Here's What John Brennan Knew....

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The Washington Independent notes that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan refused to say whether he knew about the controversial post 9-11 domestic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.  In one way, it doesn't really matter, at least to President Obama, who presumably knows the answer and was comfortable enough to install Brennan as his chief homeland security adviser.  But the public has a right to know the background of the guy advising the president on such sensitive stuff, and there is an interesting disparity in the level of culpability that we tend to ascribe to former Bush administration officials. (Brennan will say that he was never a Bush guy... always a CIA guy...just like when he was a CIA briefer for Bill Clinton.)  So, here's the answer, as best as I can tell: senior intelligence officials with direct knowledge of Brennan's role confirm that, indeed, as head of the National Counterterrorism Center (and of its earlier incarnation, called TTIC), he was privy to both the NSA's "take" -- the raw product -- and the mechanisms used to collect it. The NCTC cross-checked NSA information with everything else collected by the intelligence community and prepared threat assessments. 

Before TTIC and NCTC, when Brennan was deputy executive director of the CIA, he was, in essence, the senior manager for analysis and production. He did not plan or supervise operations; he played no role in authorizing or conducting the "enhanced interrogations" that were tantamount to torture. But his job was to manage the analytic process, one aspect of which was to determine the significance of the information gleaned from those sessions. I don't find it surprising -- indeed, it would have been malpractice -- for CIA not to have played a role in selecting the targets for the NSA's domestic collection, so Brennan, by default, participated. 


To me, what was most striking about Brennan's remarks today were that he challenged the public's notions of what the programs themselves entailed, although he did not provide the details. We know that modified versions of at least five domestic collection programs are operational today; we've heard next to nothing from any Obama administration official about whether their campaign-era perception of the NSA programs comported with the reality they found once in office.  The only thing I've been able to glean is that the President is fascinated by the details the NSA manages to place in his PDB. But all Presidents are fascinated with the NSA. 
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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