Terror Watch: Brennan Bows Out for CIA Position

The abrupt withdrawal of John Brennan as a candidate to be CIA director could complicate Barack Obama's efforts to assemble a national security team untainted by past policies of the Bush administration. It is also a potential signal of more battles on the intelligence front in the weeks ahead, since many of the other names that have been prominently mentioned for CIA director or director of National Intelligence have their own ties to the intelligence community that include carrying out controversial policies under President Bush.

Brennan, a 25-year intelligence-community veteran, had been a top adviser to Obama on intelligence issues during the campaign and served as a leader of the Obama transition team for the intelligence community. "He was our guy on intelligence," one top Obama adviser told NEWSWEEK (who like all Obama advisors asked not to be identified speaking about personnel matters.) But Brennan made his surprise decision to pull his name from the CIA search after getting pummeled over the past few days by liberal critics for his alleged role in the use of abusive interrogation techniques against high-value Al Qaeda targets during a period he served as a top CIA official under George Tenet.

A transition official confirms that Brennan, who once served as Tenet's chief of staff and was the CIA's deputy executive director between 2001 and 2003, had indeed been under "consideration" to be Obama's director at Langley. But after news of his possible nomination leaked over the weekend, liberal bloggers and others began attacking the prospective selection as a betrayal of Obama's pledge to put an end to the policies of the past eight years. "Break with the Dark Side. Do Not Nominate John Brennan as CIA Director," read the headline on an open letter to Obama released on Monday by 200 psychologists opposed to harsh interrogation techniques. Other groups, including one consisting of law professors, say they were poised to weigh-in against Brennan as well.

The irony is that though Brennan would have been a participant in some of the discussions over U.S. interrogation policy, he was never a decision-maker on such issues. Indeed, he insisted in a stinging public retort today that it has been "immaterial to the critics" that he had actually been a "strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq, and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding." Still, Brennan wrote in his letter to President-elect Obama (and released by the transition staff) that he did not want the issue of his role in Bush administration policies to be a "distraction" and therefore wanted to withdraw from consideration as CIA director.

The big question is now who else might Obama select for CIA director (or director of National Intelligence) that does not have similar baggage? Consider Brennan's co-leader on the transition team for the intelligence agencies—Jamie Miscik. She too served at the agency as deputy director for intelligence until 2004, during a period the CIA was colossally wrong about Iraqi weapons of destruction; and actively helped the president make his case for war. Another name that has been mentioned is John McLaughlin, a well-respected intelligence professional who nonetheless was the No. 2 in command during both the run-up to the war in Iraq and the approval of harsh interrogation techniques. Yet a third possibility that has been floated is allowing Michael Hayden, the current CIA director, to stay on the job for a while. But that too seems a non-starter: Obama voted against Hayden's confirmation to be CIA director because of his prior role, as director of the National Security Agency, in implementing the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. A spokesman for Hayden said today the director "serves at the pleasure of the president. If he's asked to stay, he'd consider it, given his respect for the people he leads and his obvious interest in the mission of intelligence. But he's not hanging around waiting for word."

That doesn't mean that others candidates won't surface—or that there aren't other intelligence community professionals out there who might fit the bill, and be free of any Bush administration "taint." (One possibility: John Gannon, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President Clinton.) But Brennan's downfall could set a precedent that might make life a lot harder for Obama as he seeks to bring his own team to the intelligence community without offending his liberal base.

Terror Watch appears weekly on Newsweek.com.

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