Pete King and John Brennan, Frenemies

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The White House has refrained from direct engagement with Rep. Peter King’s hearings on domestic radicalization today. But it’s worth noting the testy relationship King, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, had with the Obama’s powerful counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. King and Brennan–two strong-willed Irishmen from the New York metro area–have had a couple of heated disputes since Obama took office.

One occurred after the September 2009 arrest of the would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi. Brennan and King had known one another for years predating the Obama administration. But after the Zazi arrest Brennan took issue with some of King’s commentary about the case on television, and the two had a heated phone conversation. They would go for more than a year without speaking.

But Brennan and King would trade public blows several months later. After the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, was read his Miranda rights and entered into the civilian justice system–and not hauled off to Guantanamo–King was among the Republicans criticizing the White House for its handling of the case. (Abdulmutallab was interrogated for 50 minutes before being read his rights.) An exasperated Brennan fired back with a February 2010 USA Today op-ed saying that “[p]olitically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda.” King was one obvious implicit target, and he returned fire that day–calling Brennan’s statement “the most mindless, self-serving, and irresponsible statement that a homeland-security adviser can make,” and “another case of John Brennan not knowing what he is talking about.” King was particularly upset that Brennan had not briefed him–King was the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee at the time–and alleged that Brennan withheld pertinent information from other members of Congress.

This past November, Brennan saw King on television again, praising the word of the intelligence community in breaking up another attempted plot. Brennan picked up the phone to call his rival. “I just wanted to tell you, ‘thank you,’ on their behalf,” Brennan recalled saying when I interviewed him in January. “I know we’ve had our differences, you’ve called for my resignation, and that’s fine–you’re entitled to your opinion.” But Brennan encouraged King to keep recognizing the word of intelligence professionals.

“You should have called me a few months ago when we were still fighting,” King told me when I spoke to him, also in January. “He and I had a very long conversation and all that’s behind us.” But King couldn’t help noting areas of continued disagreement. “I think he’s wrong not to use the terms Islamic terrorism and Islamic jihad,” King added, and complained that the White House had centralized too much power over counter-terrorism and homeland security policy in Brennan’s hands.

Given past history, and the stakes of the issues both men work on, it’s entirely possible that this relationship will flare up again. Stay tuned.

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