John Brennan's Tough Choices Ahead

Whether he likes it or not, Obama's nominee for CIA director faces hard decisions that will affect the future of the agency's drone program.

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Jason Reed/Reuters

Several news agencies are reporting that John Brennan, White House homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, will be nominated to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Since David Petraeus resigned from the position on November 9, it has been rumored that the position is Brennan's for the taking. Several people in the administration believed he would defer the move to Langley, since it would effectively be a demotion from his current position, which allows him to meet with President Obama constantly as -- according to Obama administration officials -- "a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Obama." Moreover, Brennan would at times call CIA officers directly from the White House, without clearance from Petraeus; a practice one suspects he will not appreciate if he occupies the director's seventh floor office.

It is possible that after previously serving in the Intelligence Community for a quarter-century -- including as the chief of staff to former director George Tenet -- overseeing the CIA is too prestigious a job to turn down. It was also said that he was exhausted by all the duties of his current job unrelated to intelligence or counterterrorism, like coordinating the inter-agency response to Hurricane Sandy, and drafting an executive order on cyber security regulations, because Senate republicans were unwilling to endorse even minimal responsibilities for the private sector to protect their computer systems. As one White House counterterrorism official told me recently, Brennan was by far the hardest working individual among hard workers, and genuinely a nice guy.

Brennan has been at the forefront in the Obama administration's vast expansion of its program of targeted killings in non-battlefield settings. Whereas there were roughly 50 targeted killings in the presidency of George W. Bush, there have been approximately 360 under President Obama. Brennan oversees and manages the 100-person interagency process that nominates and vets suspected militants and terrorists for the United States' various kill lists -- implemented by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Moreover, as an executive branch appointee, he is unaccountable outside of the executive branch for his decisions, since he is not required to appear before Congress or to answer a congressional subpoena. However, he has made several public speeches and statements about limited aspects of the program, some of which are preposterous and in no way supported by reality.

Behind the scenes Brennan has been one of the administration's stronger proponents for partially explaining certain justifications for the targeted killing program. The reason for this is that many veteran policymakers recognize that the Bush administration's policy of denying the existence of late-night explosions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was unsustainable. To protect the program from externally-imposed limits via domestic or international pressure, the Obama administration had to provide its own carefully crafted policy and legal justifications. Where controversy or probing questions arose, such as whether the United States conducts signature strikes against anonymous suspected militants, the Obama administration has remained silent.

The Bush administration engaged in the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to third-party countries, torture, and warrantless wiretapping. Ultimately, domestic political pressure led to significant reforms or termination for all three. Brennan and others fear this could happen with targeted killings as well.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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