Under fire, CIA chief has key ally
By Julian Hattem and Amie Parnes - 08/06/14 06:00 AM EDT
John Brennan is under fire, but the CIA chief has all the cover he needs in President Obama.
Brennan has spent years forging a bond with the president since the early days of the 2008 campaign. The friendship has helped shield Brennan from critics — including Democratic senators — who have called for his resignation after the CIA admitted to spying on congressional staffers.
Among members of the intelligence community, Brennan has “the closest relationship with the president,” said former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee and is now the director of the Wilson Center.
Brennan quickly became a trusted adviser to Obama amid the heated 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Like most politicians, Obama has repeatedly shown a strong allegiance to longtime supporters.
“That’s a major bonding experience,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director at the CIA. “If somebody signed on [early in the race], that matters a lot. Loyalty matters a lot.”
The Obama-Brennan relationship is now facing a huge test.
Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have called for Brennan to resign in the wake of the CIA’s admission that five agency officials broke into Senate staffers’ computers as they were working on a detailed analysis of the agency’s former interrogation and detention programs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, has labeled the spying “unconstitutional” and called for Brennan to apologize. Wyden said on MSNBC last week that an independent counsel might be needed to investigate the CIA spying.
The agency has pushed back against the upcoming release of the interrogation report, which is expected to show that the George W. Bush administration practices were incredibly harsh, pervasive and did not contribute to fighting terrorists.
Brennan firmly denied the charges, when Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) raised them earlier this year. He then had to do a humbling about-face after his agency’s inspector general looked into the matter.
The scuffle has only lowered Brennan’s esteem on Capitol Hill, where it was never particularly high to begin with.
A former senior administration official predicted Brennan wouldn’t be fired because Obama’s respect and trust for him would win out: “Brennan really put himself out there with this. He put himself on a limb, and his team cut it off behind him.”
“It doesn’t help this White House,” another former administration official stated. “And they must not be thrilled with him making that assessment and it being wrong. He did not help his cause with the Hill.”
Obama has stood by Brennan and last week maintained that he has “full confidence” in the CIA chief.
Even with the recent scandal, “I think the president trusts him 100 percent and that’s the key here,” the first official said. “He thinks he’s indispensable, and he’s probably right. There are few people who know more than Brennan about the intelligence landscape.”
Brennan was considered Obama’s first choice to lead the CIA in late 2008. But soon after winning the presidency, the left revolted over comments from Brennan that seemed to show his support for “enhanced interrogation” practices, such as waterboarding.
The 25-year CIA veteran was subsequently named the president’s counterterrorism adviser, a position that did not need Senate confirmation and had him working out of a windowless office in the White House basement.
While it might not have come with the prestige of leading the country’s most recognizable spy agency, being able to work feet from the Oval Office helped cement his relationship with Obama, Lowenthal said.
“People used to say he had more access to the president than the [director of national intelligence] or the head of the CIA did,” he said. “They worked very closely together for all those years before the president sent John to Langley.”
In addition to Obama, multiple former officials told The Hill that Brennan has another close ally in Denis McDonough, who is now Obama’s chief of staff.
The second senior administration official said it was always clear how much McDonough “really, really loved Brennan.”
“They’re cut from the same cloth, in terms of no drama and no theatrics,” the source added. “There’s a lot of mutual respect in the abilities of the other … which is why last week was so shocking.”
Obama reportedly used to refer to the trio of Brennan, McDonough and Tom Donilon — who served as national security adviser when McDonough was his deputy — as the “grim Irishmen.”
Brennan has often come across as a brusque, dour, no-nonsense figure, yet he has gained a number of acolytes in the intelligence community and the White House.
In a 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Brennan said he was rejected by the Bush administration — which he left in 2005 to work for a private contractor before joining Obama’s campaign — “because I was not seen as someone who was a team player.”
“I’m probably not a team player here, either,” he added, referring to the Obama administration. “I tend to do what I think is right. But I find much more comfort, I guess, in the views and values of this president.”
Brennan finally got his shot at the CIA last year, after a sex scandal led to former director, Gen. David Petraeus’s resignation.
While announcing the nomination in January 2013, Obama called Brennan “one of my closest advisers” and “a great friend.”