The CIA under new leadership and what the world can expect

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President Barack Obama has nominated his top counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, to take over as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and fill the void left by Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation.[i] Brennan’s nomination has caused quite a stir in Washington and within the Intelligence Community. The nomination has reignited criticism of Brennan’s perceived support for torture and targeted killings. Indeed, he withdrew his name from consideration for the same position during the first Obama administration, after concerns were raised regarding his support of the CIA’s interrogation methods used on detainees during the presidency of George W. Bush. The President’s right hand man on terrorism has 25 years of experience in the CIA, having been involved in various duties, including analysis, operations in the field, and management. Additionally, Brennan has been heavily involved with the drone program and authorized the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.[ii] Given the Obama administration’s affinity for implementing drone strikes and Brennan’s experience, the nomination seems to be an obvious choice and one that would lead to “business as usual” for the CIA in the coming years.

But others suggest that Brennan, if confirmed by Congress, may in fact pull back on the reigns of the CIA and put it back on track to assuming the duties it focused on before 9/11. Ostensibly, this would mean reducing the agency’s involvement in what some have called paramilitary activities,[iii] and concentrating its efforts on its bread and butter: collecting and analyzing intelligence. The CIA has always been involved in paramilitary activities – which it calls ‘covert operations’ – but since 9/11 the agency’s involvement in these types of activities has grown substantially. Such a shift may involve authority over the drone program being handed over to other agencies and international players, and the CIA ending its participation in the detention of terror suspects. Amid criticisms that the CIA’s counterterrorism programs lack needed transparency and violate both domestic and international law, the reforms some believe Brennan will bring about are seen as a welcome departure from the agency’s current trajectory and would help strengthen the legitimacy of the U.S. both at home and abroad.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has stated that Brennan “has been an advocate for greater transparency in our counterterrorism policy (…) and for the adherence to the rule of law.”[iv] Joshua Foust, a contributor to the American Security Project, wrote that Brennan “offers the best chance at reforming the agency,”[v] suggesting that the nominee is the candidate most likely to rebalance the priorities of the agency and move away from paramilitary activities. This potential rebalancing of priorities, Foust argues, is supported by Brennan’s calls during closed meetings for the drone program to be transferred from the CIA to the military.[vi] Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Cohen argues that Brennan has not only been a major advocate for transferring authority over the drone program to the military, but has stood up against the excessive use of targeted killings, and has pushed for greater emphasis on non-lethal elements of counterterrorism strategy, such as diplomacy and economic assistance.[vii] Sarah Holewinski asserts that transferring authority of the drone program to the Department of Defense would be beneficial since the military has a reputation for being more open with Congress, learning lessons, and being concerned about the welfare of civilians.[viii]

Those arguing that Brennan will bring the CIA back to its roots may likely be right, at least to some degree. However, those hoping that the drone program will be transferred entirely to the military and the agency will completely cease its involvement in detentions are setting themselves up for disappointment. Under John Brennan, the CIA is likely to see a minimization of its participation in detentions of terror suspects, greater transparency of the drone program, and an increased effort to improve its ability to collect and analyze intelligence.

On February 7, 2013, John Brennan sat before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was asked about his professional experience, willingness to work with Congress, and plans for the future of the CIA once he assumes his duties as director. During the nearly four-hour session that covered topics ranging from the drone program, to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, to shrinking government budgets, John Brennan acknowledged that since 9/11 the CIA had moved away from its traditional role of collecting and analyzing intelligence and has engaged in more paramilitary-type operations, stating “the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.”[ix] When asked by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) whether the CIA should be detaining terror suspects, Brennan responded in the negative, saying that the responsibility of detaining these suspects should be given to the military, FBI, and international partners, although the CIA could play a role during interrogations by providing its expertise.[x] Furthermore, the nominee indicated his willingness to increase transparency regarding the agency’s covert operations – including targeted killings – by providing Congress with documents from the Office of Legal Counsel concerning the legality of CIA operations (which in the past were often withheld), and providing the general public with information regarding the thresholds, practices, and decision-making processes related to the drone program.[xi] So, while it remains to be seen exactly what Brennan will do regarding the drone program, at least it appears we can expect a greater degree of transparency. We may also see the CIA pulling out of the game of detaining terror suspects. Both changes would be welcomed by Brennan’s critics, and are likely to help improve perceptions of the CIA and the U.S. government by its citizens and people around the globe.

The U.S. Congress is expected to approve of John Brennan’s nomination.[xii] Until he takes up his new position in the CIA, we can only wait and wonder whether Brennan will begin steering the agency back to its roots or allow one of the world’s most secretive intelligence organizations to continue “business as usual”.


[i] Mike Morell has served as Acting Director of the agency during this interim period.

[ii] John O. Brennan, “John Brennan’s Confirmation Hearing Statement, February 2013,” Council on Foreign Relations, 7/2/2013, accessed 8/2/2013, http://www.cfr.org/us-election-2012/john-brennans-confirmation-hearing-statement-february-2013/p29938.

[iii] Greg Myre, “Drone Program Under Scrutiny as CIA Nominee Testifies,” NPR, 7/2/2013, accessed 7/2/2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/02/07/171397729/drone-program-under-scrutiny-as-cia-nominee-testifies.

[iv] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Hearing on the Nomination of John O. Brennan to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency” (hearing, Washington, DC, February 7, 2013), United States Senate, http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=intel&filename=intel020713.

[v] Joshua Foust, “The Choises John Brennan Will Face,” Opinion, PBS, 10/1/2013, accessed 3/2/2013, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/opinion/the-choices-john-brennan-will-face/15959/.

[vi] Joshua Foust, “He Has Already Learned from Experience,” New York Times, 8/1/2013, accessed 1/2/2013, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/01/07/the-right-or-wrong-experience-for-the-job/john-brennan-has-already-learned-from-experience-in-the-cia.

[vii] Michael Cohen, “Why the Left Should Embrace John Brennan,” Foreign Policy, 9/1/2013, accessed 7/2/2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/01/09/why_the_left_should_embrace_john_brennan?wp_login_redirect=0.

[viii] Sarah Holewinski, “Bring Drones out of the Shadows,” Opinion, CNN, 7/2/2013, accessed 7/2/2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/06/opinion/holewinski-brennan-drones/index.html?iref=allsearch.

[ix] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (hearing, February 7, 2013).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Patricia Zengerle and Tabassum Zakaria, “Drone Policy, Harsh Interrogations Focus of CIA Nominee Hearing,” Reuters, 7/2/2013, accessed 9/2/2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/07/us-obama-nominations-brennan-idUSBRE91516E20130207.

About Author

Alejandro Gamboa

Alejandro Gamboa is an editor in chief at the International Security Observer and head of the Security Studies Division. Alejandro works as a researcher and analyst at a private security firm in the Washington DC area. His work helps private and public sector clients keep abreast of the threats they face in high-risk regions of the world. Born in the Seattle area, Alejandro received his BA from the University of Washington, majoring in International Studies with a specialization in ethnic conflict and nationalist movements. He obtained his MA in International Relations at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, where he wrote his thesis on the use of preventive violence by states to mitigate some of the most salient national security threats of the post-Cold War era. He is fluent in English and Spanish.

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