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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Brennan has long thought that the U.S. must show a more benevolent face to the Muslim world. He emphasizes the ways in which the Obama Administration has broken with Bush-era policies like waterboarding and secret prisons — "a way to signal to the world that America is a country of values," as he puts it. Brennan has pressed to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. And he has toned down the rhetoric, abandoning phrases like "the war on terrorism" and the word jihad to describe the mission of Islamic terrorists. "Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself or one's community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children," he explained in a May speech.

Such talk has not endeared him to hard-line conservatives. And Brennan doesn't take their criticism lightly. After an editorial in USA Today questioned whether Obama was tough enough on terrorists, Brennan wrote a combative response that accused Republicans of fearmongering that "serve[s] the goals of al-Qaeda." That led some GOP stalwarts — including House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King, who dubbed Brennan an "egomaniac" — to call for his ouster. Then, when federal officials read Miranda rights to Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber — only after he stopped cooperating with interrogators — Republicans howled that terrorists should not be treated like ordinary criminals. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, said Brennan "has lost my confidence."

Yet for every conservative who thinks Brennan is too soft, there's a liberal who sees him as Obama's Dick Cheney. Much of U.S. counterterrorism policy remains largely unchanged since the second Bush term. Obama is moving ahead with military trials for terrorism suspects, which civil libertarians call unconstitutional; he has multiplied the rate of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan; and Guantánamo is still open. Obama's Justice Department has fended off multiple lawsuits challenging its practices — including one from the American Civil Liberties Union contesting reported efforts to kill the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen based in Yemen, on the grounds that a President has no power to target a fellow American for assassination. Brennan says simply that any U.S. citizen plotting terrorist attacks abroad "will face the full brunt of a U.S. response."

The embattled CIA certainly loves him. "I can't tell you how important it is to have someone at the White House who understands what the hell we're doing," says CIA Director Leon Panetta. And he has fans in more surprising places. Last month, no less than former Vice President Cheney told the Today show he thinks Obama "has learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate."

Sunrise in the Desert

As the world watches the drama in Egypt unfold, Brennan has fond memories of Cairo's Tahrir Square. As a junior at Fordham University, he spent a year studying at the American University in Cairo, whose main campus was then just a few blocks from the square. "That's where I spent a lot of my time," he says, browsing through the neighborhood's stores. On New Year's Eve in 1976, Brennan climbed the pyramids and watched the sun rise over the desert.

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