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

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; A04

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.

He earned Obama's trust during the 2008 presidential campaign as an adviser on security policy and terrorism. But after being considered to lead the CIA during the transition, he was forced to withdraw after liberals objected that he had acquiesced to the CIA's harsh interrogation policies during the Bush administration.

Brennan, stung by the accusations and insistent they were untrue, resolved to serve the Obama administration, anyway. His performance in an unconfirmed role over the past year and a half impressed Obama further still, making Brennan an "invaluable go-to person," in the words of one senior official who has not always agreed with him.

Administration officials reject suggestions that Brennan has become a de facto DNI, nothing that he does not perform the job's core function, managing the broader intelligence community. But they acknowledge that Brennan, along with McDonough and others, have kept a tight rein on the administration's message, barring Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and other top officials from meeting with reporters or appearing on television news shows, even when their agencies are in the headlines.

White House officials said they simply do not believe that intelligence chiefs should be put in the position of having to answer policy questions in public.

Several national security officials praised Brennan for running a tight intelligence ship without strangling the agencies. David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said the Justice Department does "not feel controlled or micromanaged." He acknowledged only one exception: When the White House assumed jurisdiction in the decision over where to try the self-declared plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

"I think the White House generally and Brennan in particular have been very respectful of the law enforcement prerogatives the A.G. enjoys," Kris said.

Piercing internal review

After a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to down an airliner before landing in Detroit, Brennan ran the moment-by-moment coordination for a White House that had never before faced such a security crisis. With much of the administration away on vacation, he filled the vacuum, officials said. And when the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, later came under fire for going on a ski trip instead of staying in Washington, Brennan took the blame, saying he had told him to do so.

Obama soon directed Brennan to conduct an internal review of the intelligence breakdowns leading up to the unsuccessful attack.

When the report was released to the public Jan. 7, officials said, heads of various agencies -- especially the office of the DNI, the NCTC, CIA and State -- were furious that they were being blamed for failing to connect pieces of intelligence about Abdulmutallab, officials said. One U.S. intelligence official said that Obama's announcement of the findings had to be delayed two times that afternoon as Blair and other top intelligence officials raised objections and pointed to what they said were mistakes in the report.

Executives "got it at 11 a.m.," the official said. "It was all a surprise. Not only was it a stinging rebuke, but it had factual errors in it."

At least one senior intelligence official lauded Brennan for producing a review that was "extraordinarily candid," even if it did leave Cabinet members feeling "very defensive, very challenged about the way that they did their jobs."

"Everybody wanted to make sure their ox wasn't gored, and to some extent, everybody's ox was gored," the official said. "That's a balance. You want to have a real report? Or you want everybody to be happy?"

Senior White House advisers acknowledged that they fielded vociferous complaints, especially from Leiter and Blair. But they defended the decision to exclude the intelligence officials from the internal probe and said it had little bearing on Blair's role as DNI, which by then was already in jeopardy. Obama had requested a review that was "done independently and objectively," one official said.

"The president didn't say, 'Dear executive branch, dear [counterterrorism] community, do a review, an assessment of your work,' " one senior White House official said.

In any case, officials note, the report was largely validated last month by a similarly harsh review by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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