Director of the Central Intelligence Agency: Who Is John Brennan?
Four years have made quite a difference for John Brennan. In late 2008, the 25-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was forced to withdraw his name from consideration to be Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) because of his public support of the Bush administration’s program of illegally sending kidnapped terrorism suspects to foreign prisons to be tortured. Wishing to maintain his anti-torture credentials at the time, Obama appointed Brennan to a White House job that did not require Senate confirmation.
Shortly after his second inauguration, however, Obama nominated Brennan to be the next DCI, and he is widely expected to be confirmed. If so, he would succeed David Petraeus, who resigned following revelations of an extra-marital affair in November 2009.
Born September 22, 1955, to Irish immigrant parents from Roscommon, Ireland, John Brennan grew up in North Bergen, New Jersey, graduating from St. Joseph of the Palisades High School in 1973. He earned a B.A. in Political Science at Fordham University in 1977 and an M.A. in Government with a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 1980.
At UT, Brennan wrote an M.A. Thesis, “Human Rights: The Case Study of Egypt,” in which he denied the existence of “absolute human rights,” defended censorship in Egypt and indicated an early tolerance for torture. “Since the press can play such an influential role in determining the perceptions of the masses, I am in favor of some degree of government censorship,” wrote Brennan. Taking his relativistic view of human rights to its logical conclusion, Brennan argued that “the fact that absolute human rights do not exist (with the probable exception of freedom from torture) makes the [human rights] analysis subject to innumerable conditional criticisms.” (emphasis added.)
Although Brennan officially joined the CIA in 1980—he tells reporters a story of how his “wanderlust” was piqued by a CIA recruiting ad in The New York Times—some of his activities at Fordham suggest his recruitment dates back to his school days. Bob Keane, a classmate from the 4th grade through sophomore year at Fordham, told reporters that Brennan spent the summer after freshman year in Indonesia with a cousin who was working for the Agency for International Development, and visited Bahrain on the way home. “I wondered if he had even been recruited that early,” mused Keane. In fact, Brennan spent his junior year abroad learning fluent Arabic and taking Middle Eastern studies courses at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
Since formally joining CIA in 1980, Brennan has held a variety of senior positions in the Agency. From 1984 to 1989, he served as an intelligence analyst in the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis. He was in charge of terrorism analysis in the DCI’s Counterterrorist Center between 1990 and 1992, including the first Gulf War. He served as the CIA’s daily intelligence briefer for President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1994 and 1995, and then as executive assistant to then-Deputy DCI George Tenet from 1995 to 1996. He served as CIA station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from 1996 to 1999, when the Khobar Towers bombing killed 19 U.S. servicemen, deaths a subsequent investigation partly blamed on intelligence failures at CIA. From 1999 to March 2001, he again directly served Tenet, who had risen to CIA Director, this time as Chief of Staff, followed by a stint as CIA Deputy Executive Director from March 2001 to 2003, the period when the agency missed growing signs of an impending terror attack on U.S. soil.
From 2003 to 2005 Brennan served as director of the newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center and its successor agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, which compile information from other U.S. agencies for the President’s daily intelligence briefings. In December 2003 he distributed intelligence, which was soon discredited, to the White House that led to a controversial “Orange Terror Alert” that proved groundless.
Leaving government in 2005, Brennan started his own company, The Analysis Corp., in McLean, Virginia, of which he was president and CEO from 2005 to 2008. Returning to politics in 2008 as a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Brennan became a trusted confidant. After Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration as DCI, Obama named him Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, making him Obama’s chief advisor on terrorism. In actual fact, Brennan soon took over the process of creating the list of terror suspects from which the President chooses whom to kill via unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Brennan, whose nomination is opposed by many liberals and progressives, has been accused of lying in what writer Glenn Greenwald calls “highly consequential cases,” including falsely proclaiming that Osama bin Laden “engaged in a firefight” with U.S. forces entering his house and “used his wife as a human shield,” and then claiming that drone attacks in Pakistan in 2010 did not cause “a single collateral death” when authorities knew that this was a bold falsehood. For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that Brennan should not be confirmed until the legality of his past conduct has been determined.
John Brennan is married to Kathy Pokluda Brennan, also of North Bergen, with whom he has a son and twin daughters.
To Learn More:
North Bergen Man is Homeland SecurityAssistant for President Obama (by Herb Jackson, North Jersey Record)
The One-Man Death Panel: Obama’s Counter-Terrorism Advisor (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Human Rights: The Case Study of Egypt (by John Brennan, M.A. Thesis, 1980) (pdf)
In Graduate Thesis, CIA Chief John Brennan Argued for Government Censorship: “Too Much Freedom Is Possible” (by Charles C. Johnson, Daily Caller)
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