Supporters hail CIA director John Brennan as a devoted public servant with a strong moral core and a tenacious work ethic. He has increased the recruitment of minority intelligence officers and promoted women to senior posts. He wears a lanyard around his neck every day that celebrates LGBT diversity at the CIA.
But some former covert operatives say Brennan is too cautious and political. Liberals accuse Brennan of protecting the CIA instead of forcing it to become more accountable to Congress. In particular, they blame Brennan for convincing President Barack Obama to oppose the release of the full 6,000-page U.S. Senate report detailing torture by the CIA during the presidency of George W. Bush. In private hearings, they said, Brennan bristled at questions from senators regarding the report.
After CIA officials searched the computer of a Senate staffer investigating torture, an outraged Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused Brennan’s CIA of provoking a “constitutional crisis” by thwarting Congress’ ability to perform its mandated right to oversee the executive-branch agency. Two other Democratic Senators called for Brennan’s resignation. Obama and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough aggressively defended Brennan, who eventually apologized to Feinstein.
“The exhaustive 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report fully documented the program,” Feinstein told Reuters, “but the CIA under John’s leadership has had difficulty confronting this dark chapter and learning from its mistakes.”
Leon Panetta, who served as President Obama’s first CIA director, said he understood Brennan’s desire to protect CIA officers who carried out interrogation methods deemed legal at the time by the Bush administration. But he said it was important to also be open with Congress and the public.
“I think you can do both,” Panetta said. “You can protect people there [at the CIA]. And be honest with the American people.”
Brennan and his aides vehemently defend his reforms, his transparency and his response to the Senate torture investigation, which they say exaggerated the scale of CIA abuse. They say Brennan, who opposes waterboarding, successfully struck a middle course – ending torture while protecting the identities of CIA operatives.
“He did more to stand up for human rights than any other official in the administration,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale Law School professor who served as Hillary Clinton’s top legal adviser in the State Department.
In the interview, Brennan said the actions of CIA officials who exceeded the Bush-era interrogation guidelines were “reprehensible.” But he said the Senate report exaggerated the scale of abuse. Brennan contended that the vast majority of CIA officers followed the Bush-era guidelines and were being unfairly “maligned by individuals who have political agendas.”
“When we do things that are within our authorized mandate, things that we are directed to do by our presidents, things that are deemed lawful by our Department of Justice,” Brennan said, “for us to be dragged through the coals on that, I find that reprehensible as well.”
Friends say Brennan say he has privately expressed frustration with the White House’s cautious response to the war in Syria and growing Russian assertiveness. But, they add, he is in many ways similar to Obama himself, questioning America’s ability to unilaterally change the world.
Brennan declined to comment on his own policy views. But he said, “I really feel as though my moral compass is pretty similar” to Obama’s. And he echoed a central tenet of Obama’s worldview.
The U.S. should act as the “world’s organizer of support to countries that are in desperate need,” Brennan said, but “recognize that our influence and power over the course of events is limited.”
By David Rohde