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John Brennan's Extremism and Dishonesty Rewarded with CIA Director Nomination

Obama's top terrorism adviser goes from unconfirmable in 2008 to uncontroversial in 2013, reflecting the Obama legacy

Prior to President Obama's first inauguration in 2009, a controversy erupted over reports that he intended to appoint John Brennan as CIA director. That controversy, in which I participated, centered around the fact that Brennan, as a Bush-era CIA official, had expressly endorsed Bush's programs of torture (other than waterboarding) and rendition and also was a vocal advocate of immunizing lawbreaking telecoms for their role in the illegal Bush NSA eavesdropping program. As a result, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration, issuing a bitter letter blaming "strong criticism in some quarters prompted by [his] previous service with the" CIA.Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan is reportedly Obama's pick to lead the CIA. (Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

This "victory" of forcing Brennan's withdrawal proved somewhat Pyrrhic, as Obama then appointed him as his top counter-terrorism adviser, where he exerted at least as much influence as he would have had as CIA Director, if not more. In that position, Brennan last year got caught outright lying when he claimed Obama's drone program caused no civilian deaths in Pakistan over the prior year. He also spouted complete though highly influential falsehoods to the world in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing, including claiming that bin Laden "engaged in a firefight" with Navy SEALS and had "used his wife as a human shield". Brennan has also been in charge of many of Obama's most controversial and radical policies, including "signature strikes" in Yemen - targeting people without even knowing who they are - and generally seizing the power to determine who will be marked for execution without any due process, oversight or transparency.

As it typically does in the US National Security State, all of that deceit and radicalism is resulting not in recrimination or loss of credibility for Brennan, but in reward and promotion. At 1 pm EST today, Obama will announce that he has selected Brennan to replace Gen. David Petraeus as CIA chief: the same position for which, four short years ago, Brennan's pro-torture-and-rendition past rendered him unfit and unconfirmable.

Deceit and radicalism is resulting not in recrimination or loss of credibility for Brennan, but in reward and promotion.

Although I actively opposed Brennan's CIA nomination in 2008, I can't quite muster the energy or commitment to do so now. Indeed, the very idea that someone should be disqualified from service in the Obama administration because of involvement in and support for extremist Bush terrorism polices seems quaint and obsolete, given the great continuity between Bush and Obama on these issues. Whereas in 2008 it seemed uncertain in which direction Obama would go, making it important who wielded influence, that issue is now settled: Brennan is merely a symptom of Obama's own extremism in these areas, not a cause. This continuity will continue with or without Brennan because they are, rather obviously, Obama's preferred policies.

Still, this is worth commenting on because the drastic change between the reaction to Brennan in 2008 and now is revealing. The New York Times article this morning on the appointment claims that "it is uncertain whether the torture issue will now cause any problems for Mr. Brennan." Of course, there is nothing at all uncertain about that: "the torture issue" won't cause any problems for Brennan, as it did in 2008, because Obama has buried that issue with his "Look Forward, not Backward" decrees; because most people who claimed concern over such issues back in 2008 have resigned themselves to Obama's posture in this area; and because, with very rare exception, there are no more serious campaigns mounted against Obama's decisions except from the American Right.

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. Within this change one finds one of the most significant aspects of the Obama presidency: his conversion of what were once highly contentious right-wing policies into harmonious dogma of the DC bipartisan consensus. Then again, given how the CIA operates, one could fairly argue that Brennan's eagerness to deceive and his long record of supporting radical and unaccountable powers make him the perfect person to run that agency. It seems clear that this is Obama's calculus.

Update

There's one more point worth noting: the reason Obama needs a new CIA chief is because David Petraeus was forced to resign. Here we see the ethos and morality of imperial Washington: past support for torture and rendition does not disqualify one for a top national security position; only an extramarital affair can do that.