White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan played an unusual role Sunday when he swiped at congressional Republicans for bashing the administration's handling of the Christmas Day bombing suspect.
Normally, it is the White House political aides such as David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, both seasoned veterans of the 2008 Obama campaign, who take the offensive against the president's GOP critics on the Sunday talk shows.
But this week, it was Brennan─a professional U.S. intelligence official who now serves on the president's national-security staff─who played the attack-dog role. While national-security aides─like Richard Clarke after 9/11─have been used in the past to rebut political attacks by providing "background" briefings, and Brennan himself did the Sunday talk-show circuit immediately after the Christmas Day bombing─it is extremely rare for a White House aide in his position to so directly target the president's critics, much less members of Congress by name, according to several former White House staffers and congressional staffers.
Yet when he appeared Sunday on Meet the Press, Brennan slammed Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate for using terrorism as a "political football" and purportedly misrepresenting the events surrounding the decision to read bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights and charge him in federal court.
Brennan's most pointed criticism was that, during the fast moving events on Christmas Day, he had personally briefed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; House Minority Leader John Boehner; Sen. Kit Bond, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, that Abdulmutallab was in "FBI custody."
Despite their later criticism that the suspect should have been turned over to the U.S. military for questioning, "None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point," Brennan said. "They didn't say, 'Is he going into military custody? Is he going to be Mirandized?'"
All four GOP leaders immediately challenged Brennan's comments, saying the briefings that Brennan had given them that day were brief and never specifically mentioned that he was going to be read his Miranda rights. (The White House says they should have figured this out on their own.) Nor did Brennan tell them what did not become clear until later that night: that once Abdulmutallab was read his rights, he stopped cooperating with the FBI and, as U.S. law-enforcement officials have said, he began chanting jihadi rants against the United States.
Both sides may have a point in this dispute, although the White House clearly caught a lucky break last week when FBI Director Robert Mueller disclosed that Abdulmutallab is now once again cooperating with agents. (He did so after FBI agents used a time-tested law-enforcement method: they flew over to Nigeria and persuaded two family members─one of them Abdulmutallab's mother─to fly back to Detroit and talk to him, according to a senior law-enforcement official.) Hours after Mueller testified about Abdulmutallab's newfound cooperative attitude, the White House hastily called a "background" briefing in which Brennan supplied additional details about what Abdulmutallab was now providing about his Al Qaeda contacts in Yemen─the kind of sensitive law-enforcement information that national-security officials rarely provide so openly.
But the most noteworthy aspect of the weekend political food fight may have been the emergence of Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran who once served as the first chief of the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush, as the point man for the White House's political brushback.
"He was generally respected in the [intelligence community] during the Bush administration, so he's the closest they can put out there with credibility to fight in those circles," noted one GOP Senate staffer, who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive political matters. But using Brennan in this capacity, could have long term risks-both for the White House and Brennan himself. The next time Brennan briefs the Hill or the news media about the administration's counterterrorism efforts, Republicans (and perhaps some journalists) will likely be on guard for any sign he is slanting the intelligence for the president's political advantage.
If Brennan has had bipartisan credibility, said the GOP Senate aide, "they risk him now losing it."
Watch Brennan on Meet the Press here.