Brennan Can Build Political Bridges Between White House and CIA

The president's nominee for CIA director has unique experience in and out of Washington, experts say.

Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, above, has been chosen by President Barack Obama to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
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John Brennan may not have been the most apparent choice to replace David Petraeus as the nation's top spy, but experts say he may be the best prepared to navigate the windy road from Langley to Pennsylvania Avenue after the last four years.

Many observers in the defense and intelligence communities believed Obama would tap either acting CIA Director Michael Morell—who held that same position between the tenures of Leon Panetta and Petraeus—or Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a CIA veteran.

Obama's eventual decision to look in-house, while surprising to some, aligns with the tasks facing the next director of central intelligence, experts say.

"A lot of people assumed John was going to retire because the four years has been a total grind," says Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "Bottom line is when the president puts his arm around you and says he needs you, it's hard to say 'No.'"

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Brennan, Vickers or Morell are all qualified to be the next director of the CIA, says former Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy DeLeon, who also served on the National Security Council before retiring in 2001. However, only one had the requisite relationship with this commander in chief.

"When you're actually asked about these jobs, by the president, then it's a completely different situation than when there is third-party speculation on what is the lineup of candidates," he says.

"At the end of the day, it was the relationship that was already established," says DeLeon, now senior vice president at Center for American Progress. "The familiarity is extremely important and can't be underestimated."

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Presidents want people they know and trust in these leadership positions to advocate the administration's agenda, not just one agency's agenda, says Cressey. Nobody else has Brennan's intelligence experience or time spent by Obama's side.

"[Obama] doesn't want anyone who needs on-the-job training. He needs someone who understands not just how the CIA works, but how the inter-agency is working right now. He wants someone who has been a producer and a consumer of intelligence," he says. "[Brennan] is in a unique position to be able to call 'BS,' so that the product the agency is giving to the White House meets the president and his senior staff's requirements."

At least one other expert believes these White House credentials may hurt the agency.

"He would politicize the CIA in a way that would further undermine his credibility and effectiveness," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and State Department counterterrorism official in the 1980s and 1990s. "What you need at the CIA is someone who can…tell the president uncomfortable truths you might not want to hear. That is not John Brennan. He will tell you exactly what you want to hear, whether it's true or not. That is his track record," he says.

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Brennan came under fire in 2004 from critics of the Iraq war who said he fed misinformation to the State Department for its annual report on global terrorism trends in an attempt to keep the numbers of terrorist attacks artificially low. Brennan, then the director of the Terrorism Threat Integration Center, claimed responsibility for the errors and pointed to flaws in the data-gathering system from before his tenure began.

In 2005, as acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Brennan was accused by California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman and others of withholding terrorism statistics in a State Department report because of an apparent spike in attacks. Brennan said the spike was due to a different, more comprehensive review of attacks, not an increase in terrorism.

However, Brennan has largely stayed out of the spotlight since joining the president's national security team in 2008 as a senior advisor.

The potential for a cleaner Senate nomination also might have brightened his chances, after Obama passed on Susan Rice for secretary of state, and has already faced criticism for nominating Chuck Hagel.