The President’s Man

John Brennan took over the CIA after years working for Barack Obama. Now he's on the hot seat as lawmakers demand to know whether the CIA spied on Congress.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images News
Andrew Burton / Getty Images News

This story has been updated.

On Saturday, CIA Director John Brennan will mark his first year at the helm of America’s most storied intelligence agency. But this is probably not the way he planned to celebrate his anniversary: publicly trading recriminations with members of Congress over one of the darkest chapters in the CIA’s history.

Late Wednesday evening, Brennan issued a combative statement in response to news reports that some lawmakers have accused the CIA of interfering with a three-year long Senate investigation of whether the CIA tortured suspected terrorists and whether brutal interrogation tactics such as waterboarding produced useful information about potential attacks. Lawmakers reportedly also accuse the agency of not disclosing documents that bolster their findings. The Senate report, which remains classified and hasn’t been released publicly, is said to be a blistering indictment of the interrogation program and an account of how the CIA misled members of Congress about it. "The report concludes the committee was systematically lied to over a period of years, and that’s true," a former intelligence official told Foreign Policy.

And yet the most explosive part of the story may be yet to come, and it’s one that will put Brennan, and his close ties to President Barack Obama, squarely in the spotlight. The question remains of whether the president or his advisers knew that members of Congress accused the CIA of interfering with their investigation, when they knew it, and what, if anything, the president did in response. On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), alluded to the question in a letter to Obama. "As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review," a reference to an agency document that reportedly backs up the committee’s conclusions and that the CIA allegedly didn’t disclose during the investigation. Udall called the action, about which he didn’t elaborate, "incredibly troubling."

A White House spokesman would not comment on what Obama was or wasn’t told. Asked publicly by a reporter this week whether he had any response to other accusations that the CIA had monitored the computers of congressional investigators, the president gave no answer.

Brennan, a former CIA officer who returned to the agency in 2013 after four years as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, has been dogged by quiet criticism that he was and remains too politically close to the White House. That’s an allegation that Brennan’s defenders dispute. Among some of those who have served with him, he was known as "the cardinal," and they considered his motives to be devoid of political influence and beyond reproach. But Brennan was also the most forceful and reliable public defender of the Obama administration’s most politically divisive intelligence programs, including the CIA’s use of drones to kill terrorist suspects. In 2012, Brennan gave a major public address justifying the program, which he helped run from the White House. It’s generally viewed as the most spirited defense the Obama administration has ever given of the lethal use of drones and targeted killing of terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens.

The question facing Brennan now, say former intelligence officials who maintain close ties to him, other CIA leaders, and congressional staff, is how to publicly defend the agency, maintain its credibility, and repair ties with its Senate overseers. Judging by the rebukes coming from both Brennan and lawmakers, that won’t be easy. Failure, meanwhile, would have lasting repercussions, including a virtually certain Senate push to bring the agency’s routine operations and most sensitive missions under more aggressive and intrusive congressional oversight.

The current scandal began earlier this week after several high-ranking Senate Democrats claimed that the agency improperly monitored the work of Senate Intelligence Committee staff reviewing classified CIA documents about the agency’s harsh treatment of captured terror suspects and that the agency withheld the existence of the internal report that largely corroborates the committee’s own findings — namely that waterboarding and other brutal tactics failed to produce useful intelligence.

Lawmakers are calling for answers, and Brennan wasted no time defending his agency.

"I am deeply dismayed that some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts," Brennan said on Wednesday. "I am very confident that the appropriate authorities reviewing this matter will determine where wrongdoing, if any, occurred in either the Executive Branch or Legislative Branch. Until then, I would encourage others to refrain from outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and Congressional overseers."

The CIA may have ammunition for firing back at its critics. According to a report by McClatchy, congressional aides involved in preparing the Senate report removed classified documents that they weren’t authorized to have from CIA headquarters. The FBI is also now investigating the removal of classified documents from a CIA facility in Northern Virginia, according to reports. The CIA inspector general has also referred to the Justice Department questions about whether agency officials monitored Senate staff members’ computers, reports said. Agency officials declined to comment, but a fuller statement from their side is expected in coming days.

For Brennan, the public controversy marks perhaps the most significant test of his leadership, as years of bitterness between Langley and the Hill have now spilled over into public view. The relationship between the spies and their overseers in the Senate are poisoned and at a low point, despite the fact that on other controversial matters, including NSA surveillance, the committee and especially its chair, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have generally been strong defenders of the intelligence agencies.

"The Senate Intelligence Committee oversees the CIA, not the other way around," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said in a statement. "Since I joined the Committee, the CIA has refused to engage in good faith on the Committee’s study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Instead, the CIA has consistently tried to cast doubt on the accuracy and quality of this report by publicly making false representations about what is and is not in it."

Another committee member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has implied publicly that the agency may have violated a criminal statute meant to combat illegal computer hacking, suggesting that the CIA may have monitored the use of computers by Senate staffers who were combing through millions of pages of classified documents on the interrogation program.

If the CIA were found to have spied on Senate committee computers, it would be a scandal of monumental proportions and might well end with Brennan’s resignation. A former senior intelligence official said he couldn’t conceive of a scenario in which clandestinely monitoring congressional computers would have been permissible under law.

But it’s not clear whether Senate investigators were using their own computers or those furnished by the agency when they reviewed documents at a CIA-controlled facility. (White House and intelligence officials, as well as congressional staff, declined to comment on that question.) Several former officials said it was highly unlikely that the staff would have been allowed to bring their own computers into a secure facility, and if the CIA was monitoring its own computers, it’s not clear how that continues an illegal act.

But that the question is even being raised reveals how profoundly hostile and distrustful the investigation into interrogation practices has been. That’s the breach that Brennan has to try to repair.

Brennan’s return to Langley was greeted skeptically by many CIA employees, who hadn’t considered him to be director material, former officials said. He was generally viewed as a White House loyalist, which is not unusual for a CIA chief. But had Brennan not hitched his wagon to the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, three years after he’d left the agency and embarked on a career in business, he would almost certainly have never been considered for the top job. He’d had a successful career, with a tour as station chief in Riyadh, and at the CIA ultimately rose to deputy executive director, a senior leadership position. But a final position as director of what became the National Counterterrorism Center was seen as a sort of graceful transition from a career in public service, with little expectation that he’d return. That all changed when Obama won election in 2008 and Brennan joined the new president in the White House the next year after serving as a national security adviser to the campaign.

In general, current and former officials say, Brennan has shown himself to be a strong defender of the agency’s interests, and a stabilizing force after the brief, disastrous tenure of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who stepped down in 2012 amid a sex scandal. And having a CIA director who has the president’s ear brings distinct though less tangible advantages.

Brennan has also been an effective guardian of the CIA’s budgets. It stood at nearly $15 billion in 2013, a 56 percent increase since 2004, according to classified documents revealed by Edward Snowden, and there is no sign that the spigot will be turned off. Intelligence insiders credit Brennan for helping to maintain the flow. He has also managed to hold onto the CIA’s drone program, despite public assurances from Obama that it would be transferred to the military.

Before Brennan returned to public service, he didn’t embrace forceful executive powers so enthusiastically. "After 9/11, there was a need for urgent action, and sometimes without the fullest of discussion," Brennan said in an interview with this reporter in 2008, before he joined the Obama campaign. "Where I fault the [Bush] administration is that after the heat of 9/11 dissipated a bit…that’s when it should have embarked to engage meaningfully with the [congressional] oversight committees and the judiciary, to put in place those programs for the longer term."

It remains to be seen whether Brennan will — or can — collaborate so peacefully with the CIA’s overseers. Former officials doubted that the current controversy over interrogations would literally cost the agency in dollars. But its credibility is now on the line. If history is any guide, Brennan may do well to follow the lessons of a previous director, Leon Panetta, who won the admiration and the loyalty of the CIA rank-and-file when he publicly and forcefully defended the agency over similar allegations that officials had misled Congress about interrogations.

In that fracas, Panetta stood up to Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, who said the agency wasn’t telling overseers the full story about brutal techniques it used on detained terrorists, including waterboarding. "There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," Panetta said in a message to CIA employees, a curious choice of words for a man who had no experience at all in running intelligence programs. "My advice — indeed, my direction — to you is straightforward: ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission. We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country." Pelosi backed down, and the controversy subsided.

"They liked Panetta. They couldn’t stand Petraeus. Brennan, I think people said, ‘Well, maybe,’" a former senior intelligence official said about employees’ reaction to the director’s return. "But it was a skeptical maybe. And it’s still a skeptical maybe."

Coming days will show whether Brennan convinces his employees he has their back, and the president’s.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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