Meet John Brennan, Obama's Drone Czar and Nominee for CIA Director

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The future of America's targeted assassination program will depend on how the 25-year agency veteran, its guiding presence, decides to approach it.

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Pete Souza/The White House

You might not know John Brennan's name yet, but that's about to change. And even if you don't know who he is, you're almost certainly familiar with his work: If you've heard about any drone strike over the last four years, you've witnessed his hidden hand. Brennan, currently President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, is the driving force behind America's overseas drone program. And if the president has his way, Brennan will soon be the director of the CIA, replacing General David Petraeus.

For Petraeus, the move from commanding U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to leading the CIA provided an opportunity to continue to pursue the small-footprint, assassination-focused method of prosecuting the war on terror that he'd worked hard to implement from within the Army. For Brennan, a move to the top of the CIA could signal the evolution of the drone program, which he has both overseen and sought to reign in.

If he's confirmed, it won't be Brennan's first tour of duty in Langley. He spent 25 years at the agency, including time as station chief in Saudi Arabia; he's also a fluent Arabic speaker. (Incredibly, he applied to work at the CIA after seeing a want ad in the New York Times.) It's also not his first bid for the director's chair: After Obama's 2008 victory, Brennan was a leading contender for the job, but he withdrew his name after pressure from liberals and civil libertarians over his role in so-called "enhanced interrogation tactics" -- read torture -- while heading the National Counterterrorism Center during the Bush Administration.

Leon Panetta became CIA director, and Brennan ended up advising Obama on counterterror, which has gotten him some high-profile assignments. He briefed the press on the Christmas 2009 Underwear Bomber and on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (The administration highlighted his work on the Bin Laden raid in its talking points on the nomination.) It has also earned him the trust of the White House, and Obama confidants talk about him in almost comically laudatory terms. "He is like a John Wayne character," David Axelrod told Newsweek's Dan Klaidman. "I sleep better knowing that he is not sleeping." Massimo Calabresi says Brennan is considered "the Holy Ghost" in Obama's trinity of terrorism advisers. He's also been described as a "priest-like presence" in terrorism discussions for his devotion to just war.

But Brennan's biggest impact -- and the issue sure to arouse the most controversy during the nomination hearings -- has been in the targeted killing program. Brennan is the man in charge of deciding who gets targeted and who doesn't. He has delivered the longest and most detailed defense and explanation of the program and how it works, in an April 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And he's also been the most prominent administration voice calling for the limiting and reining in of drone strikes. As the presidential election approached, he was part of an effort to set down legal restrictions on how the unmanned vehicles could and could not be used -- restrictions partly intended to ward off what White House insiders were worried could be abuses if Mitt Romney won the election. And according to a series of Washington Post reports from October, he was concerned even without the election looming:

Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA's primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency. Still, during Brennan's tenure, the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and opened a new base for armed drones in the Arabian Peninsula .... There are many associates who use the words "moral compass" to describe his role in the White House. It is Brennan, they say, who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy.

This makes Brennan's move to the CIA even more fascinating. Will he continue to work to restrain the role of intelligence agents in killing suspected terrorists? Or, once he's ensconced at the agency, will he decide that perhaps he's still the best person to oversee the program after all -- even if that requires a de facto delegation of authority over it to the CIA? Panetta was reportedly viewed with wariness when he arrived at the CIA, but quickly won loyalty for pushing back at liberal demands for serious investigation and sanctions over the torture program. Brennan might feel compelled to defend agency turf, as well -- but he also might feel empowered to go his own way, relying on his quarter-century career to grant him legitimacy.

There's been a lot of attention given to the Obama Administration's will-they-or-won't-they handling of Chuck Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense, but nominating the two men at the same time, as Obama did Monday afternoon, may actually give Brennan some cover and ease his confirmation. He's also earned some praise from conservatives, and he doesn't have partisan baggage: "I'm neither Republican nor Democrat," he noted in 2010. "I've worked for the past five administrations."

Still, don't expect the most ardent critics of either the drone program or the torture program to give Brennan anything resembling a free pass. My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has been one of the most consistent voices challenging Brennan for years, on matters ranging from how the administration speaks out of both sides of its mouth about drones, both bragging about them and insisting they are secret, to the reliance on imperfect technology, to the fact that strikes have been carried out both against U.S. citizens, forsaking constitutional due process, and also against targets the government can't even identify. In September Micah Zenko delivered a brutal indictment in Foreign Policy, noting seven claims Brennan has made that are at best overly optimistic and at worst blatantly untrue.

The torture questions will almost certainly resurface too. What did Brennan know, and when did he know it? It's still not entirely clear. On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan, who vociferously opposed a Brennan nomination four years ago, has changed his mind. But it's hard to imagine criticism of this sort derailing Brennan's nomination. Obama already deeply disappointed his civil-libertarian supporters in his first term, and Republicans (with occasional exceptions) have shown little interest in restraining the drone program. In announcing the Brennan nomination Monday, Obama praised him as "an advocate for greater transparency in our counterterrorism policy, and adherence to the rule of law." What his ultimate impact on those issues will be is perhaps too soon to tell.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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