Counterterror adviser John Brennan: A forceful voice on Obama's security team

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

When President Obama wanted an investigation into the intelligence failures that led to the attempted airline attack on Christmas Day, he turned to the man who has emerged as one of his most trusted advisers: John O. Brennan.

Within two weeks, Brennan had produced a sharply written report that caught other intelligence heads by surprise -- and caused an uproar in some quarters for its harsh assessment of intelligence agencies' performance. Moreover, Brennan showed the final draft to his colleagues just hours before it was to be made public, a move that his critics said was an example of his tendency to exert tight control.

Eventually, one of the casualties of the report would be Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who was forced out as director of national intelligence last month. But the report and its aftermath also demonstrated the skillful maneuvering of Brennan, who after being forced to withdraw from consideration for CIA director in 2008 has transformed his role into that of the president's closest intelligence adviser.

His dominance complicated efforts to find a new director of intelligence: Who would want the job if Brennan is already doing it?

The answer, Obama said Saturday, is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., whose nomination he announced in a Rose Garden appearance. Obama said Clapper "possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it's not what we want to hear."

If confirmed, Clapper faces a series of substantial tests. He will have to strengthen an agency whose mission and authority have been called into question; win the confidence of lawmakers skeptical of another intelligence chief with a military background; and, perhaps most important, develop a strong relationship with one of Obama's top lieutenants, Brennan.

For all the near-misses on his watch, including the failed bombing of Times Square, Brennan has grown only more powerful within the White House, according to numerous officials. His allies -- and there are many -- say he is abundantly competent with a reassuring style. Critics -- many of them close to Blair -- say Brennan's 25-year career at the CIA has made him too sympathetic to the agency, skewing the new balance that was supposed to emerge with the intelligence reforms that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Nearly all agree, though, that Brennan has built a high-voltage security hub in the White House, one that far outmuscles that of his predecessors. From a windowless, lower-level West Wing suite that he shares with Denis R. McDonough, the chief of staff to the National Security Council, Brennan has frequent access to the president.

"Brennan is really doing the job of the DNI," one senior intelligence official said.

'Invaluable go-to person'

Brennan, 55, spent most of his career at the CIA. He speaks Arabic and once served as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia.

But he is as comfortable among politicians and agency heads as he is in the intelligence world. For several years, he was principal briefer to President Bill Clinton. He also served as a senior aide to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet, putting him at the highest rungs of the agency.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was tapped to create a new counterterrorism center outside the CIA, a precursor to the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC.


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