Hawk with a Heart

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Hawk with a Heart


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

John Brennan, the most misunderstood man in Washington.

John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism chief and now his nominee to head the CIA, has spent his career in the darkest corners of the terror wars--and he has a grim public reputation to match. A massively built man with a labored gait and deep-set eyes that can appear menacing, Brennan has time and again been assailed by liberals and civil libertarians. They accuse him of having supported torture at the Bush-era CIA and, more recently, of having orchestrated Obama's legally dubious war of drone strikes and targeted killings. They point out that, in his current job, Brennan presides over a process so secretive that the public knows little about how many people have been killed, let alone how many of them have been innocent civilians.

If you listen to people inside the White House, however, you will hear about an entirely different Brennan. Yes, they will say, he is indeed deadly serious about hunting terrorists. (David Axelrod has said that he slept better knowing Brennan didn't sleep.) But he also passionately supports civil liberties and wants to fight terrorism within a framework of law. In fact, far from being seen as an unbridled hawk, Brennan is widely viewed by colleagues as an often-moderating influence in the war on terror. His very presence in the West Wing, administration insiders say, is a daily affirmation of one of Obama's central creeds in his war on al Qaeda: that America's strength is rooted in its values. "There's no one who cares more about the security of this country and going after people who are bent on killing American citizens," says Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "But at the same time, John is a pillar of courage when it comes to insisting on American values and the rule of law."

Next week Brennan, 57, will briefly step out of the shadows as the Senate takes up his confirmation to be CIA director. Effectively, the hearing will revolve around one of Washington's biggest unsolved riddles: Is John Brennan a hawk? A dove? A staunch civil libertarian? A man with enormous amounts of innocent blood on his hands? Or some semi-contradictory combination of the above?

To answer these questions, it helps to understand what has taken place inside the White House over the past four years. Upon assuming control of the war on terror, Obama and Brennan inherited a program of targeted killing with fuzzy criteria and shifting procedures. Together, they have groped toward a clearer framework for when the United States should carry out targeted killings--"rules of the road," as one White House official put it. Their partnership--arguably unique in the annals of American war--recently culminated in the production of a highly classified document known as "the playbook," which Obama hopes will guide his administration as well as those of future presidents. The advent of the playbook was a signal development in the 12-year-old war on terror. But it was a long, arduous road for the two men to get to this point--one that reveals much about Brennan's worldview and about how he might run the CIA.

It all began four years ago when Brennan and Obama met for the first time in Chicago. The newly elected Obama was looking for a CIA director; Brennan was a 25-year veteran of the agency who had served both at Langley and overseas, including a tour as station chief in Saudi Arabia. He spoke fluent Arabic and had a subtle feel for Muslim societies. (Brennan pronounces "al Qaeda" with the soft guttural of the Arabic he learned as a student at the American University in Cairo.)

During the meeting, both men talked about the need for a "surgical" approach in dealing with terrorism, according to a source familiar with their conversation. Brennan likened it to a doctor treating cancer. "You need to attack the metastasizing disease without destroying the surrounding tissue," he said. …

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