How Rome's loss became Langley's gain – and Obama's right-hand man
Published 09/01/2013 | 05:00
IN the cut-throat world of international espionage a man of the cloth might seem out of place. Yet had it not been for a chance stop-off at a bus station, John Brennan, the Irish-American who has taken over the CIA, might have become a priest.
As the story goes, the young Brennan had an inkling that he had a vocation, and had his heart set on a higher calling when, sitting idly on a bus as a student at Fordham University in the 1970s, he stumbled on a recruiting ad for the CIA.
Rome's loss was Langley's gain. After 25 years of poring through intelligence, trekking with Mideast tribesmen and overseeing some of America's most controversial and lethal counterterror missions, the fluent Arabic speaker is pursuing a calling with just as much responsibility and arguably a lot more stress as the nation's top spy.
This is the second time that Mr Brennan has made a run for the job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The burly security veteran is the principal architect of a policy that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional fight centred in Afghanistan to a hi-tech global effort to track down and eliminate perceived enemies one by one.
What was once a disparate collection of tactics – drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments – has become a White House-centred strategy with Brennan at its core.
His stern look can sometimes be deceptive. He salted a few wry quips into his brief comments at the White House when he pulled himself out of consideration in 2008 after being accused of supporting a prisoner interrogation programme that critics called a form of torture.
Within weeks, however, President Barack Obama ensconced him as his top homeland security and counterterror adviser, giving the veteran intelligence officer a far broader portfolio – and grasp of power – than he would have had at the CIA.
"Leading the agency in which I served for 25 years would be the greatest privilege as well as the greatest responsibility of my professional life," the 57-year-old said in accepting the nomination. He promised to make the agency's highly secretive programs as transparent as possible, without risking security, to preserve public trust in spy games.
Insiders say that Mr Brennan and the president have a unique relationship. "They have a real personal bond and trust," said Michael Leiter, director of the US government's National Counterterrorism Centre from 2007 to 2011. "Over the past four years, they have worked together incredibly closely and they have talked probably every day."
Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency's counterterrorism centre, compared Mr Brennan's path under Mr Obama to the trajectory of former Defence Secretary Robert Gates's career.
His senior post in the CIA under President George W Bush was so politically damaging four years ago that he withdrew from consideration for the director's job after objections from some Democrats.
Human-rights groups had voiced concern that he supported, or failed to stop, harsh questioning techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning. He also has been dubbed the unofficial ambassador to Yemen for his frequent interplay with Sana'a over rehabilitating detainees from the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay and, more urgently, burgeoning threats from local al-Qa'ida militants.
Mr Obama called Mr Brennan, who advised his 2008 presidential campaign, "one of my closest advisers" and "a great friend" whom he credited with hobbling al-Qa'ida and terror threats to the US. "He is one of the hardest-working public servants I've ever seen," Mr Obama said. "I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
During his time with the Obama administration, the 57-year-old played a critical role in the planning of a May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Pending Senate confirmation, he will take over at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia – succeeding retired General David Petraeus, who resigned in November after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer.
Despite his steady-as-she-goes assiduousness, Mr Brennan has not shied from locking horns with Congress, and in February 2010 chastised "too many in Washington" for letting politics get in the way of national security.
Though it is believed he will be easily confirmed, he will face questioning in the Senate about the US drone programme that has resulted in some civilian deaths and strained diplomacy in its pursuit of militants in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.