Obama's Counterterror Czar Steps Out of the Shadows

After having to drop out of the running for the top CIA job, John Brennan has quietly become the Administration's most powerful, and crucial, intelligence official

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Andrew Cutraro / Redux

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It takes a wry sense of humor to stay sane in the world of counterterrorism, where Brennan, 55, has spent much of his career. On a shelf above his office desk, the former CIA operative keeps two small figurines of the dueling secret agents from Mad magazine's classic Spy vs. Spy feature. Clad in black and white hats and trench coats, the cartoon pair endlessly battle away, always living to fight another day.

Brennan's world is not so benign. "It is intensely, 24 hours a day, dealing with death — preventing death, and causing it," says Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to three Presidents. So on any given day, Brennan might lead an exercise simulating a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city or help plan drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan or learn that several of his former colleagues were killed in a December suicide bombing at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan.

The alarms — real and false — never stop going off. Brennan constantly gets alerts about suspicious airline passengers. "We had a couple this morning," says Brennan, sitting in his office on a January afternoon. "Is this just an inebriated passenger? You're trying to make sure that you understand the nature of the threat."

The passenger is almost always a drunk. But the constant possibility of something worse means that Brennan might be the hardest worker in a White House of workaholics. "I don't know that John ever sleeps," says National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes. A vacation means following the President to some sunny clime and working there, nonstop. As Obama golfed on Martha's Vineyard last August, for instance, Brennan was spotted in a suit and tie. On Christmas Day in 2009, Brennan was cooking dinner when he got a call reporting that a Nigerian man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane with explosives sewn into his underwear. Brennan worked through New Year's Day. "It's impossible to have downtime. It's just the nature of the work," he says. The hours take their toll: "He was dead tired the last time I saw him," says a friend.

In Brennan's line of work, the margin for error is almost zero. And he knows who will be the first one grilled if terrorists strike: "Next time something happens, I'm sure I'm going to be blamed by some of the folks in Congress [who will say] that, you know, we didn't do enough," he says.

For all those reasons, Brennan is watching events in the Middle East. The U.S. gets invaluable assistance from friendly Arab states. In Yemen, for example, a fragile government has turned its army against radical Islamists. Though pessimists warn of Iran-style revolutions that could leave Islamists in power in many countries, Brennan sees a bright side. "I think it's going to have profound implications across the region in terms of moving ahead with political reforms that are overdue," he says of the peaceful demonstrations. "In many respects, I think it's a refutation of bin Laden and al-Qaeda's agenda of violence."

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