THE BLOG

Top Intelligence Picks a No-Win for Obama

01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama transition team's highly anticipated announcement of its new national security lineup has telling omissions: there's no Director of National Intelligence or CIA Director.

The Obama administration faces a daunting task in choosing new intelligence chiefs. Nearly any credible candidate for senior intelligence leadership appointments is likely to come with baggage, such as past involvement in questionable intelligence activities and/or the growing network of secretive intelligence contractors.

Obama's presumptive top contender for an intelligence leadership post exited the stage last week. John Brennan--CIA veteran, leader of an influential intelligence contractor industry association, and top national security advisor to the Obama campaign-- abruptly removed himself from consideration last Tuesday, citing mounting criticism over his role in Bush-era intelligence abuses. Various reports had earlier pegged Brennan as a shoe-in for either Director of National Intelligence or CIA Director.

Talk of retaining key Bush intelligence officials has also raised speculation that the incoming Obama administration will hang on to a Bush-Cheney intelligence policy status quo.

This prospect has evoked dismay from corners as far flung as civil liberties advocates and former intelligence officers. Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com has cataloged Brennan's past statements of support for Bush-Cheney intelligence policies, including Brennan's unambiguous on-air defense of extraordinary rendition and torture policy, as well his support for open-ended FISA expansion and telecoms immunity.

Former intelligence officers have also voiced loud concerns about Brennan and others on Obama's national security team. Melvin Goodman, former career CIA intelligence analyst and author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, penned an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun that denounced Brennan and Jami Miscik, another Obama intelligence advisor, as "discredited cronies of the Tenet era." Goodman further elaborated on Brennan's and Miscik's complicity in several key Bush Administration intelligence foul-ups, including torture and rendition, warrantless wiretapping, and distorted pre-war intelligence on Iraq. For good measure, Goodman took aim at two other members of Obama's national security crew, John McLaughlin and Rob Richer, for their culpability in disastrous Bush-era intelligence policy.

Presumably, Brennan's involvement in high-profile misdeeds like torture, extrajudicial imprisonment, and intellectually dishonest analysis ultimately made him unpalatable to the Obama transition team.

It's also very likely that Brennan's vetting questionnaire was replete with numerous conflicts of interest related to his deep involvement in the privatization of US intelligence.

Brennan was, until recently, President and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, a growing intelligence contractor, as well as chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an influential and secretive industry association representing major intelligence contractors. INSA boasts a board and membership consisting of both contractors and government officials. At best, INSA has the appearance of a conflict of interest that can be explained away by national security exigency. More likely, it is a hotbed of collusion and anti-competitive practices that would be intolerable were it not for the veil of official secrecy surrounding INSA's activities.

Installing Brennan as a senior intelligence leader would have flown in the face of Obama's campaign promise to roll back the Bush administration's heavy reliance on contractors. In an October 2008 mass mailing to federal workers, Obama pledged to scale back government outsourcing and boost the power of federal agencies in regulation and oversight.
"We plan specifically to look at work that is being contracted out to ensure that it is fiscally responsible and effective," Obama told workers at one agency. "It is dishonest to claim real savings by reducing the number of [government] employees overseeing a program but increase the real cost of the program by transferring oversight to contracts. I pledge to reverse this poor management practice."

That was welcome news to a federal intelligence workforce that has suffered a brain drain to intelligence contractors and suffered setbacks in the field as direct result of poorly managed intelligence contracts.

Brennan isn't the only cheerleader for intelligence contracting on the Obama transition team.

Obama's transition team announced that two other prominent contractors, Maureen Baginski and Robert Harding, would help lead the transition at the ODNI. Baginski, the NSA's former director of signals intelligence, is a director of SI International, the NSA contractor now owned by Britain's Serco. She also sits on the board of MTC Technologies, a major player in the Pentagon's intelligence system now owned by BAE Systems, another British company.

Harding, a retired Army Major General, served previously as director of operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and is the former head of the US Army's intelligence operations. Harding runs a consulting company that works closely with the DIA on managing its highly secret measures and signatures intelligence and chairs INSA's Council on Domestic Intelligence.

The resumes of Baginski and Harding hardly suggest that they will be tireless opponents of the Intelligence Industrial Complex that his emerged in the past decade and a half. But they do know where the (metaphorical) bodies are buried. Their experience will undoubtedly help the new president as he confronts the many dilemmas remaining from the Bush administration, such as whether or not to continue controversial new domestic intelligence programs such as the National Applications Office. These old hands will also be positioned to get the buy-in from the multitudes of national security drones needed to actually implement change. They will also be in a better position than outsiders to make changes without further damaging already dwindling morale in the hallways and cubicles of national security.

Indeed, any senior intelligence pick who has served in any capacity in government or as a private intelligence contractor during the past seven years is likely to evoke the kind of criticism that derailed Brennan's prospects as a national intelligence chief. The inclusion of prominent intelligence contractors and senior officials involved with the policies against which Obama campaigned could fudge their judgment and tilt Obama towards decisions that are not in the nation's best interests.

Clearly, the intelligence community and its partners in the intelligence contracting industry and must remain under the closest scrutiny possible. Perhaps the incoming congress will exert a new interest in intelligence oversight and accountability - including the contractors that now eat up 70 percent of the intelligence budget.