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 "was disappointed" not to get the CIA post, says one friend. And yet by most accounts he is more powerful today, in the White House, than he would have been at CIA headquarters in Virginia. "It's very ironic that a guy who they thought could not get confirmed as CIA director and who they stuck in a windowless room in the White House basement has all the power," says a senior member of Congress who deals with intelligence issues. "He's the President's guy."

The Point Person

Some critics complain that's true to a fault. One former government official with counterterrorism experience in more than one Administration calls Brennan a micromanager who calls intelligence analysts outside the official chain of command. "He is involved in the tactical details of every current threat," says the former official. Others say Brennan hoards power, overshadowing the Director of National Intelligence position that Congress created in 2005 to oversee the entire intelligence community.

Obama officials sharply bat down such talk. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls Brennan "assiduous in not overstepping bounds." But it's no secret that Brennan clashed with Clapper's predecessor, Dennis Blair, who was forced out after friction with the White House. Some members of Congress want to know more about this dynamic but can't call Brennan to testify because, as a White House staffer, he is not subject to congressional oversight under the Constitution. "It does concern me that Mr. Brennan is clearly the point person and yet is not accountable to Congress," says Senator Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

For Brennan, such critiques are overshadowed by his overriding priority: preventing another catastrophe. For now, the most important thing to him is that al-Qaeda hasn't successfully struck the U.S. under his watch. Several terrorist attacks have come close. The embittered Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad managed to light the fuse on his explosives-laden SUV in Times Square last spring, but his improvised bomb didn't detonate. Neither did Abdulmutallab's underwear. The al-Qaeda-trained Najibullah Zazi was apprehended on the George Washington Bridge last Sept. 10, days before he planned to detonate bombs in the New York City subway.

To some critics, these near misses are evidence that America's defenses are not strong enough. "We cannot depend on dumb luck, incompetent terrorists and alert citizens to keep our families safe," then-Senator Kit Bond, a Republican, complained last May. But nothing shakes Brennan from his calm quite like the word luck. The U.S. has severely weakened al-Qaeda's ability to recruit and train, he argues. "And so what comes out of that pipeline, I think, is a much less capable, much less expert terrorist. If their underwear doesn't explode the way it's supposed to, it's not just because the guy was incompetent. It's because the training he got, the person who provided him the IED, the materials that went into it — all were less efficient, less suitable to the challenge. I take strong issue with somebody saying, 'They're just lucky,'" Brennan says. "That's bulls___. And I rarely ever curse."

And with that, he excuses himself. He is due for a meeting on Pakistan in the White House Situation Room, just steps down the hall from the underground office he didn't want but where he now seems quite comfortable.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 21, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.

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