Obama and Brennan

When someone is ignorant and willing, anything can happen. And usually does. In a nutshell, Obama, the plaything of a foreign policy deeply ingrained in a historical process of unilateral global hegemony resting on the foundation of military power and international financial dominance, has created an open hole—or strictly, enlarged the one left by his predecessors from at least Kennedy forward—to which the forces of intervention and policies of torture have rushed in to fill. His self-acknowledged companion in the pursuit and commission of war crimes, which they define as Patriotism in the name of and to protect The National Security State, is, now proudly bruited about, John Brennan, current DCIA, defending the Agency in the face of the Senate Report on Torture. Obama has his back, the mantle of lese majesty in staring down, showing contempt for, civilized standards of human conduct, thrown onto the shoulders with approval of his chief torturer-in-residence. What a team, Obama & Brennan, song-and-dance of death to countless thousands well beyond the drone assassinations drawing them closer, the American banking community appreciative onlookers.

Do I exaggerate their relationship (no innuendo here, my concern being their ideological closeness AND commitment to enhanced—you name it, from interrogation techniques to Manichean worldview to a disdain for Congress, separation of powers, oversight of any kind, from any quarter. Fellow rogues of a rogue government, one, the constitutional law instructor whose despisement of the Constitution (think massive surveillance, denial of habeas corpus rights to detainees, use of Espionage Act against whistle-blowers) is legion, the other, exhibiting a warrior-theological conception of just wars armed with self-righteousness as he climbs the career ladder in intelligence, in all respects, together, a convergence on Cold War beatitudes, starting with “Blessed are the strong of the earth.” In answer to the question, Do I exaggerate, let’s look at New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti’s article, “Brennan Draws on Bond With Obama in Backing C.I.A.,” (Dec. 15), in which we’re talking, not about preferences in ice cream flavors, but the shielding from scrutiny of an infamous, antidemocratic Agency at the heart of the United States government.


Baker-Mazzetti’s opener says it all: “Just hours before he publicly responded last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee report accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of torture and deceit, John O. Brennan, the C.I.A.’s director, stopped by the White House to meet with President Obama. Ostensibly, he was there for an intelligence briefing. But the messages delivered later that day by the White House and Mr. Brennan were synchronized, even down to similar wording, and the larger import of the well-timed visit was hardly a classified secret: After six years of partnership, the president was standing by the embattled spy chief even as fellow Democrats called for his resignation.” Nothing could be plainer. As one who remembers well the guilt-by-association days of McCarthyism, I’m not tarring Obama with Brennan’s war crimes and that of the Agency, copiously documented in the Senate Report on Torture, and instead am suggesting an active partnership-in-war-crimes, Obama, if anything, giving CIA its head of steam under his watch, as in its role in drone assassination at facilities in Pakistan, Brennan himself installed as Director after Valiant Service as national security adviser, all despite questions of favoring waterboarding raised in confirmation hearings. From a pool of gung-ho national-security experts on which to draw, the others still making up his First Team of advisers (include generals, admirals, members of think tanks with partly disguised neocon credentials), Obama plucked Brennan to lead the intelligence charge through the interstices of government and military culminating in a permanent war economy and psychosis of vision.

Obama is not Brennan’s puppet, nor the other way. Both are electrified by mutual contact and support. The reporters note friction between the White House and Langley “after the release of the scorching report,” Brennan having “irritated advisers… by battling Democrats on the committee over the report during the past year.” They do not point out Obama did the same, stalling release, suffocating criticism of CIA hard-ball tactics against the committee, of which later; yet they make up for that with, given that this is NYT, an astonishing statement: “But in the 67 years since the C.I.A. was founded, few presidents have had as close a bond with their intelligence chiefs as Mr. Obama has forged with Mr. Brennan. It is a relationship that has shaped the policy and politics of the debate over the nation’s war with terrorist organizations, as well as the agency’s own struggle to balance security and liberty.” What they don’t say is that counterterrorism is part of the larger US position of counterrevolution, issuing in confrontations with Russia and China and regime change wherever American interests are challenged. Nor do they say, the Agency’s struggle to balance security and liberty was lost before it had fairly begun, assassination and regime change hardly indicative of liberty, a no-contest battle.

Brennan’s blistering attack on Congress (Obama let him be “the administration’s public face in defense of the CIA,” rather than Obama personally), rather problematic, as one former official declared, stating, “’It is fairly remarkable that the lead responder here is the director of the C.I.A.’” Brennan went on to claim that only a “’limited number’” of agents were involved in the torture and, planned ace-in-the-hole argument to avoid such discussion, he and others praised the enhanced techniques as having thwarted terrorist attacks on the Homeland, although he dodged the issue of verification by saying that the results of specific interrogations were unknowable in this regard. Obama in the wings, his supporters, like Bill Daley, former chief of staff, defended Brennan’s testimony, his “institutional responsibility to guard his building.” Daley, typical cynicism: “’If John were retired and had a few drinks in him, he might have a different tone to him. But he can’t, nor should he, do anything other than what he’s done.’” Cynicism, not confined to Daley, but pervading the administration, top to bottom. I like David Axelrod’s remark, “’I slept better knowing that John Brennan never does.’” To Obama liberals, America was in good hands.


A little historical perspective never hurts in understanding policy-directions, even in this case, the recent past, starting a year ago, in which Mazzetti reports in his Times article, “Senate Asks C.I.A. to Share Its Report on Interrogations,” (Dec. 17, 2013), that the request for its internal study “lawmakers believed is broadly critical of [its] detention and interrogation program” was being “withheld from congressional oversight committees.” So much for oversight. Period. We learn that “the committee’s request comes in the midst of a yearlong battle with the C.I.A. over the release of the panel’s own exhaustive report about the program, one of the most controversial policies of the post-Sept. 11 era.” Not only is the CIA report not forthcoming, the Agency exercises a veto over the release of the Congressional report, one which totaled more than 6,000 pages and which “was completed last December [i.e., in 2012, two years ago!] but has yet to be declassified.” Those familiar with the Senate study said it “presents a chronicle of C.I.A. officials’ repeatedly misleading the White House, Congress and the public about the brutal methods that, in the end, produced little valuable intelligence.” Was the White House actually misled or is this, as I suspect, an exercise in deniability/damage control?

This early we see Mark Udall’s [Dem., Colo.] disclosure of the CIA internal report, which was consistent with the Committee report but which “’conflicts with the official C.I.A. response to the committee’s report.’” He makes the obvious point: “’If this is true, this raises fundamental questions about why a review the C.I.A. conducted internally years ago—and never provided to the committee—is so different from the C.I.A.’s formal response to the committee study.” (Udall, who was defeated in 2014, had also distinguished himself in criticizing NSA’s bulk data collections—whether opposition to either CIA or NSA having relevance to his losing his seat is of course a moot point.) In all of this stonewalling—for CIA is an executive agency under Obama’s control—I give the president the last word here, hung I should think by his own incriminating words on his alleged denunciation of enhanced techniques (May, 2013): The US “’compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.’” CIA uber alles.

A parallel aside, CIA and NSA, both on Obama’s watch, joined at the hip in one important respect, their sphere of unrestrained activity, contempt for Constitutional oversight, and connivance in the latter by the president, adding up to a state-within-the-state signaling the wider potential for totalitarianism in America. Briefly, Times reporters Mazzetti and David Sanger, in their article, “Top Intelligence Official Assails Snowden and Seeks Return of N.S.A. Documents,” (Jan. 29, 2014), shows the same brazen claim of privilege the CIA has staked out and gained, with James Clapper somewhat a carbon copy of Brennan in conduct toward Congressional oversight, both agencies dancing under Obama’s umbrella. Mazzetti-Sanger: “The nation’s top intelligence official… delivered a scorching attack on Edward J. Snowden… and called on him and his ‘accomplices’ to return the trove of classified documents he took from the N.S.A.” Like Brennan’s feigned righteous indignation, Clapper hoped his august presence and authority would silence critics. Thus, the reporters continue: “Mr. Clapper did not give specific examples to bolster his assessment about the damage Mr. Snowden had done. He also did not say whom he believed Mr. Snowden’s accomplices to be.” He also expressed his resentment in his annual testimony to Congress to “having to testify in public about classified issues,” surely no argument there from Brennan—mine.

Ron Wyden (Dem., Or.), like Udall, a strong critic, here, of NSA, stated that “the dealings between spy agencies and their congressional overseers were crippled by a ‘culture of misinformation.’” Wyden, the year before, caught Clapper in a flat lie about “whether intelligence agencies were collecting any bulk information about Americans,” Clapper saying “they were not,” and later, “he had to apologize for that answer after Mr. Snowden revealed an N.S.A. program to collect and store domestic phone records.” No wonder the desire and intent to silence Snowden, he exposed the lies. Obama serenely said nothing, Clapper going his merry way. The hearing was before Senate Intelligence, so Brennan was also present, the account instructive of collusion whichever way one looks: “On two occasions, Democratic senators tried to press Mr. Brennan for details about an internal C.I.A. review that they said contradicted the agency’s official response to the Intelligence Committee’s report. Both times, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, who leads the committee, cut off the questioning and said the matter would be discussed behind closed doors.” The Brennan-Feinstein conflict over disclosure of the Senate’s Terror Report, suggesting her principled opposition (for once) to CIA activities, however, does not cancel out her years of protecting the Agency, makes one suspicious that even worse excrement remains hidden, and testifies to her realization that her credibility was now on the line—perhaps so that she could be able to render the intelligence community effective service later.


The CIA remained busy, yet restive in defining its mission, with Brennan, in spring of this year, seeking to devolve some functions to the Pentagon, while widening its broadly-defined counterterrorism reach. Yes, turf wars, but also, I gather, the attempt to centralize its power within government, being at the nerve-center of arresting progressive currents of thought and radical movements of change in the world. We see the militarization of intelligence, but intelligence, that way conceived, as the national mission of counterrevolution. Nip social and structural changes in the bud, rather than assist in every Special Ops assignment that comes along. Mazzetti, in an NYT article, “Delays in Effort to Refocus C.I.A. From Drone War,” (Apr. 5), perhaps unwittingly sees the strengthening Obama-Brennan bond in the way CIA is given free rein of self-invention, even in adjusting its relations to the Pentagon. No other agency is allowed such protean form, in this case, under the artificial civilian-military distinction, which gives to foreign governments deniability that US military forces are being employed in their countries. In Yemen, Pentagon drones have been banned “by the government there after a number of botched operations in recent years killed Yemeni civilians,” while CIA operations continue. Pakistan, “the C.I.A. remains in charge of drone operations, and may continue to be long after American troops have left Afghanistan.” Jordan illustrates the larger trend: “it is the C.I.A. rather than the Pentagon that is running a program to arm and train Syrian rebels—a concession to the Jordanian government, which will not allow an overt military presence in the country.”

The reporter, despite his lead, recognizes CIA affinity to drone warfare—and, as an Obama signature, its secure place there as long as the Agency deems necessary. (The Pentagon is now starting to assume this function.) Out of the mouths of, if not babes, then, former senior Pentagon officials, here Michael Sheehan, now holding a distinguished chair at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, who, following the drone shift, notes: “’Some might want to get the C.I.A. out of the killing business [Brennan’s stated preference for intelligence], but that’s not happening anytime soon.’” Sheehan’s reference to “killing business” warms my heart. He also says that despite the shift in emphasis, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), is powerful inside the Agency and in Congress: “’I think that most of the C.I.A. is behind the changes, but the CTC community has grown dramatically since 9/11 and is fighting to keep its turf. And, they’ve been somewhat successful in that regard, especially with the drone programs.’” They thus have their cake and eat it.

Mazzetti, in addition to highlighting CIA’s growing importance, e.g., strengthening intelligence gathering and analysis so that the US is not presumably caught flat-footed, as in the events of the Arab Spring or the Russian annexation of Crimea (both, Brennan’s examples), provides useful background on how the Obama-Brennan relation had grown: “Before taking charge of the C.I.A. last March [2013], Mr. Brennan had spent four years as Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, a job that put him in charge of the targeted killing operations that became a signature of the Obama administration’s approach to terrorism. It also made Mr. Brennan—who before working for Mr. Obama had spent 25 years at the C.I.A.—a powerful influence on a president with no experience in intelligence.” Will CIA, if it eventually gives up “the work of firing missiles and dropping bombs in far-flung regions of the world,” find its role diminished? Brennan: “’Despite rampant rumors that the C.I.A. is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth’” [speech, Council on Foreign Relations, in March].

Closing in on the present, we see Obama’s silence when it was revealed that the CIA, in a gross violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers, the Agency hacking into Senate Committee computer files, is further confirmation, if any was needed, that he betrayed the public trust and that of his office, silence now consent in wrongdoing: a toxic compound of protection, friendship, and treason. The last-named, treason, does not trip lightly off the tongue. Yet, overwhelming evidence of CIA spying on Congress, the act taken in secret and intended to prevent authorized supervision over the Agency’s activities, makes a shambles of the principles and structure of democratic governance. And for the president not to speak out, much less prosecute the culprits responsible, including DCIA Brennan, but rather, not content with silence, actually praise the Agency’s head and its record, specifically in response to exposure of its use of torture, permits the use of no other word. Treason, Obama; criminality Brennan; Constitution-wreckers, both. Here Feinstein had no other choice but to raise a warning flag, and despite my criticisms in which she shielded the Agency from scrutiny, at this point she did so bravely. The result was her conflict with Obama as well.

Mazzetti and Carl Hulse in their Times article, “Inquiry by C.I.A. Affirms It Spied on Senate Panel,” (Aug. 1), credits the internal investigation of the Agency’s Inspector General, which found that “its officers penetrated a computer network” used by the Committee, “read the emails of the Senate investigators and sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department based on false information,” and that “the officers created a false online identity to gain access on more than one occasion” to committee staff computers. Feinstein was angry. Udall demanded Brennan’s resignation. Committee Republicans, calling their own Senate Report a partisan smear, withdrew from the proceedings. Feinstein called the CIA spying on the Committee “’a defining moment’”; how it is resolved “’will show whether the Intelligence Committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.’” The CIA-Obama, 1, US Senate Intelligence Committee, 0. Even Brennan’s carefully qualified apology and pro forma agreement on an accountability board led Feinstein to declare these “’positive first steps.’”

The CIA weathered the storm, better, it came onto golden shores, a complete presidential endorsement in which the word “patriotism” figures prominently. Hulse and Mazzetti’s “Obama Expresses Confidence in C.I.A. Director,” same date, quotes Obama as having “’full confidence’” in Brennan, despite his having admitted the CIA “improperly searched computer files” of the Committee. There was further compliant: the refusal of Obama’s DOJ to investigate the hacking operation; and Feinstein’s own, that the Executive “had heavily censored a soon-to-be-released committee report” which was critical of the interrogation techniques. Wyden called on Justice “to reconsider whether criminal charges should be pursued under laws prohibiting computer hacking.” Fat chance, Holder and DOJ (think fundamental violations of civil liberties) replicating the record of Obama at his worst. In contrast, Obama at his news conference, said: “’I have full confidence in John Brennan.’” Then, as though reading from a CIA script, he obfuscates the big point, claiming the hacking was okay in principle because the Senate Committee had taken CIA documents that it, CIA, had not authorized disclosure of, when what is dodged is, how can an executive agency keep secret from the oversight committee documents it wishes to hide—Obama’s heightened executive-privilege doctrine and practice smudged over by sleight-of-hand wording: “’I think he has acknowledged and directly apologized to Senator Feinstein that C.I.A. personnel did not properly handle an investigation as to how certain documents that were not authorized to be released to the Senate staff got somehow into the hands of the Senate staff.’” The investigation was faulty, not the refusal to supply documents to the Senate.

Obama went on to claim the Senate Report itself had been returned to the Committee for release. He didn’t mention that fully 15% of the Report had been redacted, which meant more stalling as objections to the specific redactions had to be raised—the determination left to the Executive. Almost five months later, the nation is still waiting—mine. Blithely, Obama sailed on: “’We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values…. [Yet] it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.’” As for DOJ investigation of CIA hacking into Committee staff computers (Wyden still persisted), Peter Carr gave the Department’s response: “’We already carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation.’” When Justice engages in a cover-up, beware of the health and vitality of the rule of law.

Coming to the present, we find Brennan on offense, as seen in Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo’s Times article, “C.I.A. Director Defends Use of Interrogation Tactics, Avoiding Issue of Torture,” (Dec. 11), in which they say he “strongly defended [at a Langley news conference] C.I.A. officers who carried out brutal interrogation tactics against Qaeda suspects, describing agency interrogators as ‘patriots’ and admonishing only those who went ‘outside the bounds’ of Justice Department rules.” The vast majority, patriots, the few, possible, though unlikely, miscreants, their names kept unknown, no convictions thus far recorded; as for Justice Department rules, we have the Office of Legal Counsel to thank, John Yoo in particular, for tailoring the law to excuse the crime—Holder’s bunch hardly if at all modifying earlier rules and practices. An inspiring sight and site for the news conference, believed the first at Langley: the marble lobby of CIA headquarters, with to his right the Memorial Wall, 111 stars representing agents killed in action, and to his left, a passage from the Gospel of St. John etched in stone, of course, why not go all the way, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Sublime, ideal for the promulgation of the doctrine of just wars, and on the practical side plans for regime change and drone assassination.

He spoke in modesty about torture (never using the word): “Although he said the C.I.A. was out of the interrogation business, he offered no assurances that anything prevented the government from authorizing the same techniques in the face of another crisis. ‘I defer to the policy makers in future times,’ he said.” The torture of Abu Zubaydah, who I discuss in previous CP articles, was within DOJ boundaries. Thailand, 2002: “The interrogation sessions,” Mazzetti and Appuzo write, “became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers began choking up with tears” and requested transfer from the prison. During one water-boarding session, Zubaydah became, according to one CIA cable in the Senate Report, “’completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.’” We learn from further CIA cables, he would, after weeks of torture, “dutifully get into position to be water-boarded with just the cock of an eyebrow and two finger snaps from an interrogator.”

No torture? This is what the partnership of Obama and Brennan wrought. Not to be outdone in his journey with America into the moral abyss, Obama, yesterday (at time of writing), went on the road to exhort the troops and bolster his own reputation. Peter Baker’s article, “Obama Defends Progress Against Extremists,” (Dec. 16), has the president in Lakehurst, NJ, in a giant hangar, “with a C-130 Hercules parked to his left,” proclaiming the momentum of ISIL has been undercut. 3,000 troops in camouflage before him, he continued: “’And these terrorists are learning the same thing that the leaders of Al Qaeda have learned the hard way…. You threaten America, you will have no safe haven. We will find you.’” Taking out ISIL installations through airstrikes, “damaging its command and control structure and fracturing its supply lines,” America has led the way. “’That’s what we do.’” In sum, a true patriot.

My New York Times Comment on the Baker-Mazzetti article, same date, follows:

Are we surprised? Thanks for an excellent article. The last straw: anyone giving high marks to Obama as POTUS should have the veil torn from one’s eyes. The Brennan relationship confirms a Rightist-militarist-hegemonic leader whose race and Democratic-party credential fend off criticism; in reality, a disgrace to the Black community and to Democrats. The former, via racial solidarity, are blind to his policies, while the latter, the party itself, has sunk deeply into the morass of permanent-war psychosis and Wall Street aggrandizement.

A worse president, difficult to imagine. The Brennan connection proves it. FDR had Hopkins and Morganthau; Obama has Brennan, the two shielding the CIA as per se a criminal enterprise sucking out the lifeblood of democracy. From drone assassination to NSA mass surveillance to Pacific-first strategy positioning the US into confrontation with China (after having brought the US and EU into a collision course with Russia), speaks to the formation of a Police State whose inner spring is corporate power and welfare.

The paradigm matches Fascism. With Obama-Brennan, it’s only a matter of time, Hillary, Iron Lady of Attack and Intervention, completing the process. Yes Republicans have Cruz, Graham, Ryan, unsophisticated players in the geopolitical drama. The Democrats, win or lose come 2016, have carried America to the brink, if not already over.

Brennan, hit list and much more, is a war criminal, not different from his boss.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.