Why Brennan Stays

Finally, there is something liberals and conservatives can agree on: CIA director John Brennan must go. So why is he still in office? Even more puzzling – why did the President go out of his way during last Friday’s press conference to state that Brennan has “his full confidence”? Of course, it is possible that Obama has just given Brennan the equivalent of the sports team’s owner’s public “vote of confidence” in the manager which is often a prelude to firing the unfortunate soul, but for now Brennan has the president’s public backing, and that does not sit well with some members of the Senate, never mind pundits on the Left and the Right.

The controversy regarding Brennan centers in part on the recent finding by an internal CIA Inspector General that five CIA employees improperly accessed a Senate Intelligence committee file pertaining to the committee’s investigation, using classified material, into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The disclosure came after Brennan had publicly denied allegations that CIA officials had accessed the files, saying, “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth.”  That turns out not to be true.

In the wake of the IG’s disclosure that the hacking did occur, Brennan has reportedly apologized to committee members. His  apology, however, did not mollify everyone; at least two senators on the committee – Democrats Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich – have called for Brennan’s resignation, a call echoed by Republican Senator Rand Paul. Paul, you may remember, spent nearly 13 hours filibustering on the Senate floor last year in an unsuccessful effort to block Brennan’s nomination as CIA director.

To Brennan’s critics, the CIA director either authorized his agency to spy on the Senate committee, or he did not know the spying was occurring on his own watch. In either case, they argue, he deserves to be fired. Conspicuously, however, Senate Intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein reportedly described Brennan’s apology, along with commissioning the internal review, as a “good first step” – hardly the sign of a person looking for Brennan’s scalp. This conciliatory tone stands in sharp contrast to her words last March, of course, when Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of possibly violating the law and the Constitution by monitoring her staff’s computers. Of course, Feinstein may be saving her ammunition pending her own further investigation into the incident, but for now her reticence to call for Brennan’s resignation sends an important signal.

When the news broke regarding the CIA spying, I received several emails from long-time readers arguing that Brennan’s admission gave Obama an opportunity to show some long-needed decisiveness. By firing his CIA director, Obama would put away lingering doubts that he has the political backbone to make politically difficult choices while at the same time reining in an agency that seems to act without much accountability to elected officials. In my initial response, I expressed skepticism that Obama would act decisively and fire Brennan. Shortly thereafter the President expressed his full confidence in his embattled director.

Why hasn’t Obama fired Brennan?  In my view it is because the President does not perceive it to be in his interest to do so. Remember, Brennan, the former White House terrorist “czar”, was the President’s hand-picked replacement for David Petraeus when Petraeus resigned over revelations that he had an extra-marital affair. Indeed, Obama nominated Brennan over safer and perhaps better qualified candidates such as Mike Morell, a career agency analyst and acting director after Petraeus’ resignation, and he did so even though Brennan was a controversial pick to some because of his role in developing the nation’s drone program – that partly prompted the Rand filibuster – and because critics viewed him as a defender of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Despite the controversy, Obama chose Brennan, I think, because after spending much of his first term in office mediating disputes between CIA director Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Obama undoubtedly realized that the DNI has no real operational clout, and that if he wants to ride herd on the intelligence process, he needed his own person at the CIA. This is not unusual – presidents often move White House political loyalists into executive leadership positions during their second term as a way to gain greater access, if not control, over important agencies. Bush the Younger did this when he transferred his national security adviser Condi Rice from the White House to head the State Department after he won reelection. Once ensconced at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy, it usually takes a lot to force a president to replace a political loyalist.  Keep in mind as well that there is always some political cost to removing officials, not least because it focuses media attention away from the issues Obama wants covered as the midterm elections loom.

Moreover, Brennan’s critics view this incident from a different perspective than does Obama. They see the CIA accessing the Senate files in constitutional terms, as both a violation of the separation of powers and further indication that the CIA is a lawless agency accountable to no one. But it is not at all clear to me that Obama agrees with or is bothered by either charge. From his perspective, having a politically loyal man head the CIA is worth a few ruffled feathers in the Senate and among the civil libertarian crowd.

Note that it is not necessary to fall back on theories of blackmail to understand Obama’s reluctance to fire Brennan – his actions are consistent with his behavior in the national security realm since the day he took office. Although many on the Left fervently hoped that Obama would bring the anti-terrorist national security apparatus established during the Bush administration to heel, he has instead left it largely intact, and in some instances, as with drone strikes, expanded its reach. The reason, as I’ve discussed before, is that Obama feels his constitutional imperative to protect the nation’s security in the age of terror no less acutely than did Bush. From all accounts, Brennan plays an integral role in that fight. That combination of shared experience, personal loyalty and institutional access would be hard to replace. Moreover, as I’ve noted many times, Obama is at heart a centrist and a pragmatist who has shown no proclivity to push principle at the expense of practical politics. That is just not his way.

Yes, I understand that many on the Left and the Right see the CIA’s action as an egregious breach of civil liberties and constitutional prerogatives. But their ire is misdirected. If they want Brennan fired, they need to direct their protests at Congress. Unless Obama calculates that the political cost of Brennan remaining as CIA director outweighs the benefits of having his hand-picked man heading that agency, Brennan will likely stay.

UPDATE 12:10 p.m. :  Jonathan Bernstein beat me to the punch with this post yesterday, but he comes to a similar conclusion – that Obama is trying to strengthen ties with the intelligence community:   http://bv.ms/1zR52zQ

UPDATE 5:30 p.m: More evidence that Obama sees the CIA spy case as predominantly a national security issue as opposed to a constitutional or civil liberties problem: his administration has heavily redacted, for security reasons, the Senate Intelligence Committee report documenting the CIA detention and interrogation program. (This was the report that prompted the CIA to access Senate files.)  Feinstein is evidently not happy and wants Obama to reduce the number of redactions.  See: http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/feinstein-seeks-to-reduce-blackouts-in-torture-report-summary/


  1. Matt, thanks for this detailed explanation of why (so far) Brennan has not been fired. Maybe that is Congress’s job.

    But Obama’s unwillingness to act, to place politics ahead of the Constitution is just another example of his inability to exhibit leadership. The CIA spied on Congress. This is an egregious action and the President needs to take decisive action.

    Certainly their are other CIA administrators who could keep the country just as safe and obey the law.


  2. Unfortunately, Matt, I agree. Brennan will stay.

    But I approach the incident from the rule of law. As a young lawyer, fresh out of law school and passing the Bar, I began my career at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C.

    I have followed every administration since and focused on the actions of the successive Attorneys General. Yes, many have been confidants and very close to the President to whom they owed their positions.

    But once in them, most have followed the rule of law, especially when the chips were down and they found themselves between a rock and a hard place; support an ideological President or follow the rule of law. Most chose the latter.

    Eric Holder is a disgrace to the position, a disgrace to his party and a disgrace to America. He, along with Harry Reid, has enabled this President to assume powers well beyond those intended by our Framers.

    If the Republicans can avoid shooting themselves in their collective feet this coming election and manage to gain control of the Senate, Barack Obama’s world will come to a screeching halt. The word “Impeachment” will begin to mean something to be feared, and America may begin the long road back to healing the wounds this administration has placed upon it.

    We will need a real Attorney General and a real President to complete the healing process, but we can make a beginning.

  3. It has always been my sense that all Presidents just hate to buckle to the wishes of congress when it comes to firing his own appointees.

    Please have a great day.

  4. Kuppy,

    Yep. But it is also true that they sometimes want it to appear that they are forced to fire someone, thus deflecting responsibility onto someone else. In this case, if enough Senators say Brennan must go, Obama can say “I still support him, but he can’t do his job if the Senate wants him out, so….”

  5. Shelly,

    Republicans and perhaps even Democrats won’t trust Holder to investigate the CIA. If there is going to be an investigation, Senators will either want to do it themselves via a Church-like committee – or they will push for an independent commission – which is exactly what Obama does NOT want. So, I stand by my position – if the Senate cares deeply enough about removing Brennan, Obama will acquiesce. But without pressure, he won’t act on his own.

  6. Jack,

    I hear you. And yes, there are certainly CIA administrators who could keep the country just as safe and obey the law – Mike Morell is one such individual. But while you dismiss politics, that in fact is how things get done in this country – through the political process. And politically speaking, Obama wants his political loyalist running the CIA – not some independent bureaucrat. My guess is that Brennan’s defense to Feinstein will be that he had to make sure the Senate staffers were not leaking classified documents. If she accepts it, Brennan – and Obama – are off the hook. If she doesn’t and asks for Brennan’s head on a platter, Obama will give it to her. But he’s not going to act “decisively” without political pressure because, to him, this is not predominantly a legal issue, it is a political one.

  7. I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that Obama left Bush’s apparatus intact. Bush’s program, as initially set up, included warrantless wiretaps and was completely outside the legal framework established for domestic surveillance in the 1970s. While Bush was still president, however, Congress shut down the actual wiretaps and brought the metadata program within the FISA framework (although this required some adjustments, such as allowing the surveillance of categories rather than individuals). You can certainly disagree as to whether they did enough, but Bush’s program as inherited by Obama was already altered in significant ways from the original, and Senator Obama played some role in that.

    On Morell, I kinda had the impression that he was off the list after McCain and friends publicly denounced him for claiming that it was the FBI that removed references to al-Qaeda from the talking points (which, of course, turned out to be true). I guess the question then is whether being right is enough to overcome the animosity of important senators.

    On the CIA spying on the Senate, it’s not that Senators were leaking secrets, but that they had in their possession a CIA document produced after the cut-off date that the CIA had agreed to and someone in the CIA was apparently trying to find out how they got it. Here I do have to wonder why the CIA gets to decide which documents its oversight committee has a right to review.

  8. Who watches the watchers?

    Always the question. The answer should be “The Press”; lately, it is “It depends (on whether the offender is a Democrat or Republican).”

    How did it come to this? Our republic depends on a vigorous and honest free press. Do they not teach journalism any more?

  9. Scott – You are absolutely right regarding how Congress pushed back, with the help of the courts, against some of the initial Bush anti-terrorist infrastructure, and that it was the amended program that Obama inherited and which he largely retained with some conspicuous exceptions, such as ending waterboarding. I detailed a lot of this in this earlier post: http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/2011/12/12/why-obama-continues-bushs-foreign-policy/

    But this has not mollified Obama’s critics on the Left who think he has been far too willing to buy into the program he inherited, whether it be drones, NSA eavesdropping or even a limited use of rendition.

    My point with Morell was to respond to Jack’s query regarding whether there were other qualified individuals to run the CIA who hadn’t lied to Congress. He’s one, but as you point out, he may be disqualified for political reasons – which is exactly why Brennan still heads the CIA.

    As for the Senate review of CIA documents, I think we are saying the same thing, although I could have been more clear re: what I meant by “leaks”.

  10. Shelly,

    I’ve not studied this question in detail, and it is always a bit misleading to speak about the media as a whole, but my sense is that you are right: a good portion of the mainstream media was more than a little slow in playing their role as presidential watchdog with the zealousness that they showed in previous years. I have theories why that might be but no real evidence to back up my hunches. So I’ll leave it at that for now.

  11. When you get around to it, Matt, take a look at Bernard Goldberg’s commentaries. He does research on articles about various incidents and compares the amounts of stories about one scandal vis-a-vis others.

    I don’t have the numbers, but remember him pointing out the huge coverage of the non-scandal of Chris Christie’s “Bridge Incident” vis-a-vis “Benghazi”, “Lois Lerner”, etc. The numbers are astounding, really.

    They just love to pile on the Republicans for nothing much and almost ignore serious breaches like Lerner, the CIA Spying, etc.

    The Free Press is truly what distinguishes the USA from the world. When we lose that, we are in a tailspin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *