Like almost every major event in government these days, the news is written in the future tense:
“President Obama will announce on Monday that John O. Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser and a career Central Intelligence Agency officer, is his choice to head the agency…”
Of course, this has spiked derision from the, uh, “usual suspects” such as Glenn Greenwald who are opposed to pretty much everything the CIA has been doing under Obama. I sometimes suspect the Guardian of employing Greenwald as linkbait, but on this issue, he makes a couple of points that are worthwhile, and one line that, I think, is worthy of repeating:
It is a perfect illustration of the Obama legacy that a person who was untouchable as CIA chief in 2008 because of his support for Bush’s most radical policies is not only Obama’s choice for the same position now, but will encounter very little resistance.
On reading of his accession to rule one of D.C.’s most hallowed bureaucracies, I must confess that I think it is a bad idea for the agency itself, though perhaps for different reasons than the torture/waterboarding (pick your semantic signifier) allegations that dogged Brennan and ended his chances of directing the CIA under Bush. Given his experience, skill set and influence, he would probably be the most effective CIA head, but in my mind he’s still the wrong choice.
Why? Because America needs the CIA to be more than a killing machine. At the very least, it needs the CIA to be seen as something other than a zero-accountability civilian wing of the Pentagon. Brennan is, in many ways, the figurehead for the “new” way the CIA operates, and that, for me, is bad. The CIA needs a leader whose name and ethos isn’t irrevocably bound to America’s current policy of killing terrorists. Even though David Petraeus had the reputation of the “good” military guy due to his counter-insurgency mantra that was sold at the time as a nice and fluffy alternative to fighting a war, I think it still sent the wrong message to put a military man back in charge of the CIA after a break of almost 30 years since Stansfield Turner. John Brennan merely re-enforces that message because his words, alongside Harold Koh’s, form the core of the Obama administration’s verbal defence of its targeted killings policy.
Perceptions aside, I don’t think it’s smart to put a guy like Brennan in charge, because it encourages organisational tunnel vision at a time, when, perhaps, the CIA might be needed someplace other than Yemen and north Pakistan. Let’s not forget, Petraeus might have resigned over marital infidelity, but the story that tended to be buried by that blizzard of lurid newsprint was the fact that the CIA was confused over who had killed an American ambassador in Benghazi and why. I can understand why the CIA has devoted considerable resources to creating bureaucratic structures dedicated to killing some very nasty people, but at what cost? Every second commentator on international affairs throws out a bland “the world is changing” statement, but who is watching this on the American side? If the CIA remains primarily focused on tracking and killing a small number of potentially dangerous people, it comes at the cost of other intelligence activities. If targeted killings are as effective as Obama et al claim them to be, then shouldn’t the CIA be more worried about its future role beyond the bubble of militarised counter-terrorism? If it already is, then choosing the man most associated with that policy is a bad choice. Again, Brennan’s probably the most experienced candidate to direct the CIA, but Obama doesn’t need his head-hunter-in-chief in charge, he needs someone that can effectively manage a bureaucratic entity so that it performs its function. That person could be drawn from any of Washington’s sprawling bureaucracies. Even if the “war footing” schtick restricts the list to possible candidates to those with “national security” backgrounds/experience, why not the current head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano? If not Napolitano, then why not pick one of the many people that could do the job who don’t come with Brennan’s reputation attached?