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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A few years later, Brennan returned to the region. As a young CIA agent based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he loved camping in the desert with Saudi tribesmen. "It was sitting around the campfire, telling stories and jokes," Brennan recalls. Sometimes there were goat roasts. And sometimes Brennan would go off and explore the desert alone on camelback. "That's why I take very personally what al-Qaeda has done," he says. "They have besmirched the image of Arab hospitality."

Born in North Bergen, N.J., Brennan makes for an unlikely John of Arabia. But there may have been an element of destiny in his career choice: his birthday is the day the British hanged Nathan Hale, the first American spy. When, as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, Brennan spotted a CIA recruitment ad in the New York Times, he signed up. In 1980 the CIA sent Brennan to the Middle East, just as anti-Western religious fundamentalism was exploding from Iran to Saudi Arabia.

By 1996, Brennan was the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, where he proved his mettle. Once, in the hope of enlisting a double agent, he walked up to the car of a senior Iranian intelligence operative and knocked on the window. "Hello. I'm from the U.S. embassy, and I've got something to tell you," he said. (Disappointingly, the Iranian stammered and sped away.)

In what would be a fateful tenure at the agency's top levels, Brennan became CIA Director George Tenet's chief of staff in 1999, and then the CIA's deputy executive director. In 2003 he left to set up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a clearinghouse of intelligence data. After exiting government in 2005, Brennan was earning a high-six-figure salary at a security consulting firm when he was approached by Obama's campaign. Brennan says he is "neither Democrat nor Republican," but he was frustrated by a belief that the Iraq war and other Bush-era counterterrorism policies were making America less safe, and he admired Obama's promise of a fresh start in the fight against radical Islam. Obama, meanwhile, lacked a seasoned intelligence pro in his inner circle. The candidate quickly grew to appreciate Brennan's vast knowledge of dark secrets and concise, no-nonsense briefing style.

Obama liked him enough to consider making Brennan his CIA director. But when that word leaked in November 2008, liberal bloggers who scoured Brennan's public record turned up quotes suggesting sympathy for aggressive interrogation techniques. In one 2006 interview, Brennan agreed that the U.S. had to "take off the gloves in some areas" with terrorists. In another, he called the definition of torture debatable: "I think it's torture when I have to ride in the car with my kids and they have loud rap music on."

Brennan insists he was not responsible for crafting interrogation and detention policies during the Bush Administration and that he opposed extreme interrogation methods like waterboarding. He claims the Bush White House resented him enough to block him from two different high-level job appointments for which he was being considered. But the incoming Obama team was not interested in a fight involving the CIA's past, and Brennan took himself out of consideration.

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