This week, 200 policy makers, former ambassadors, government servants, scholars and a battalion of journalists, gathered to hear on-the-record remarks by CIA Director John O. Brennan. Oh, there were the guys with the ear phones as well.
Brennan is an enormously experienced CIA veteran in the field and Agency headquarters in Langley, VA. He also served both President George W. Bush and President Obama in counter-terrorism leadership roles. His patriotism and three decades of national service are unquestioned.
But Brennan's defense of the IC is that of a fierce loyalist. He speaks, but provides little substance -- not because of "sources and methods," but because of the politics in which all intelligence agencies are now immersed.
Most questions are answered in IC circumlocution. No one is getting out of counterterrorism, but there are numerous other threats -- notably cyber warfare -- that must take the IC's time and effort. As to rendition and "enhanced interrogation," which were inaugurated while Brennan held senior roles in CIA, the Director repeated several times that he and the Agency "want to put this behind us" -- as in ignore the awful history of Americans practicing torture or secretly sending prisoners to locations where they would be viciously interrogated.
And, as one might expect, Brennan denies entirely that the Agency or any facet of the IC would ever do something like hacking the Senate Intelligence Committee's computer systems -- an accusation made passionately earlier this week on the Senate floor by committee chair Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Brennan is a Company man; loyal, yes, to America, but loyal to oaths and his people. We hear equivocation and denial about any wrongdoing, and assurances that the Agency listens to Congress, changes and improves behavior, acknowledges the complexity of world events and variables that affect threats, and would never knowingly break laws.
Richard Helms, too, denied any Agency involvement in any wrongdoing ever, reassured Congress, and as Bob Woodward said several decades after Watergate "was anything but forthcoming."
These events and men cannot be conflated -- forty years, in any case, has altered the landscape of intelligence and foreign policy so much that links would be fraught with imprecision. Still, a Company man is a Company man. John Brennan's career in the CIA commenced, but a short time after Watergate and certainly began his 25 years therein firmly locked within the Cold War culture of the IC.
The President "has great confidence" in the CIA, and Brennan intoned Jay Carney after Senator Feinstein's stark floor speech. Robert Gates likewise had the Administration's full confidence, after which Gates quickly produced a "memoir" entitled Duty that portrayed the President, and certainly Vice President Biden, in less than glowing terms. One wonders if a Company man would dare to write about his experiences, even redacted. I doubt it.
No surprise that Brennan believes Edward Snowden is worse than a thief, and rather someone who endangered American security and the individuals who work to protect the U.S. in the service of intelligence agencies. He made a point of mentioning that, as Director, he swears in all new officers in the Agency's entry hall directly in front of the memorial to all CIA officers who have been killed in the line of duty (now over 100). Left to John Brennan, one should not doubt that "enhanced interrogation" could be once again utilized to extract some information from this young criminal leaker whose revelations, Brennan is convinced, may lead to other sacrifices.
Meanwhile Snowden provided a Constitution-swathed video talk to the South by Southwest tech/entertainment extravaganza via a link from Russia. In it, he stressed once again the danger of the meta-data collection that Brennan has alternatively defended, or implied that the IC has heard the concerns, and will abide entirely by new constraints announced by President Obama. Snowden, with a vastly overrated sense of his own importance to the Constitution, nevertheless points to the need for encryption of all electronic communication and the omnipresence of intercepts. He is certainly correct regarding the ubiquity of data-mining by a corporate state.
The overstretch of the intelligence community, not at all new to American politics and society notwithstanding laws going back to 1947 that direct these agencies to foreign targets, has been documented conclusively by Snowden's leaks. No he doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize or exoneration for his theft of government documents and violation of contracts. But he may not deserve the punishment that John Brennan may have in mind -- conviction on espionage, for example.
Let's say that this explosive accusation by Senator Feinstein and Intelligence Committee staff are confirmed. Such actions would be another gross and constitutionally perilous overreach of intelligence agencies (in this case the CIA) to obstruct Congressional investigations into the practices of rendition and enhanced interrogation that Brennan supported. My hunch, however, is that a Department of Justice investigation will provide Director Brennan and his colleagues wide loopholes through which to dissemble and deny.
Daniel Nelson heads a consulting firm in Virginia.