The Answer Man

A Washington power-read on John Brennan.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a known Washington commodity, White House counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan, the new nominee to lead the CIA, is a less familiar figure. But as one of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers, Brennan has unsurprisingly featured as an important role-player in many of the insider accounts written about the administration’s national security policies. The portrait that emerges from the books on Obama’s first term is one of a man intensely loyal to the president whose trust he enjoys, sometimes to the point of alienating his colleagues. Among the insights gleaned, the former Riyadh CIA station chief and fluent Arabic speaker is clearly one of the most knowledgeable and well-connected senior U.S. officials when it comes to the Middle East, but he has a habit of sometimes speaking publicly without all the facts. And he has also taken on the seemingly contradictory roles as one of the most outspoken champions of the U.S. drone program while pushing within the administration to limit the use of American force. Here’s a look at what we know about Brennan so far, culled from seven of the best recent books on U.S. foreign policy:


Brennan’s CIA appointment is probably one that Obama wanted to make four years ago, and it seems he would have if not for the concerns of his own Democratic base over the former Bush administration official’s ties to some of the most controversial post-9/11 CIA policies. Brennan advised Obama during the campaign and the presidential transition and the two enjoyed an unlikely rapport from the start, as James Mann recounts in The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power:

In mid-November, Brennan flew to Chicago to meet Obama, and the two men talked for about an hour. Brennan was able to bond with him on the subject of Indonesia, where Brennan had traveled for a summer in college and where Obama had lived for a time in his youth. Brennan, who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican and generally mistrusted ideologies, concluded that Obama was a pragmatic and appreciated the complexity of intelligence issues.

But complications soon emerged:

When the plan to appoint him [CIA director] became public, there was immediate opposition, mostly from Obama supporters. Obama had promised a dramatic break from the policies of the Bush administration, but Brennan had been on the job as a top adviser to George Tenet when the agency’s most controversial policies were adopted, including the creation of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. In public interviews after leaving the CIA, Brennan had supported the need for change in some of the agency’s practices, such as waterboarding, but he had also defended the practice of rendition and other parts of the post-2001 program. "We do have to take the gloves off in some areas," he had explained….

As a result, at the end of November, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for CIA director. Instead the administration brought him into the White House in a newly created position as special adviser for counterterrorism and deputy national security advisor, a position that did not require Senate confirmation. He would soon come to have more direct and frequent access to Obama than the CIA director or any other intelligence official, and in many ways more power as well.

Brennan is less of a presence in Bush-era literature. He doesn’t appear in the memoirs of Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, or Donald Rumsfeld, and gets only passing mention in his old boss Tenet’s book about the period. Brennan has often seemed somewhat ambivalent when it comes to the question of waterboarding. In Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, he’s quoted as vaguely saying, "It all comes down to individual moral barometers."

Bush-era interrogation methods continued to be an issue for Brennan in the first year of the Obama administration during the debate over whether to release the so-called "torture memos" produced by Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. As Daniel Klaidman writes in Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, he again seemed to be on the fence:

Holder and Craig were the earliest and most passionate voices in favor of making the memos public. Holder told the president that "if you don’t release the memos, you’ll own the policy." John Brennan initially agreed. But a CIA lobbying campaign ginned up by former director [Michael] Hayden persuaded Brennan to reverse his position.


As it turned out, Brennan wound up being just as — if not more — influential in the White House than he would have been in Langley. In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward writes, "He was known as ‘The Answer Man’ because he worked so hard, read raw intercepts, and talked directly to foreign intelligence services and chiefs." (Brennan is so heavily featured in Woodward’s book that it seems apparent he was one of the author’s primary sources.)

In Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker describe his role:

From his windowless West Wing basement office, Brennan became the president’s point man on cyberthreats, homegrown extremism, and threats from al Qaeda and its affiliates. Brennan visited Yemen, where an Al Qaeda affiliate is especially active and worrisome, four times in the administration’s first two years. He spoke frequently by phone with the country’s mercurial leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime was tottering on the brink of collapse by May 2011.

Nowhere has this influence been more evident than in the CIA’s expanding counterterrorist drone program, according to David E. Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power:

The CIA, naturally, wanted the maximum latitude to go after everyone, everywhere. So did John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser who pressed the case for the judicious use of drones anyplace where al-Qaeda and its associates travel. His view carried considerable weight, because it was often Brennan who made the final call on authorizing specific drone strikes, from his cramped office in the basement of the West Wing.

But, Sanger notes, Brennan’s enthusiasm for drones has limits:

While a staunch defender of the CIA drone strikes, Brennan also understood that it would take much more than killing or capturing Al Qaeda fighters to defeat Islamic extremists. As he told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington in December 2010, "A counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the immediate threat to the exclusion of the more comprehensive political, economic and development-oriented approach is not only short-sighted but also doomed to fail."

Brennan was clearly indicating the shape of strategy to come: an official review of American counterterrorism policy.



Brennan actually reined back his drone-happy colleagues in a May 2011 discussion of a potential strike on 11 senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members in Yemen. As Klaidman makes clear, Brennan took full advantage of his personal access to Obama during these discussions and won the president over to his side in debates:

Finally, toward the end of the meeting, Brennan spoke for the first time. Targeting this many militants at once would represent a dramatic shift in policy, he said. He would not take the recommendation to the president until a higher-level deputies meeting could vet the plan. Though he did not explicitly say so, Brennan was opposed to the broad-based strike. He may have been attempting a deft bureaucratic maneuver to scale back the operation before it reached the president for approval. He and Obama were in agreement on kinetic activity: they both believed their surgical approach was working and that the United States should remain "AQ-focused." How would it look if we started killing large numbers of antigovernment insurgents in Yemen — especially ones who were not clear threats to the United States…. As the push for more sweeping signature strikes continued to issue from the Pentagon, Brennan began to get irritated. A few days after the Yemen attack, Brennan decided to roll out the big gun in his arsenal: an unequivocal statement from the commander in chief. Brennan told Obama that he needed to clearly state his position on signature strikes so that it would echo throughout the "interagency," meaning all of the national security stakeholders.

It happened in mid-June, during one of the president’s regular "Terror Tuesday briefings." Brennan, who chaired the sessions, had planned a "deep dive" on Yemen. At one point during the discussions, one of the president’s military advisers made a reference to the ongoing "campaign" in Yemen. Obama abruptly cut him off. There’s no "campaign" in Yemen, he said sharply. "We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland — that’s where the real priority is."

One of Brennan’s more heated exchanges was with Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair following the failed "underwear bombing" on Christmas Day, 2009. Brennan had been tasked with preparing a report on the intelligence lapses that had led to the incident. Woodward describes what happened next:

Two weeks after the failed Christmas bombing, around 11 a.m. on Thursday, January 7, 2010, Brennan handed Blair a copy of the report hours before the president planned to make a statement and release it.

"This is the first time I have seen it." Blair said with some dismay, "and you’ve got the president going on in three hours?" He read the report quickly.

"This is wrong," he said. The draft report placed far too much blame on lower-level analysts, simplifying a problem that was vastly more complicated. "I can’t support this."

He was quickly hustled into the Oval Office to see the president.

"What’s the problem?" Obama asked.

"This is incorrect," Blair said, holding a copy of the report. If I’m asked whether I agree with this report, I will say no."… Brennan had acknowledged that he let the president down, but he was steaming with anger. He was following the al Qaeda threats out of Yemen. Being second-guessed about his report made him bristle.

The release of the report was delayed — much to the annoyance of Communications Director Robert Gibbs — while Blair and Brennan were instructed to come up with a revised version of the document together. Woodward describes the resulting report as "vague, repetitive disorganized and obviously hurried."

As Mann writes, it was Blair who ultimately took the fall for the attempted attack and its handling after the fact:

Blair stayed on the job, but never recovered his relationship with Brennan or, it turned out, with Obama. On May 18, 2010, the president called Blair in to say he was not satisfied with the way Blair had been overseeing the intelligence community…. Two days later, the president called Blair to say he was going to let him go.

Not that Brennan always won the big arguments. Along with Vice President Joe Biden, he was one of the main skeptics within the administration of the Afghan surge strategy, preferring a more limited emphasis on counterterrorism. Woodward describes a key October 9, 2009, strategy meeting:

Why are we contemplating this in Afghanistan? Brennan asked. He could not realistically envision a fix.

"If you’re talking about a completely uncorrupt government that delivers services to all of its people, that end state won’t be achieved in my lifetime," Brennan said. "That’s why using terminology like ‘success,’ like ‘victory’ and ‘win,’ complicates our task."

He said they needed to identify milestones that would measure progress in Afghanistan and align the resources with those milestones. There are very few al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The intelligence analysis indicated the Taliban might not even want al Qaeda back if it reestablished control of the government. Hosting al Qaeda had cost the Taliban Afghanistan in 2001. Why would al Qaeda want to go back to Afghanistan, where the U.S. and NATO already had 100,000 ground troops?

No, Brennan said, they needed to think about places like Yemen and Somalia, which are full of al Qaeda…. "We’re developing geostrategic principles here, and we’re not going to have the resources to do what we’re doing in Afghanistan in Somali and Yemen."

Oddly, Obama seemed to ignore the concerns Brennan raised in the meeting:

"The fact that we agree on these pillars of a strategy belies the notion of huge divisions among the team here and it provides a basis for moving forward," Obama said, overlooking substantial disagreements. Biden and Brennan, for example, were not on board.

Interestingly, Brennan’s opposition to the surge put him at odds with his CIA predecessor, David Petraeus:

Brennan said, "The counterterrorist program will continue regardless of the decision on any of these military options." Adding troops would be basically irrelevant. He was very skeptical of making a five-year investment in counterinsurgency, indicating he doubted it was worth the blood and treasure with respect to the goals. In his view, the focus should be on training the national army and police in order to turn the war over to the Afghans…."It will take a generation to develop an Afghanistan that can achieve modest governmental goals and consolidate those gains." He underscored the importance of the operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

As Petraeus heard Brennan’s argument that the focus should be on training the Afghan army and police, his thoughts went straight to what had happened in Iraq. There had to be a level of security and safety first — something provided by having more boots on the ground — before local security forces could take over.

According to Woodward, Brennan also clashed with current acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, who will presumably now stay on as his deputy. The dust-up came during a 2009 war game which simulated terrorists detonating a small nuclear device in Indianapolis. According to the set up of the game, the terrorists had access to about 17 kilograms of fissile material, which Brennan said was enough to make two bombs. Morell decided to think outside the box:

Michael Morell, named deputy director of the CIA a month earlier, raised a different problem. According to his calculation, there was likely enough fissile material for yet another bomb. "We haven’t found the third bomb," Morell said.

"Brennan went ripshit," recalled one senior participant. This was designed as a two-bomb scenario, not three. "And he’s trying to wrap it up neatly and tidily, but Morell kept wondering if there was a third bomb. What about the third bomb? And they couldn’t wrap it up." This participant said the whole exercise was "dumbfounding" and "surrealistic," demonstrating that the administration seemed woefully unprepared to deal with such an attack.



Brennan has been widely praised for his role in formulating the counterterrorism strategy that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But in the days immediately following the attack, he irritated many in the Pentagon with a press conference that gave a widely inaccurate description of the Abbottabad raid. Sanger writes: 

Brennan gave the impression that bin Laden was armed and died in a firefight; almost as soon as the seventy-nine SEALs involved were debriefed, the world learned that only Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier, got off a shot. Brennan said bin Laden used a woman as a human shield; it turned out she actually rushed the SEALs. Brennan described the al-Qaeda leader as living a luxurious lifestyle in his Abbottabad villa. While he lived better than many in Pakistan, the pictures of his apartment actually revealed something closer to squalor. At the Pentagon, top officers fumed at Brennan’s blow-by-blow description of how the SEALs operated; they believed that the former CIA officer had given away operation secrets never shared outside the tribe. (In fact, it appears no real secrets were divulged.) No one was angrier than Mullen himself, who still fumed about that news conference nearly a year later.

According to Gregory D. Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Brennan was also a bit out of his depth when addressing the public following the Christmas Day attack:

In fact, the US seemed confused as to the exact nature of the AQAP. Brennan described it as "an extention of al-Qaeda core coming out of Pakistan," while the State Department more accurately treated it as a distinct terrorist group with its own hierarchy and decision-making apparatus.



According to Johnsen’s account, Brennan was the leading proponent of the theory that U.S.-born jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki was the driving force behind AQAP’s decision to target the United States:

Under interrogation in Michigan, Umar Farouk had admitted that a man, whom the government later identified as Awlaki, had recruited him and instructed him on the mission. Those conclusions meshed with what John Brennan and his team had found during their review of the US intelligence system. Until late 2009, the investigators discovered, AQAP had been focused on attacks inside Yemen. This raised a key question: why the sudden shift to targeting the US? The answer, many believed, was Anwar al-Awlaki. Their theory was that as Awlaki advanced up the ranks of AQAP, he had rechanneled the energies of a skilled subset of operatives into plots against the US.

In Johnsen’s view, Brennan "oversimplified a complex organization" and overhyped Awlaki’s role. His focus on the American cleric was to have profound consequences for U.S. counterterrorism strategy — and perhaps constitutional principles:

Nevertheless, Brennan’s Awlaki-centered view prevailed, and the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel started work on a memo that would provide the legal framework of the Obama administration to kill an American citizen without ever charging him in court. Basing their memo on what the intelligence agencies concluded about Awlaki’s role within AQAP, White House lawyers eventually argued that the US was legally within its rights to kill the fugitive cleric if he could not be captured. This, the memo argued, would get around the long-established presidential ban on assassination as well as the Bill of Rights…

Overall, the impression authors have given of Brennan’s views meshes closely with Obama’s: both have sought to keep the focus of U.S. counterterrorism operations on al Qaeda and pushed the limits of legal and constitutional standards to do so, while simultaneously worrying in public about the dangers of taking military action outside of a legal framework. Agree with them or not, the president and his new CIA director are likely to see eye to eye.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola