POLITICS
01/07/2013 10:00 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

John Brennan CIA Nomination Reflects Shift In Human Rights Advocates' Views On Obama

When word got out in November 2008 that president-elect Barack Obama was considering CIA veteran John Brennan to head the spy agency, human rights advocates raised a furious howl. After eight years of waterboarding and other brutal "enhanced interrogation" tactics, they said, it wasn't the time for a president who represented so much hope to nominate a man from George W. Bush's CIA. A coalition of liberal bloggers and psychologists opposed to torture successfully derailed Brennan.

On Monday, a little more than four years after that episode, Obama nominated Brennan to be director of the CIA. The revival of Brennan represents, human rights advocates said, their diminished influence -- and Obama's increasing reliance on aggressive tactics against terrorism, including drones.

"At that particular moment, we had a leverage with the administration that we haven't ever had since," said Stephen Soldz, the psychologist who organized a widely-cited letter signed by about 200 of his professional colleagues opposing Brennan's nomination the first time around.

"In 2008, we were still hoping that Obama represented a radical change," Soldz said. "In some ways he has, but in other ways certainly not." After four years of war, in which the president has declined to seek accountability for torturers and has increased reliance on drone strikes, he said, "these are Obama's policies at this point."

In March 2001, Brennan, a longtime CIA Middle East expert, was named deputy executive director of the agency. For the next several years he was in a position to learn about the counterterror "dark side:" extraordinary renditions, CIA black sites, waterboarding, and other methods euphemistically described as "enhanced interrogation."

Brennan's role in internal CIA debate over those tactics is not fully known, and will almost certainly be plumbed during the nomination process. An October 2012 report by The Washington Post found that "several colleagues … could not recall" him voicing criticism of the tactics. By 2006, when Brennan was working in private industry, he was making news as a vocal critic of waterboarding, which he told the New York Daily News "goes beyond the bounds of what a civilized society should employ."

When then-Sen. Barack Obama began a presidential run, Brennan signed on as a national security advisor and quickly befriended him. After Brennan's name was floated as a potential pick for the CIA post in November 2008, however, liberal critics and human rights advocates erupted in anger. Brennan, blogger Grenn Greenwald noted, had not only worked within the Bush administration. He had also publicly declared that "enhanced interrogation" techniques not including waterboarding had "saved lives."

The psychologists penned their letter and the influential blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote, "If Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation."

Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for the post, citing "strong criticism by some quarters." At the time, the liberals who had powered Obama to the presidency retained sway over how he staffed his cabinet.

But the president nevertheless appointed Brennan to an influential position as his top counterterrorism adviser, which did not require Senate confirmation. In that advisory role, Brennan became what a New York Times article called "a priest whose blessing has become indispensable" for Obama.

Obama renounced waterboarding, with Brennan's support. He also tried, with Brennan's support, to put 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in an American civilian court. The effort ultimately failed, but was praised by human rights watchdogs.

"From my standpoint, Brennan has played a very positive role in encouraging the administration to stick to its guns in defending the rule of law and closing the door on the abuses of the Bush era," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

"Every step of the way," said White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, Obama "had somebody like John Brennan in most cases literally at his side in making those decisions as he was implementing them."

But Brennan was also at Obama's side for other decisions: failing to pursue prosecution of CIA members who may have broken the law by waterboarding, and expanding the targeted drone killing program conducted by both the Department of Defense and the CIA.

Given the closeness of Brennan and Obama, the nomination is "not a surprise," said human rights attorney Scott Horton. "I think the suspicion's been for a long time is that this would be his appointment if he wanted it," he said.

In 2008 Horton wrote on his blog for Harper's that Brennan was "morally unfit to serve as the Director of Central Intelligence" because he was too much of a Bush administration "company man." Horton said he still feels that way.

But along with Greenwald, one of Obama's fiercest critics, Horton said that opposing Brennan's nomination now would be pointless because the views of Brennan and the president have become so intertwined. Instead, Horton said he would like to use the nomination process to air out other unresolved matters, most notably the CIA's targeted killing program. "He really is the poster boy for the Obama administration's drone policies," Horton said.

Human rights advocates have concerns about whether drones are being used to kill too many civilians in places like Pakistan, whether there are enough rules around their use, and whether they are leading to the "paramilitarization" of the CIA, which more traditionally has been in the business of intelligence-gathering, not killing.

On the drone issue, Brennan represents something of cipher: the CIA has been stepping up its strikes in Pakistan, and Brennan has centralized authority over the administration's "kill list" within the White House. He implausibly claimed last year that drones had not resulted in "a single collateral death" over a period of a year.

But Brennan has also reportedly argued within the administration to make the Department of Defense the prime owner of the drone killing program. And he also has apparently pushed for more transparency, making the first formal public acknowledgement that the government was using drones for targeted killing.

"The real issues are how he articulates the position on targeted killing and in particular his views on the agency's role in programs like that," said Malinowski. "It comes down to what is the nature of the CIA in the post-9/11 era."

How forthcoming Brennan will be is an open question, given that the CIA still has yet to admit using drones to kill.

"I think it will depend on the question," White House spokesman Earnest said. "He has been an advocate for greater transparency on a whole range of counterterrorism techniques. But in terms of how and whether he'll be able to handle that information in the context, of the hearing, it's too early for me to speculate at this point."

Brennan will almost certainly face renewed questions about the same issues that dogged him in 2008. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a vocal waterboarding opponent, quickly released a statement after Brennan's nomination on Monday, asking "what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs."

But the debate over the Bush years is increasingly becoming one over the Obama years.

"I think in terms of the public evaluation of John Brennan's record in 2008, and comparing it to where we are in January of 2013, the most obvious difference is there are another four years of Mr. Brennan supporting a Democratic president and doing it quite well," said Earnest. "That's part of Mr. Brennan's record that people can evaluate on their own."

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