It's been all drones and all John Brennan all the time this week: ever since Michael Isikoff dropped his bombshell about an administration white paper justifying targeted killing on Monday, everyone's been talking about flying death robots. Last night the White House announced that it would allow Congress access to the Office of Legal Counsel memos that lay out why it thinks it can kill American citizens. Today John Brennan gets grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In all this talk about targeted killing (and remember, it's not just drones), it's easy to forget that John Brennan has also been at the heart of two other high-profile national security controversies. One was the CIA's torture program, which Brennan was aware of but did not object to during the Bush administration. The other is warrantless wiretapping.
During the Bush administration, said journalist James Bamford, author of several books on the National Security Agency, it is likely that Brennan would have known about the secretive program that allowed spy agencies to listen in on Americans' phone calls without a warrant.
Brennan held several important positions during the Bush administration: deputy director of the CIA, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and then director of its successor, the National Counterterrorism Center. As the head of those counterterrorist centers, he would have come into contact with the information produced by the wiretapping program. He may even have provided the rationale for wiretapping Americans.
At the same time, said Bamford, Brennan "was several layers below the top levels of the intelligence community." When it came to the decision-making process that initiated warrantless wiretapping, he said, "a lot of it was decided in the White House in these private meetings ... Brennan's name doesn't come up in those."
Out of government, Brennan was at the heart of President Barack Obama's evolution on warrantless wiretapping during his first national campaign. At once a fierce critic of the program, and of the Bush administration's proposal to allow the telecom companies that participated in it immunity from litigation, at Brennan's urging Obama came around. The then-senator reneged on his promise to filibuster a wiretapping bill with telecom immunity. Since Obama has come into office, moreover, his spies have continued to use warrantless wiretapping -- and even, critics say, expand it.
"Brennan was his chief adviser when it came to intelligence issues and national secutiy, and it shows," said Bamford. "He's become a sort of Rasputin or whatever, the guy who's opened the door to the dark side for Obama."
It's not clear how much Brennan's involvement in warrantless wiretapping will come up during his Senate confirmation hearings. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Wash.) has called on Brennan to answer questions about his connections to the program, which "if true ... would be cause for concern." Brennan was not asked about the program in the declassified version of his responses to written Senate Intelligence Committee questions. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who sits on the committee, has been a constant critic of the wiretapping program's lack of transparency. If anyone grills Brennan over the program, which was recently renewed, it would be Wyden.