits of the bunker-like office one floor below the Oval Office. “It was almost an equal number of steps to the Oval Office as it was to the Situation Room,” Townsend said of the White House’s two most important rooms. “Whenever I needed the president I could go up that staircase and right into the Oval Office.”
Brennan used that proximity to his advantage. He worked hard, came in early, stayed late, and demonstrated loyalty. He was political but not partisan. In a world of Republicans and Democrats, Brennan claimed to be neither. He served the president. He spoke for Obama so often that some in the military took to calling Brennan “deputy president,” according to an interview with GQ.
In much the same way that he had once guided Tenet through the CIA, Brennan now walked Obama through the shadowy world of counterterrorism. And like Tenet before him, Obama came to appreciate his focused devotion and trust the opinions that came with it. “Ever since the first couple of months, I felt there was a real similarity of views that gave me a sense of comfort,” Brennan later said of his relationship with Obama in the Washington Post. “I don’t think we’ve had a disagreement.”
Obama didn’t always understand the intelligence world, but he trusted Brennan. “Somebody like the president, who doesn’t have that background, will end up gravitating to someone who does,” William Daley, Obama’s former chief of staff, told the New York Times. And when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, nearly brought down an airliner on Christmas Day 2009, it was Brennan — not Dennis Blair, the country’s top intelligence official — who Obama asked to head the review.
It was an unusual step. Brennan had been heavily involved in the watch-list system that had just failed. In 2004 and 2005, he had built the National Counterterrorism Center, the clearinghouse for all the government’s various terrorist databases. After he left government, Brennan took a job as president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the contractor responsible for managing many of those same databases. Indeed, one of the reasons Brennan got the lucrative private sector job in 2005 was because of his familiarity with the NCTC — he knew where the contracts were. Brennan had retired from the CIA on a Wednesday; by the next Monday he was back petitioning his old employees for business. Obama’s request was essentially an invitation to investigate his own legacy, and to do it he needed an ethics waiver.
Brennan’s final report was sharp, critical, and — in another unusual step — closely held. None of the agencies he took to task got a chance to comment before the report was made public. Even Dennis Blair, who bore ultimate responsibility for the NCTC and the intelligence community, saw it only hours before it was released. “The failure to include Mr. Abdulmutallab in a watchlist is part of the overall systemic failure,” Brennan wrote. “Though all of that information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected.”
“It was classic Washington,” William Murray, a former CIA station chief in Paris, told me. “When you’re investigating failure at your own institution, you never say it was you. It’s always the guy who came after you.” Five months later Obama fired Blair.
During the 2008 campaign, according to a report on NPR, Brennan had helped convince Obama to drop his opposition to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act, which included an immunity clause for companies that had participated in the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping. Now he went to work on him a second time, explaining why programs and options Obama had opposed during the campaign he needed to embrace as president. Brennan wanted continuity, not upheaval. “The thing that John could do better than anyone else was explain sensitive operations to the president, make him comfortable with them, and help him manage them,” Michael Leiter, the head of National Counterterrorism Center at the time, told Newsweek.
Under Bush, Townsend had conceived of the job primarily as a counselor to the president. “You’re not the decision maker,” she told me. “You have a responsibility not to put your thumb on the scale. The president gets all the options as clear and concise as possible.” Brennan saw it differently. He didn’t simply enact the president’s policies; he shaped them.
He was the architect, the man responsible for taking the raw infrastructure the Bush administration had left behind and molding it into an institution that would survive. He selected the targets, and he brought their names to the president. Everything ran through him.
What may well prove to be Obama’s most lasting legacy took shape in Brennan’s cramped quarters. It was here, 35 quick steps from the Oval Office, that Brennan built the drone program. He was the architect, the man responsible for taking the raw infrastructure the Bush administration had left behind and molding it into an institution that would survive. He selected the targets, and he brought their names to the president. Everything ran through him.
Brennan kept close control over the process, working around the interagency process when he had to and undermining rivals who got in his way. He was an office warrior, someone who had spent years navigating Washington’s bureaucracy. Even before the near miss over Detroit, Brennan had been struggling to limit the impact of Dennis Blair, who was less enamored by drones than most in the administration, according to an article by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy.
During Obama’s first year, the U.S. carried out just over 50 drone strikes. By his second — the year Blair was fired — that number more than doubled, according to estimates compiled by the New America Foundation. But no one really knew who was being killed in the strikes. There were anonymous quotes from U.S. officials in the press, sketchy reporting from the wilds of Pakistan and Yemen, and a complete lack of concrete data. (On April 23, 2015, President Obama announced that the U.S. had mistakenly killed an American and an Italian hostage in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan. The White House initiated a review following the January strike, but as officials explained to the Wall Street Journal, “The program hasn’t been curtailed so far in response.”)
No one else was double-checking the administration’s work, and making sure that what Brennan called the “surgical” approach was only killing bad guys and not simply peasants with guns, civilians whose deaths might prolong the conflict. It was a secret program with an ad hoc structure and no real oversight or outside checks — only John Brennan. The courts weren’t interested even when Americans started showing up on the kill lists, and Congress was lost in a confused thicket of jurisdictional limitations surrounding covert action in the military and CIA. As one congressional staffer told me last year, “No one has a 360-degree view of this.” That left only public opinion, and the White House had a strategy for that.
Throughout the administration’s first term, as reports of civilian casualties mounted, Brennan moved more and more into the spotlight. To most he was an unknown entity, a gruff-talking former CIA official who liked to say, “I don’t do politics.” He did counterterrorism. And after 2010 that meant a lot of speeches and media profiles. Like the administration, Brennan had a single goal: Convince Americans that drones were legal, ethical, and wise. The architect of the drone program was now its public face as well.
It was a calculated risk. The White House couldn’t control the stories, but it could shape them, making administration officials with a consistent message available to reporters on deadline. In the absence of any other barometer, Brennan’s personal integrity became the only way to judge the drone program. That was the government’s argument: Trust John Brennan. He was a Catholic with 25 years experience in the CIA and was a "fluent Arabic speaker" who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In Newsweek, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, described him as “a John Wayne character.” Other aides told the Washington Post about his “moral compass” and “priest-like presence.” And everyone called him “a straight shooter.”
“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer at the time, told the New York Times. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.” (Koh declined multiple requests for an interview.)
The only thing the public needs to worry about, the truly scary thing, one senior official told the Washington Post, “is the apparatus set up without John to run it.”
In late June 2011, Brennan went to Johns Hopkins University to unveil Obama’s new national security strategy. Introduced as “a person of absolute integrity” by John McLaughlin, one of his former bosses at the CIA, Brennan ran through the strategy and then took questions. One of the first was on drones. “Nearly for the past year,” Brennan said, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”
Standing behind the lectern at Johns Hopkins, speaking forcefully and without notes, Brennan sounded blunt and convincing. No civilian casualties. The assertion, it turned out, wasn’t quite a lie, but it certainly wasn’t the truth.
Almost a year later, in May 2012, the New York Times revealed that the U.S. had developed a new way of counting casualties. Instead of two categories, the U.S. had only one: militant. The U.S. assumed that every adult male who was killed — whether their names were known or not — was guilty. There were no innocent among the dead. The whole thing was an accounting trick.
When the CIA directorship became open a few months later, Brennan thought he might have a shot at it. But Obama’s re-election campaign was just getting underway, and no one wanted a confirmation fight. Instead of Brennan, Obama selected Gen. David Petraeus, a war hero who would sail through the Senate. Brennan was determined to finish out the term, but that would likely be it. “I’ve run out of runway,” he told friends, according to Newsweek.
For a while, it looked as though history was repeating itself, and that Brennan would have to retire short of his goal once again. But three days after Obama won re-election, Petraeus abruptly resigned amid a Justice Department investigation and an affair with his biographer. (Petraeus was just sentenced to two years' probation and fined $100,000 for providing her with classified information.) And this time, with no more elections to worry about, Obama nominated Brennan. Unlike four years earlier, when academics, bloggers, and commentators had united in opposition to a potential Brennan nomination, there was hardly any public outcry, and what little there was focused on drones, not torture. Only CODEPINK, an activist group that had once surprised Brennan at his house in Virginia, seemed determined to make its opposition heard, interrupting his confirmation hearing several times.
At that hearing, on Feb. 7, 2013, barely a year before she would accuse him of breaking the law and spying on the Senate, Dianne Feinstein praised Brennan’s candor and character. “I’ve sat through a number of these hearings; I don’t think I’ve heard anyone more forthright or more honest or more direct,” she said as she brought the three-hour hearing to a close. “You really didn’t hedge,” she told Brennan. “You said what you thought. And I want you to know that’s very much appreciated. And I actually think you are going to be a fine and strong leader for the CIA.”
“You said what you thought. And I want you to know that’s very much appreciated. And I actually think you are going to be a fine and strong leader for the CIA.”
The honeymoon didn’t last long. Ten months later, during a lightly attended Senate hearing just before the Christmas break, Mark Udall, a tall, silver-haired Democratic senator from Colorado, mentioned something that would come to be known as the “Panetta Review.” Almost no one in the audience knew what he was talking about. But at the CIA, several officials took note of Udall’s cryptic reference. One of these was responsible for a leased property in northern Virginia, where Senate staffers had been working on an investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program for the past four years.
In 2009, when the intelligence committee started its investigation, it struck a deal with then-Director Leon Panetta. Due to the classified nature of the documents the Senate wanted to review, it agreed to work at the CIA-leased facility. The agency would set up the computer network, install a search feature, and have responsibility for making sure none of the material leaked. The Senate, in its oversight role, would have complete autonomy. Panetta assured the committee that the CIA would not interfere; it wanted to put this ugly chapter behind it. Around the same time, as a sort of check on what the Senate would find, Panetta started his own internal review of the interrogation and detention program. Two investigations of one program — a Senate report and a CIA review.
There were some immediate differences. What the Senate would eventually label torture, the CIA referred to as enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs for short. Many of the procedures were similar to the ones U.S. servicemen underwent at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. What the Japanese called the “water cure,” the U.S. termed “waterboarding.” The “Ofuna crouch” became “stress positions.” Different names, but a similar purpose: Break down the enemy and extract whatever information was left in the human rubble that remained. One prisoner in U.S. custody became so accustomed to the torture that when the CIA interrogator raised his eyebrows he would walk over to the water table and sit down. If the interrogator snapped his fingers twice, he laid flat.
Much like the Japanese in WWII, the U.S. sought to strip the prisoners of human dignity. And it was just as cruel and effective as in imperial Japan. Men were given diapers instead of buckets and, at times, food was pureed and injected rectally as a way of maintaining “total control” over the detainee. Everything revolved around the interrogator. They determined when and if prisoners slept, what and how they ate, and — perhaps most importantly for men whose bodies were being used against them — how much pain they endured and for how long. In a world that had shrunk to the size of a single cell, masked men ruled. The CIA called it “learned helplessness,” and it was relentless in its push for more information. One prisoner died of hypothermia and exposure after being stripped of his pants and left to sit overnight on a cement floor in a prison that a CIA official described as a “dungeon.” Another was routinely placed in a coffin-size box. Others were stripped naked, forced to stand on broken limbs, or threatened with sexual violence.
During his confirmation hearing for CIA director in 2013, Brennan had given the same answer on torture that he gave on the aborted bin Laden raid: He wasn’t “in the chain of command.” He wasn’t the executive director; he was the deputy. He couldn’t have stopped the program even if he had wanted to. “I was not involved in establishing the parameters of that program,” he told the committee. Besides, Brennan explained, he had expressed his “personal objections and views to some agency colleagues about certain of those [EITs], such as waterboarding, nudity, and others.”
“I was a bit surprised by that,” John Rizzo said of Brennan’s testimony. “I saw him every day and he never expressed anything like that to me. It’s a bit puzzling if he really did have such reservations.” Still, Rizzo was one of the lawyers involved in authorizing the torture program, and perhaps not the most natural confidant. But other officials who were in Langley at the time gave a similar description of Brennan. “The ethos was what it was, and he wasn’t bucking it,” said one official who worked with Brennan. “He has really walked the torture line pretty skillfully. Dance this way and then dance a bit in a different direction to avoid damage to himself.”
In June 2013, three months after being sworn in as CIA director, Brennan reversed himself again, delivering what amounted to a sharp rebuttal of the Senate report. After four years and $40 million, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was ready to say that torture hadn’t worked. It hadn’t produced actionable intelligence and it hadn’t saved American lives. The program was a failure, illegal and unconstitutional. Brennan claimed the opposite. And that was supposed to be it. Two investigations and two conclusions, a classic Washington tie that would resolve nothing. But then, just before Christmas, Udall mentioned the Panetta Review.
That was the tiebreaker, the Senate’s trump card. The only problem was that Udall wasn’t supposed to know about the Panetta Review; no one was. It was an internal CIA document, a private check on the Senate’s investigation that still has not been released. More worrying for Brennan and the CIA was that the Panetta Review — a CIA investigation — contradicted the agency’s official response. Like the Senate report, the Panetta Review seemed to come to a single stark conclusion: Torture didn’t work.
If Udall or anyone on the committee had read the review, the CIA was going to have to explain how in 2009 and 2010, under Panetta, it could say torture was unsuccessful and then, under Brennan’s leadership, say that, actually, it had worked. Of course, Panetta hadn’t been a part of the CIA during this time, Brennan had.
And that’s when the CIA decided to find out exactly what the Senate was doing. On Jan. 9, 2014, shortly after Udall’s mention of the Panetta Review, agency officials overrode a security firewall to look inside the Senate’s computers. Later that day, according to a CIA inspector general’s report, Brennan ordered a second incursion. Make “completely sure,” he told his staff. Brennan wanted to know if Udall was bluffing. Did he have the review, or did he only know of its existence? The answer came back late the next day. The Senate had the review. Udall wasn’t bluffing. He knew that Brennan had changed the CIA’s answer on torture.
Brennan needed answers. How had Udall managed to get his hands on the review? Was someone in the CIA leaking documents to the Senate? Had the Intelligence Committee hacked into the CIA?
On Saturday afternoon, Jan. 11, Brennan called an agency official at home. “Use whatever means necessary,” Brennan ordered the official — the same one who had originally overseen the break-in into the Senate’s computers. Just figure out how the committee accessed the Panetta Review.
Six days after the initial breach, on Jan. 15, Brennan asked for an emergency meeting with Feinstein and her Republican vice chair, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, to inform them of what he’d ordered. The two senators were outraged. Those computers were privileged. The CIA had no business snooping on Senate staff or their work. The Senate oversaw the CIA, not the other way around. Two weeks later, following a testy exchange between Brennan and the intelligence committee during an open hearing, David Buckley, the CIA’s inspector general, opened an investigation into whether the agency had broken the law when it spied on the Senate.
Brennan would later say that he had referred the matter to Buckley himself. He wanted to make sure, he said, that the inspector general was “able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did.” But in private, Brennan was as adamant as ever, refusing to apologize. Fed up and frustrated, Feinstein finally went public on March 11, laying out exactly how the CIA had violated the Constitution and spied on the Senate.
The CIA inspector general’s report, which was completed in July, agreed with her. Five CIA employees, the report said, had improperly searched the Senate’s computers and then lied about it. But instead of firing Brennan for the breach, the White House seemed to be protecting him. Brennan had told Denis McDonough, an old friend and Obama’s chief of staff, what he was doing when he examined the Senate’s computers.
In October, over Columbus Day weekend, McDonough flew to California to personally negotiate with Feinstein over redactions to the Senate torture report. Later, according to the Huffington Post, he asked several Democratic senators on the intelligence committee not to go after Brennan. After all, in the wake of Buckley’s inspector general’s report, Brennan had been forced to finally apologize. An agency statement at the time said Brennan apologized to the committee “for such actions by CIA officers as described” in the inspector general’s report. At the same time, Brennan also created an internal board to review the spying scandal and determine “potential disciplinary measures.”
The months of negotiations finally sputtered to an end. On Dec. 9, shortly after the midterm elections, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a partially redacted 525-page executive summary of its torture report — about a 10th of the completed, and still classified, 6,300-page study. The next day, Mark Udall, who had just lost his re-election bid in Colorado, walked into the Senate chamber and did exactly what McDonough and the White House had asked him not to do. He went after Brennan, calling for the director’s resignation.
“Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture. In other words, the CIA is lying,” Udall said from the Senate floor.
“The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program,” Udall said. “He needs to force a culture of change at the CIA.” And for John Brennan, “this means resigning.”
Other Democrats, like Carl Levin of Michigan, felt the same way. “Brennan has gotten away with frustrating congressional oversight,” he told the New York Times. “He shouldn’t have gotten away with it, but so far he has.”
But Obama wasn’t listening. As the media combed through the Senate report, pulling out gruesome stories from years of torture, he stood behind his CIA director. “The president continues to be very proud of Director Brennan and his leadership at the CIA,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters. John Brennan is a “patriot.”
On Dec. 11, two days after the Senate released its report, Brennan finally responded with the rarest of events for an intelligence agency: a public press conference. Standing behind the podium in a dark blue suit, Brennan tried to set the context for everything the CIA had done over the past 13 years. It all started on Sept. 11. The torture, the drones, the small compromises that led to greater mistakes, and the need to override laws written during a time of peace for the secret ones of war. Everything dated back to that day and what Brennan called the “short span of 77 minutes” that “would forever change the history of our country.”
And the United States had changed. Unlike the Civil War when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus or World War II when thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in camps, this time the pendulum didn’t swing back. The war just went on, new enemies replacing old ones. Al-Qaeda morphed into ISIS, as more groups formed out of the chaos of a region in constant conflict. Torturing prisoners gave way to kill lists, and a metadata surveillance program led to a quick peek inside Senate computers. And, somewhere along the way, the campaign cry of “hope and change” had turned into just another phrase for more of the same.
After the Christmas break, when most of the media attention had passed, the internal review board that Brennan had set up to determine disciplinary measures came back with its report: There would be no penalties. The board ruled that Brennan, a 27-year veteran of the CIA who worked on cybersecurity at the White House, hadn’t known what his order of “whatever means necessary” would entail. He hadn’t known his officers would have to carry out such an intrusive search. After a career in counterterrorism, Brennan had been momentarily naive. There had been a “misunderstanding,” the board decided, but not a deliberate one. Like the government on drones, the board trusted John Brennan.
In addition to clearing Brennan and the CIA of all charges, the board also took the unusual step of reversing Buckley’s inspector general report that had found them guilty. Once again, members of the intelligence committee protested that Brennan was getting away with a crime, but even they seemed to be growing tired of the exercise. Udall was gone, as was Buckley, who had retired days earlier, just before his report was overturned and criticized by Brennan’s review board. He retired, a CIA spokesperson said, to pursue an “opportunity in the private sector.” At least one more senior official would follow Buckley out the door over the next few months.
No one else would be held to account. Not for spying, not for lying, and not for years of torture. The CIA, as President Obama said early in his first term, “gets what it wants.”
Brennan was not named a member of the board of trustees of King Abdullah Science and Technology University. An earlier version of this article said that he was, based on incorrect information from a leaked State Department cable accessed through WikiLeaks.