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John Brennan, Obama's pick for CIA director, has deep roots at agency

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John Brennan speaks Monday after President Barack Obama nominated him to become the next director of the CIA.


John Brennan hasn’t always been a bureaucrat, working out of a comfortable office at the White House. An Arabic speaker and Saudi expert, the 57-year-old CIA director-designate has at various points in his career confronted Iranian intelligence officials and Saudi princes, briefed President Bill Clinton, camped out with Bedouins in the Arabian desert and helped create the agency that ultimately became National Counter Terrorism Center.

Known now as President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, Brennan spent most of his career in the CIA.   

A working-class kid from Hudson County, N.J., best known for its political intrigue, Brennan decided at a young age to apply for a job in international intrigue after graduating from Fordham University -- and reading a classified ad in the New York Times seeking recruits for the CIA.

He joined the agency in 1980, and for the next 25 years he worked for the CIA, both in Washington and overseas. He got his big career break when he was noticed by George Tenet in the mid-1990s. He was at the time delivering the agency’s security briefings to then-President Clinton.

Tenet was then intelligence adviser to the National Security Council and met with Brennan regularly on intelligence matters. When Tenet then became deputy CIA Director in 1995, he made Brennan his executive assistant. Then, when John Deutch abruptly quit as CIA director in 1996, Tenet succeeded him first on an interim basis, then permanently. Brennan, who was in Saudi Arabia from 1996-'99, returned to become Tenet's chief of staff, his gatekeeper on the CIA's seventh floor.   

Obama taps Brennan to be next CIA director

Brennan's knowledge of Arabic and Arab cultures made him indispensable to Tenet in many ways and, in 1998, Tenet appointed him station chief in Saudi Arabia.

Work in Iran, with Saudis
In his memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," Tenet recounts a number of incidents where Brennan used his wits to get a message across.

Perhaps the most memorable took place in the late 1990s, when attacks against Western targets by Hezbollah and its chief backer, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), were causing problems for Washington in the Mideast. The CIA decided to launch a "disruption campaign" to let both know the U.S. was aware of their actions, and try to embarrass the Iranians.

As part of the campaign, agency officers would approach MOIS officers on the street or wherever they could get close and ask them if "they would like to come to work for us or sell us information," as Tenet put it.

"In one memorable example," Tenet recounts, "John Brennan, our liaison to the Saudis, handled the local MOIS head himself.

"John walked up to his car, knocked on the window, and said, 'Hello, I’m from the U.S. Embassy, and I’ve got something to tell you.' As John tells the story, the guy got out of the car, claimed that Iran was a peace-loving country, then jumped back in the car and sped away.

"Just being seen with some of our people might cause MOIS officers to fall under suspicion by their own agency. The cold pitches undoubtedly ruined some careers, and maybe even lives, but also occasionally paid off in actual intelligence dividends. It couldn’t happen to a nastier bunch of people."

President Obama is expected to announce his choices for Secretary of Defense and CIA Director later today. NBC's Tracie Potts reports.

Brennan also had to deal with often-recalcitrant Saudi leaders who were not as aggressive in cracking down on Islamic militants as the U.S. wanted. 

Tenet wrote that in 1998, the Saudis had thwarted an al-Qaida operation in the kingdom. Their intelligence serviced had learned that operatives for the terror group were planning to smuggle four Sagger anti-tank missiles into the country from Yemen. What troubled the CIA was that the Saudi intelligence service had not informed the U.S. government of the plot. Even more troubling was the timing of the plot – just days before then-Vice President Gore was set to visit the kingdom. It didn't take much analysis to persuade the CIA that the missiles were part of an assassination plot. 

The lack of cooperation set off alarm bells at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. If the Saudis weren't going to inform the CIA about such an explicit threat, what would they inform the U.S. about?

Brennan was instructed to meet with Prince Turki bin Faisal, then head of Saudi intelligence. Turki pleaded ignorance and so Brennan suggested that Tenet pay a visit and play a bit of hard ball with the Saudis.

At Brennan's suggestion, Tenet met with the late Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the royal in charge of security. After what seemed to be an interminable soliloquy by the prince on the two countries' "special relationship," Tenet interrupted and, to get Nayef’s attention, moved in close and put his hand on the prince's knee, something one does not do with a Saudi royal.

Tenet then delivered his message to Nayef. "I let him go at last, but I assured him that I would be back the next week, and every week after that if necessary, to ensure that the flow of terrorism-related information between U.S. and Saudi officials was timely and unencumbered," he wrote.

Within a week, Brennan was given a comprehensive written report on the Sagger episode by the Saudis, for which he expressed profound gratitude.

Enhanced interrogation 'saved lives'
In other negotiations between Tenet and Arab leaders, Brennan was often one of two or three advisers in the CIA director's party. 

In one memorable meeting with Yasser Arafat, Tenet writes that he had Brennan vet a proposed peace agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel before presenting it to the Bush White House, wanting his expert eye to review it. 

After Brennan’s return to Washington from Saudi Arabia 2002, Tenet made him deputy executive director of the CIA. The job took him out of intelligence gathering and into administration. As the No. 2 in the CIA's administrative office, Brennan was essentially "deputy mayor" of the agency, "making the trains run on time" for the worldwide operation, as one former Tenet aide put it.

In that role, he helped set up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the predecessor to the National Counter Terrorism Center. Brennan built the unit from the ground up, finding the building, setting up security procedures and staffing it with analysts from across the intelligence community. His aggressiveness in staffing didn't sit well with those who lost analysts. In his memoir, "Hard Measures" Jose Rodriguez, then the director of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center, accused Brennan of "ripping most, if not all, of the top CT (counter terror) analysts out of CTC."

But after creating the organization, he was passed over for director of the NCTC and left the government in 2006, founding The Analysis Corp., an intelligence contractor with offices near the NCTC offices. In 2008, he joined Barack Obama's presidential campaign as intelligence adviser.

There's no indication Brennan played a role in development of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," which were established in 2002 and 2003 while he was in the CIA's administrative office. 

Brennan later said he opposed some of the most egregious interrogation techniques. Waterboarding, for instance, was "not going to be allowed under an Obama presidency," he told The Washington Times in 2008, just before the presidential election.

But when President-elect Barack Obama floated Brennan’s name to be CIA director, controversy over the enhanced interrogation techniques was increasing and Brennan came under attack from the left. Although his fingerprints weren't on the memos that established the interrogation program, his tacit support for them became a problem. Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon.com, called Brennan "an ardent supporter of torture" and "one of the most emphatic advocates" for enhanced surveillance powers.

Opponents of his nomination also pointed to an interview with Harry Smith, then of CBS News, in September 2007. 

Brennan defended the techniques as necessary. "There (has) been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives," he told Smith emphatically. "And let’s not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse for the deaths of 3,000 innocents."

In the interview, Brennan also defended Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who in his Senate confirmation hearing had refused to call the enhanced interrogation techniques “torture.”

'Tireless,' 'legendary'
The criticism took its toll, and less than three weeks after the election, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration.

"It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding," he said in a Nov. 25, 2008, letter to Obama.

Instead, Obama named him his counterterrorism adviser. In that role, he pushed hard for finding al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and originally was a champion of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan, which has become a centerpiece of Obama’s anti-terror operations there. But in recent months, according to several reports, he was leading a drive to put more controls on targeting, among other things.

While Brennan has his critics inside and outside the agency, none questions his work ethic and toughness.

As Obama said Monday, “In all this work, John has been tireless. People here in the White House work hard, but John is legendary, even in the White House, for working hard.”

As for his toughness, one former colleague recalled that while working at the White House, Brennan had a hip replaced on a Monday and was back at work on Thursday. The colleague said he was told that the next time Brennan went in for a hip replacement operation, the driver who took him to the hospital asked if he should wait.  

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.

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