How the Netroots Brought Down Obama's Spymaster

Aldrich Ames, the veteran CIA officer and chief of Soviet counterintelligence who single-handedly set the espionage efforts of the United States and many of its allies back decades, knew the weaknesses inherent in the American intelligence community. He exploited those weaknesses for nine years until he was finally caught, early on a chilly February morning in 1994, unmasked and captured by a combined CIA/FBI dragnet.

As Ames was placed inside an unmarked FBI sedan and whisked away to a glamorous new life spent in America's SuperMax federal penitentiary system, John Brennan was arriving at work on the other side of the Potomac, in Langley, Virginia. At that time he was serving as executive assistant to the deputy director of central intelligence and occupied an office that featured a portrait of the then-President Bill Clinton. In the days after the Ames arrest, Brennan would be intimately involved in the attempts made to assess the damage the renegade officer had inflicted.

A lifelong Republican, it would have seemed fanciful to ponder that, in just 14 years, Brennan would not only be organizing intelligence transition for a Democratic presidential contender's campaign, but also be the hot favorite for the next director of central intelligence (DCI). It would have been even more unbelievable, perhaps, to suggest that this opportunity would be thwarted by writers whom nobody had ever heard of, reaching a readership of millions via a medium that did not yet exist.

But that is exactly what has happened. Against all predictions, John Brennan, a man with decades of intelligence experience, who is well-versed in the intricacies of counter-terrorism, educated in the cultures and languages of the Middle East, and who has earned the respect of officials on both sides of mainstream politics, will not be the next DCI.

How did this happen? Just a few weeks ago, his nomination was as good as in the bag. Everybody thought so.  I certainly did, and was working on an in-depth profile piece on Brennan to be published in the Australian Conservative when his nomination process eventually began. Doing research and gathering opinions, I came across a near-universal chorus of journalists, editors, and former spies who felt Brennan to be a shoo-in.

On November 15, Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic pointed out that Brennan had already taken steps to prepare for a major career transition. Pamela Hess, writing for Associated Press claimed that he was considered a likely candidate for both the DCI slot and the director of national intelligence (DNI) position.

That isn't to say that everyone was happy with the idea of Brennan becoming DCI. Far from it. As soon as word began to circulate that Brennan would be Obama's point man on intelligence, on both sides of new media, disgruntled stories were frantically generated, complaining about Brennan's stated positions on various elements of the war on terror. Those on the left normally found fault in his perceived links to the Bush administration, and Brennan's vocal support of rendition and FISA. Those on the right complained of what they saw as his soft line on Iran. Neither side seemed to be entirely sure of his view of enhanced interrogation techniques, with some on the right assuming he was against water-boarding and many on the left ardently stating that he was "pro-torture".

Regardless of political affiliation, the "Netroots" (a term used to describe those whose political activism is primarily manifested online) are a mob, and as is normally the case in mob attacks, there are ringleaders. In this particular instance it was Glenn Greenwald, an attorney and contributing writer for Salon.com, who took it upon himself to lead those self-appointed champions of liberty in their quest to speed John Brennan's downfall. Greenwald, who has no background in intelligence, law-enforcement, diplomacy, or international relations, felt himself to be in a position of supreme moral authority in questioning the fitness of Brennan - a 25 year veteran of government, intelligence, and counter-terrorism service - to assume the role President-elect Obama seemed to have him earmarked for.

This is a hallmark of the Netroots; they are bound and determined to bring about change. Working hand-in-hand with more traditional grassroots political organizations, and thanks to their decentralized structure, eager participation in fundraising, and ever-growing numbers, they stand a better-than-average chance of doing exactly that. Whoever has the money and the megaphones, as William Safire pointed out, will call the shots. As the relatively non-credentialed Greenwald showed through his pre-emptive destruction of John Brennan, it doesn't matter if you don't have the slightest grounding in the issues you rail over. You merely need the highest hit-count.

No doubt Greenwald felt he was doing the right thing in dismantling Brennan's chances of becoming the next CIA director. But that doesn't alter the fact that Greenwald's arguments and criticisms were essentially devoid of content. The actions taken by the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as those by its brother and sister organizations within the larger American intelligence community, were legal ones, aimed at enhancing the security of the United States. Greenwald's arguments against FISA, enhanced interrogation techniques, and rendition have not resulted in any Watergate-style revelations or repercussions. In those known cases where waterboarding was utilized, it was done with the approval of the White House and Justice Department. It was only banned last year by the U.S. Congress, and retroactive legal protection has been granted to those agencies which used the approved methods in the past.

Contrary to false claims, American laws were not broken. No one is going to prison. Nothing even slightly unseemly has been uncovered -- indeed, Brennan has a proven history of complete candor in discussing his views on those subjects with the media. There is nothing whatever to suggest that Brennan would disobey the now existing legislative prohibition on the use of waterboarding. He is as entitled to his views as anyone else, and has been both consistent and articulate in expressing them. As a direct result of Brennan's counsel, some of President-elect Obama's original national security positions have been reversed.

As Greenwald's ally, Andrew Sullivan, makes clear, that is their real concern. They seem to be laboring under the impression that their iconic future president doesn't possess sufficient willpower to resist the poisonous mumblings of a man like Brennan, leading him from the True Path upon which only they are fit to guide him. Their tireless efforts to find something -- anything -- damaging on Brennan that would discredit him failed abysmally, but the sheer noise that their protestations generated, along with the wild, unconditional, uncritical approbation of their followers, was sufficient to cause Brennan to step down.

My own research has led me to believe that Brennan is neither a zealot for enhanced interrogation techniques, nor an anti-torture advocate. From my view, there was no confusion. Brennan's statements on the subject were quite consistent -- in his opinion, rendition and interrogation were unpleasant and rarely carried out actions that nevertheless brought real, tangible results. In Brennan's own words, "...lives have been saved."

Unlike the Greenwalds of this world, he wasn't a legal theorist, being paid to loaf in an office chair all day, rhapsodising on the ethical dilemmas posed by this program or that operation. He was an officer in a federal agency charged with the wartime security and wellbeing of American citizens. He clearly did bear the ethics in mind, but was also operating within the framework of the real world, dealing in harsh realities against a ruthless enemy, where innocent people died if you didn't get the job done.

Of course, he could have resigned in protest -- I suppose that kind of gesture is what appeals to those concerned primarily with appearance - but I suspect that a man like Brennan would have seen that only as a self-centred act of dereliction. When he finally did withdraw, it was clearly done to spare President-Elect Obama the unpleasant task of hurling him under the bus.

Brennan was CIA for 25 years. Few prior DCIs could boast those credentials. He knew the terrorists, spoke their language and by co-founding the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the National Counterterrorism Center he had taken great steps toward making America safe from any future 9-11s.

Had he been given the opportunity, Brennan might have disproven his former colleague Aldrich Ames' assertion about the uselessness of American spies. Here was a man who knew the enemy, who had dealt with them on the shadowy covert battlefields that most of us are unaware of, who wasn't merely interested in countering terrorism, but also preventing it from affecting future generations. In interviews given before his candidacy was predicted, Brennan had talked extensively about tackling the problem of Islamic terror "up stream," studying and dealing with the root of the problem and not just the more immediate and destructive "down stream" manifestations.

John Brennan might have achieved a great deal to this end. But thanks to the efforts of Greenwald, Sullivan and other associated Netroots, now we'll probably never know. We can but wait to see who President-Elect Obama does choose as DCI and DNI; a particularly difficult choice now that it has been made clear that anyone working within the intelligence community during the practice of rendition, warrantless wiretaps and enhanced interrogation techniques will probably be associated with them. I do not believe that I overstate their arrogance or fanaticism. Andrew Sullivan, who had endorsed Obama's candidacy, stated that if his nomination were proposed:

... those of us against the continuation of war crimes and the prosecution of war criminals will have to oppose him strenuously in the nomination process. We will, in fact, have to go to war with Obama before he even takes office.

And if Obama doubts our seriousness, I have three words for him. Yes we can.

John Brennan was, to most people's mind, the best candidate for the position. Clearly, the fact that this agitation resulted in Brennan's candidacy being abandoned means that the eventual DCI/DNI choice will be a political one, resulting in candidates with greater Netroots appeal and considerably less direct counter-terrorism and intelligence experience than John Brennan possesses.

Brennan once said:

The world is a very complicated place and there are not always easy solutions to a lot of the problems out there. If you look at the world in black and white, you miss a lot of the subtleties.

That could certainly be applied to the simplistic view of the Netroots, whose hysteria and myopic ignorance have achieved nothing (beyond advancing the cause of our enemies) by removing Brennan from any future Obama administration.

There is a very good reason why the intelligence community isn't composed entirely of constitutional lawyers, Salon columnists and civil libertarians. President-elect Obama and other future Democratic leaders would do well to remember that. If they don't, chances are it will be we who pay the price.