– John Brennan’s bunker is a soundproofed, windowless suite in the basement of the White House where, as one senator put it, Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism chief decides each day who he’s going to execute.
Brennan – the priestly figure nominated by Obama as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency – draws up the lists of suspected terrorists for assassination by drone in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
They are approved by the President on what have become known as “kill-list Tuesdays”.
It’s an unprecedented role for a US president, devised by an official who wields greater influence on White House security policy than more senior officials.
Brennan was at the forefront of moulding Obama the election candidate – who in 2008 denounced the CIA’s hand in abductions and torture at secret foreign sites under the Bush administration – into Obama the president who has overseen the rapid expansion of the CIA’s legally questionable war by drone.
Brennan’s part is all the more striking because four years ago he was forced to withdraw from contention as CIA director over his role in justifying the agency’s abuses under George W. Bush.
A former senior intelligence official, Mark Lowenthal, said it was Brennan who Obama looked to on security policy. “The President needs someone he can trust deeply and Obama has found an unusually close connection with Brennan,”
Brennan was born in 1955 to Irish immigrant parents and raised in New Jersey. He joined the CIA as an analyst in 1980, served as chief aide to the CIA director George Tenet during the Clinton administration and under Bush as first chief of the National Counter-terrorism Centre. There he became entwined in aspects of the war on terror that returned to haunt him years later. Brennan quit the CIA in 2005 to run a security consultancy until he was picked up by Obama’s first presidential campaign as a consultant on national security and terrorism.
Officials say Obama was impressed by the experience and confidence of the former CIA officer who claimed a moral core – with his condemnations of waterboarding and questioning of the invasion of Iraq – evidently lacking in the agency’s leadership under Bush.
But when, as president-elect in 2008, Obama settled on Brennan as his new CIA chief he faced a backlash over the former spy’s earlier endorsement of some of the agency’s abuses – including rendition, the abductions to secret torture and interrogation black sites in foreign countries. “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hardcore terrorists,” Brennan told CBS in 2007. “It has saved lives.”
Obama backed down out of concern about a fight in congressional confirmation hearings. But he still got his man, appointing Brennan assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, a White House not requiring Senate confirmation.
That gave Brennan a degree of access to the president he would not have enjoyed as director of the CIA. Planted in the bowels of the White House, his brief ranged across federal agencies dealing with everything from espionage to law enforcement and natural disasters.
Brennan routinely met Obama at least once a day. All the while, he helped open up Obama to some of the more unsavoury aspects of the US’s counter-terror strategy.
Brennan has portrayed his relationship with Obama as a meeting of minds. “Ever since the first couple of months, I felt there was a real similarity of views that gave me a sense of comfort,” he told the Washington Post in October. “I don;t think we’ve had a disagreement.”
It is in the role of chief apologist for the drone strategy, and as architect of a framework the administration says gives the killings a legal and moral underpinning, that Brennan has played his most influential role in the White House. Critics say the legal arguments are no more valid than those Bush’s justice department came up with to authorise torture.
The ground war in Afghanistan, the Guantanamo prison and trials, and other legacies of the Bush era are not easily pinned on Obama. But the President has taken ownership of the drone strategy.
For the first time in US history, a president regularly approves the killing of named individuals, which has drawn criticism that he is acting as judge, jury and executioner.
In 2011, Brennan defended decisions on drone strikes as carefully, deliberately and responsibly made and in full accordance with the law.
Perhaps the most telling part of his public relations offensive was his claim that Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy was not very different from Bush’s – a situation some attribute to Brennan’s considerable influence – Chris McGreal