While announcing the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense at the White House this afternoon, President Obama also threw in his pick to run the CIA: John Brennan. The White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser will fill the void left when David Petraeus soap-opera-ed his way out of a job by sleeping with his biographer. Brennan has no such baggage that we know of, but does come with controversial ties to torture during the George W. Bush administration and the current culture of drone strikes.
In 2008, Brennan withdrew his name for consideration for the CIA chief job rather than face criticism about his “connection to harsh interrogation techniques,” the AP reports. Although he identified at the time as “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,” a White House spokesman claims the point is moot now anyway: “The issue has been removed from the debate because the president and John Brennan, as his top counterterrorism adviser, brought those techniques to an end.”
Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, was the first Obama official to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program, the AP also notes, and has defended the legality of the secret attacks. Still, “Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings,” the Washington Post reported in October. “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.”
In addition to his extensive experience, the White House is expected to highlight Brennan’s involvement in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as well as his loyalty to the president: “Brennan is as close to President Obama as any member of his national security team,” according to the talking points. “The fact is the president seeks John’s views and reactions to every terrorism and homeland security issue,” a deputy national security adviser told the Washington Times in 2009. “There is no question about that.”
Brennan’s Senate confirmation is expected to be much smoother than that of Hagel, the former GOP senator and Vietnam veteran who is all of a sudden both too Republican and not Republican enough. In this national security twofer, Brennan should be happy to take second billing.
Update: At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Obama made his nominations of Brennan and Hagel official. “Chuck Hagel is the leader our troops deserve,” said Obama. He also praised Brennan’s “keen understanding of a dynamic world” and joked, “I’m not sure he’s slept in four years.”
The president called for a quick confirmation process for both men: “When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave a lot of gaps.”
This post has been updated throughout.