By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009
Barack Obama has picked John O. Brennan as his top adviser on counterterrorism, a role that will give the CIA veteran a powerful voice on the government's use of security contractors and on other sensitive issues in which he recently has played a private-sector role.
By appointing Brennan to a senior White House position not subject to Senate approval, Obama is also making him an influential adviser on the Middle East and on Iran, a topic on which Brennan has called for a sharp break with past U.S. policy.
The president-elect's decision comes only six weeks after Brennan was forced to pull out of contention for the directorship of the CIA because of fears that his statements supporting some controversial interrogation techniques would have complicated his confirmation.
The firm Brennan heads, the Analysis Corp., and its corporate parent have earned millions of dollars over the past decade assisting several federal agencies and private firms on counterterrorism. Those oil and telecommunications firms have worked in countries beset by violence, including Mozambique, Liberia, Colombia and Pakistan -- all of which have been topics of intense policy debate in Washington.
The parent corporation, London-based Global Strategies, has been a target of critical news accounts about harsh actions by its hired soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has criticized the actions of similar firms, such as Blackwater Worldwide, and co-sponsored legislation to ensure that such firms are subject to U.S. laws even when operating overseas.
Brennan also has attracted personal criticism from human rights experts for defending the CIA's long-standing practice of forced renditions, or transfers, of terrorism suspects for interrogations, a position that forced the withdrawal in late November of his candidacy to head the CIA.
While Brennan has said he is uncomfortable about the CIA's practice of waterboarding, a simulated-drowning technique sometimes used on terrorism suspects, he has also made provocative comments about the agency's use of other interrogation methods. He told a PBS interviewer in 2006 that "we do have to take off the gloves in some areas," but without taking actions that would "forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad."
The "dark side has its limits," he said at the time.
His remarks and his tenure -- he was chief of staff to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet from 1999 to 2001 and director of National Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2005 -- provoked an open complaint against his nomination as CIA director from 200 psychologists.
Brennan's appointment as Obama's close aide was disclosed shortly after the president-elect drew bipartisan criticism for his selection of a relative outsider -- former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta -- as the CIA's chief. The Democratic critics of that choice have since withdrawn their complaints.
Obama aides said the president-elect accepted Brennan's assurances that he played no role in setting abusive interrogation practices at the CIA and that he had expressed some private dissent about the practices. They said Obama also accepted the judgment of transition team advisers that Brennan was separated from any questionable practices by Global Strategies, which formally purchased Brennan's firm in 2007.
"No one has been more critical of private security contractors than Barack Obama," said Denis McDonough, a senior foreign policy adviser to the president-elect. McDonough said transition aides looked closely at the governing structure of Brennan's company and its parent and concluded that there was no way Brennan was involved with or "could be accountable" for the actions of Global Strategies' London-based division.
The choice of Brennan was first reported in yesterday's New York Times.
Following his long experience with the Middle East, including a stint as the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, Brennan has expressed some potentially controversial opinions about how U.S. policy there must shift, particularly toward Iran. In an academic article published six months ago, for example, Brennan said President Bush and his aides had inappropriately publicly bashed Iran, and he urged that U.S. rhetoric toward the country be sharply toned down.
He also called for an increased role for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, an idea he acknowledged would be anathema to Israel.
Israel views Hezbollah, which for a time was listed by Washington as a terrorist group, as its mortal enemy. "Washington will need to convince Israeli officials that they must abandon their aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force," Brennan wrote in the article, published in the July issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
The new administration, he wrote, must also "be willing to exercise strategic patience" with Iran. The goal, he said, would be to strike a more nuanced and less absolutist policy, a direct dialogue to encourage Iran's moderates to shun the use of terrorist violence, without appearing to tolerate that violence. Similar views about Iran were expressed by Robert M. Gates before Bush selected him as secretary of defense, giving Brennan a key potential ally in the months ahead.
While serving as an assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, with a dual hat as the White House adviser for homeland security, Brennan will be uniquely positioned to give Obama advice on such matters. Under Bush, the National Security Council's top counterterror official has been a deputy assistant and the Homeland Security Council has had a separate staff and its own director.
One of Brennan's first tasks, Obama aides said, will be to examine whether most of the Homeland Security Council staff should be folded into the NSC. A transition spokeswoman said that while no decision has been made, the idea has been recommended by many Obama advisers and independent experts, including those appointed by Congress to study how to prevent the recurrence of terrorist attacks like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001.
Michael P. Jackson, deputy homeland security secretary from 2005 until 2007, called the move "a sensible idea and a natural evolution of how to integrate homeland security with the broader national security agenda." He said that "it makes it more efficient for the departments that are involved in these issues to deal with fewer actors at the White House."
Since the election, Brennan -- who retains all his top security clearances -- has been conducting briefings for Obama on the CIA's ongoing covert actions, and aides said he won Obama's support in those meetings as a "straight shooter" whom agency officials trust. He has "unrivaled integrity" and a "great understanding of how all the parts of official Washington are affected by intelligence," McDonough said.
Brennan serves on the board of Global Strategies' North American subsidiary, along with a former director of the CIA's counternarcotics center and a former assistant secretary of state. But Obama's top aides concluded that he was "fully walled off from London," one said.
Brennan, who has been on unpaid leave from the firm, plans to resign Jan. 19 and will have no further financial ties to it, according to a transition official. Two months ago, the firm won a large five-year contract to provide "intelligence expertise and support services" to the FBI.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.