What Awaits John Brennan at the CIA

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alex Wong / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan listens during personnel announcements in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 7, 2013

The CIA should do well by John Brennan, the President’s trusted counterterrorism adviser who’s just been tapped as director. The mere fact that the President has named him to that position sent a message to the rank and file that the CIA counts, that it deserves to be led by an Administration insider. But it may take time for the agency to realize what it’s gotten — especially in the clandestine service, which is wary of Brennan’s return.

Keep in mind that many Presidents have kept their CIA directors as far away from the Oval Office as possible. CIA failures have a way of going disastrously public, and the way the White House saw it, the less such failures were associated with the President, the better. The last CIA director with a close personal relationship with his President was Reagan’s CIA director Bill Casey. In ways that may never be known, Casey played an important role in shaping Reagan’s foreign policy. Most of the CIA directors who followed him were parts of larger teams.

(MORE: If You Thought Benghazi Was Bad, Watch Syria)

I’ll never forget when Casey once called me up to his office to tell me that the President wanted something done. I not only believed him, I also made sure that I did everything I could do to get it done. On the other hand, when I was called up to see Jim Woolsey, Bill Clinton’s CIA director, and was told Woolsey might have to wait months to see the President, my enthusiasm flagged accordingly.

What Brennan also has going for him is that having spent 25 years at Langley, he knows the CIA like his own living room. He knows who’s good and who isn’t. He knows where the CIA is weak, and where it’s strong. Although he spent nearly all of his career as an analyst, Brennan will recognize a flimflam operation when he sees one. The chances are good that there won’t be another Benghazi, where a CIA facility was left in a relatively defenseless posture.

And then there’s this: the CIA rank and file took an immediate dislike to recently departed director David Petraeus’ four-star imperial ways, as well as his matching personal demands. But what particularly angered the professionals at Langley was when Petraeus had started to wordsmith finished intelligence. It started with a few words here and there, but when he started to mess with the drift of assessments, anger turned to alarm. As a former analyst, Brennan knows not to do this.

Brennan’s return may give operatives pause. Differences between CIA operatives and analysts are as sharp as those between the Hatfields and the McCoys. At the risk of exaggeration, analysts have little use for operatives and their sources. Analysts believe, in all but a few circumstances, the world can be understood through open sources, electronic intercepts or “chatter,” satellite imaging and reports from friendly foreign governments. If you want to know about what’s going on in the tribal areas of Pakistan, ask Islamabad.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion, Bloody Civil War)

Brennan was parachuted into operations thanks to his onetime mentor, former CIA director George Tenet. When Brennan took over his overseas posting, he quickly closed down potentially risky operations, and the reporting from his station slowed to a trickle. According to an operative who served in the region with Brennan, he saw no interest in irritating the host government.

But the line between analyst and operative is blurring. Sept. 11 effectively turned the CIA into an anteroom of the Pentagon: the bulk of CIA resources and personnel were thrown at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the CIA’s best analysts were turned into drone “targeters.” It meant that both operatives and analysts were taken away from their traditional duties of trying to figure out how the world works. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound is a metaphor for what’s happened to the CIA: the agency lines up the sights, and the Pentagon pulls the trigger.

Brennan is the modern amalgam of analyst and operative — and terrorist hunter. For all his time at the agency, what matters now is four years at the White House overseeing drone assassinations and special-forces raids. Brennan alone is credited with creating the so-far-successful drone campaign in Yemen — both the CIA and Pentagon sides of it. The Pentagon may have chafed at Brennan’s getting deep into the details of military planning, but on the other hand they were well aware that Brennan spoke for the Commander in Chief.

The world has a way of not conforming to sensible predictions, but mine is that while Brennan may be about to change hats, he’s not going to change horses. He will continue to oversee drones and run the CIA as an adjunct of the Pentagon, dutifully supporting it in the “war on terror.” Under Brennan’s watchful eye, the drone program will spread as needed — I’d imagine, to Libya, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. What we shouldn’t expect to see is Brennan returning the CIA to traditional espionage — the lone operative assigned to some place like Aden, gossiping with the locals, trying to figure out what makes Yemenis. In Brennan’s world, there’s no profit or sense in going back to the old ways.

MORE: Why the CIA Won’t Relish Its Syria Mission

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.