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Johnny F-Bomb

In his new memoir, ‘Undaunted,’ former CIA Director John Brennan offers a self-portrait of a blustering desk jockey with severe anger-management issues

Peter Theroux
February 03, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former CIA Director John O. Brennan is an angry man, and his anger mismanagement issues emerge not in the preface to his memoir but in its title, which reads Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. The CIA is an executive branch organization focused on foreign intelligence, intentionally headquartered across the Potomac in McLean, Virginia, separated from the White House, State Department, Congress, and all the other policy and partisan bodies. So, who are a CIA director’s domestic enemies—terrorist sleeper cells? Russian illegals? Shady companies aiding Iran’s nuclear procurement efforts? These would be valid targets for joint FBI-CIA attention, and probably anger too.

Four hundred pages later, the reader finds that Brennan’s list contains none of these but it is long, and he exhausts his thesaurus of abusive language against them: Arlen Specter, Richard Grenell, Devin Nunes, Lindsey Graham, Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Pompeo, Trey Gowdy, Michael Scheuer, and Gina Haspel (on and off; she didn’t invite him to CIA holiday parties), and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations generally. Pride of place goes, of course, to Donald Trump. Before Brennan has even met the newly elected Trump, but is en route to brief him in early January 2017, he records that the “mere thought” of the meeting “jarred my very soul.” Brennan’s meetings with, say, Yasser Arafat evince no such dread, and in fact are recounted pretty jauntily.

Brennan’s outbursts are a consistent theme in this memoir. They are often blamed on his “Irish temper,” as if his rage is something external, like an unruly Irish setter that jumps on strangers. Trump is “evil despicable, and vile,” with bad qualities—“incompetence, dishonesty, and cravenness,” especially when Andrew McCabe was fired from the FBI, on St. Patrick’s Day no less, when “my Irish dander was more easily ruffled.”

They often come at a cost: In late 2006, a hot-tempered draft op-ed piece attacking President Bush, while never published, found its way to the White House and would cost Brennan the job of deputy DNI a year later. His famous anti-Trump meltdown when McCabe was fired cost him a gig at Booz Allen Hamilton, and his implausible threat of a lawsuit when his clearances were pulled cost him a consultancy contract with Kissinger Associates.

The matter of Brennan’s loss of his top-secret clearance is worth a quick diversion, because he devotes a full page of his preface to it as well as a six-page diatribe toward the end of the book. He repeatedly asserts that while in retirement he has been denied access to classified material, “my security clearances have never been revoked because there is no legal basis to do so.” You could charitably call this blarney, but coming from someone with more than 30 years in the federal government, including at the White House, you have to call it a blatant lie. Any U.S. president has absolute authority over who gets a clearance and over the revocation of a security clearance, just as he holds absolute declassification authority. No legal basis is needed to vacate a clearance just as there is no basis in the law for wanting one. Holders of clearances are frequently reminded that it is not a right, but a privilege, and a perishable one.

Overall, Brennan’s bad temper presents a striking contrast to his calm in noting the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (without mentioning Hezbollah, which he elsewhere argues should have a greater role in the Lebanese government) and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing with his lengthy anecdote about how Sen. Specter sipped a Coke within view of a Saudi honor guard during the fasting month of Ramadan:

I felt like throttling him then and there and might have if Prince Turki had not suddenly appeared. … I had to satisfy myself by giving the Senator a brusque “goodbye” at the conclusion of our meeting with Prince Turki and by not spending any more time with him for the rest of the visit. Spector’s [sic] appalling performance … epitomized the Senate version of the Ugly American who is insensitive to social and political practices of foreign lands … Tragically, I have found in recent years that increasing nationalism, nativism, isolation, and xenophobia within too many segments of American society have made insensitivity such as Senator Spector’s all too prevalent, including at the highest levels of our government.

Down, boy!

Brennan’s memoir settles some of the myths that surrounded his career. He did vote for a communist candidate for president, Gus Hall, in 1976. He did not convert to Islam while serving in Saudi Arabia. How he washed out of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) soon after joining the agency, is murkier. In conversation with a reputedly alcoholic training officer at the “Farm,” he hears advice about running an agent that seems morally repugnant, and literally loses sleep over it. After bungling two simple assignments—light disguise and surveillance—he opted for the analytic rather than the operational career track. The chapter title here is a little misleading, as “Out of Operations” suggest he stopped doing ops, whereas he never started. In later years, as director, this brief exposure to DO training inclined him to try and break the ice with DO audiences by reminding them that he started out in the DO, and by all accounts it lowered the temperature in the room fast enough to raise an ice shelf between him and listeners with long careers as case officers and station chiefs.

His lifelong tension with the DO surfaces in his one anecdote about being a counterterrorism analyst, where he spars with a manager over a routine analytic line regarding how Hezbollah might retaliate after the Israeli strike that killed Abbas al-Musawi. By U.S. government standards, it was a routine momentary disagreement over one sentence. By Brennan standards, it is a Spartacus moment where he valiantly faces down a sputtering ops officer. The years go by, but we hear of the DO’s “antiquated culture,” “insularity, parochialism, and arrogance,” and one of Brennan’s nemeses, Dusty Foggo, would be an obstruction to Brennan’s peace of mind “in deference to his pals in the Directorate of Operations.”

A subsequent stint as CIA Director George Tenet’s chief of staff gave Brennan a position which, he notes, “serves as a negotiator, arbiter, counselor, complaint department, and ‘bad cop’ … when dealing with bureaucratic battles and disputes among senior officials.” It was the start of Brennan’s development as a formidable bureaucratic infighter. It was in this period that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and the unfolding events in the U.S. war with al-Qaida, including the capture of senior al-Qaida members, and their interrogation and debriefing, in some cases with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). Brennan claims to have had early misgivings about the entire program and to have shared them with Tenet, something Tenet denies, but we are offered a specific anecdote regarding Brennan’s revulsion reading a graphic, classified account of Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding sessions. Brennan tells Tenet how disgusted he is.

Tenet [said] forcefully, “We sure as hell better not be doing anything that has not been explicitly authorized by DOJ.”
“That’s the problem, George,” I said. “We’re not.”

This dilemma, that the measures were legal but repellent and probably necessary, put Brennan in the position of condemning them without saying they never should have been used, but saying they should never be used again. It is similar to his discomfort with the DO’s mission to steal secrets—a phrase Tenet loved using and Brennan repudiated. The famous Irish temper does not emerge, though. Opposing the ethical failings of the espionage trade, Brennan instead tends to hoist that grand old flag, his “strict Catholic upbringing.”

It was Brennan’s nuance on EITs, particularly in a CBS interview where he conceded that the program had yielded useful information (an understatement) that riled up the “political left” and the media against his support for “torture” that cost Brennan the job of CIA director, which Obama had personally offered him. And here you have to switch the channel to Michael Hayden’s classic memoir, Playing to the Edge, for what came next:

John confided that one of [the transition team’s] directives was to make no news … John clearly wanted to replace me as head of CIA. But the blogosphere was exploding at the very thought … A little before Thanksgiving, John wrote a Shermanesque letter to the Washington Post withdrawing himself from a post with which the incoming team had never publicly associated him. He also took the opportunity to distance himself personally from previous CIA policies and practices.

In a subsequent transition meeting, Hayden ribs Brennan with a lighthearted comment—“Well, so much for keeping this low-key.” Brennan’s snappish response leads Hayden to record: “I tried to stay calm by silently counting to ten. Well, F--- you, John (one). Well, f--- you, John (two). Well, f--- you, John (three) … and so on till ten. We then resumed the meeting as if nothing had happened.”

If you have met the famously courteous, mild, and devout Michael Hayden, you know that it takes something extraordinarily Irish to drive him to ten F-bombs in a row. Brennan was proud enough of his Shermanesque letter to reproduce it in full in Undaunted.

The bureaucratic infighter did get the opportunity to stand up to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), later renamed the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)—a Beltway success designed to uncover threats, but which would not do operations, meet with foreign liaison partners, or brief the president—all these remained in CIA’s realm. Even after half a dozen years of evolution, however, NCTC failed to catch the Nigerian underwear bomber who nearly blew up Northwest flight 253 landing in Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. Building TTIC, however, further honed some of the bureaucratic and turf-fighting skills Brennan would use reorganizing the CIA a decade later. Getting the CIA, FBI, and a dozen other agencies to share their most sensitive data with each other was indeed a feat, and naturally involved shouting matches, notably with then-FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Brennan’s White House years, as President Obama’s assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, were enlivened by the Arab Spring, chaos in Syria and Libya, and the Iran nuclear deal. Brennan is admirably candid about the policy mess surrounding the Arab debacles, but with Iran it is different. Even given his general caution in counterterrorism methods and sentimental view of Islam, Brennan was uncannily soft on Iran, believing in the myth of regime “moderates” and preposterously taking at face value Iran’s commitment in the JCPOA never to “seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.” For rationality, listen to Hayden, in his brief period as President Obama’s CIA director in early 2009, when asked how much enriched uranium the Iranians had:

Mr. President, I actually know that but … it almost doesn’t matter. There isn’t an electron or a neutron at Natanz that’s ever going to end up in a nuclear weapon. They’ll spin that uranium at some secret military facility beyond the eyes of the IAEA.

Hayden goes on to express polite skepticism about the JCPOA, and tells the reader: “And even with an accord in hand and honored, Iran remains the duplicitous, autocratic, terrorist-backing, Hezbollah-supporting, Hamas-funding, region-destabilizing, hegemony-seeking theocracy it has been,” adding, in a footnote, “They will cheat, of course.”

Six years later, Brennan was present in an NSC meeting where Obama instructed U.S. negotiators not to address Iran’s ballistic missile program (“which, absent weapons of mass destruction, has little utility,” Hayden had noted), because “‘The Iranians will immediately press for reciprocal reduction in missiles in Gulf Arab states,’ he said, ‘and good luck with those talks.’” In other words, to avoid complicating the negotiations, the ayatollahs got a free pass on their missiles.

Brennan remained consistently soft on Iran in retirement: He doubted the legality of the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani and furiously condemned the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. As above, the Khobar Towers bombing rates the briefest of mentions. Brennan notes that Saudi Hezbollah carried out the attack, which killed 19 American service members, “at the direction of Iran,” but he leaves it there. The Irish temper is a no-show.

And this is what gives Undaunted its odd feel: the selective and disproportionate nature of the author’s anger. The DO might deserve some the brickbats that Brennan throws at it, yet there is no similar mention of the three other directorates. Maybe a strict Catholic upbringing prevents a memoirist from saying anything mean about an Islamic Republic that kills hundreds of Americans in Iraq, but Brennan sours quickly, and volubly, on his beloved Saudi Arabia when it kills one of its own journalists.

Saudi Arabia casts a long shadow in Undaunted. Brennan served only two overseas tours, and both were there. The first was at the U.S. Embassy in the then-diplomatic capital, Jeddah, recounted in the chapter entitled “John of Arabia,” and he would return 14 years later in a senior liaison capacity. He had an affinity for the place and is a shrewd analyst of the various Saudi security services that worked with components of the U.S. government. He built an exceptionally close relationship with Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (“MBN”), who was among the more than 100 princes arrested and permanently sidelined by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”) in late 2017.

MBN’s end as a political force was the beginning of the end for “John of Arabia.” The definitive break came with the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Brennan describes the renowned Jew-hater (who denied that Jews had any history in “Palestine”) and former Saudi liaison to Osama bin Laden as “respected inside and outside the kingdom for his literary talent, political acumen, and principled opposition” to MBS. I suspect that the baby elephant in the room here was Khashoggi’s longtime service as a protégé of Prince Turki al-Faisal, Brennan’s counterpart in the Saudi intelligence world. And of course, “The subsequent failure of the Trump administration to hold the Saudi government to account … was one of the most egregious examples of unprincipled leadership I have ever witnessed.”

Obama’s second offer of the CIA directorship not only made Brennan the fifth director who had previously served as a CIA officer, it made for a couple of the more interesting chapters of his book. The agency’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program continued to stalk his career in the form of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s notorious “torture report,” and is the subject of the chapter “A Tortured Senate Report,” a rollicking account in which the bureaucratic infighter is pitted against the dark forces of black site practices, congressional spite, Feinstein, and even momentarily with Leon Panetta, Brennan’s friend and predecessor as CIA director, who made the controversial decision to share an ocean of operations files with the Senate. Add White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to the donnybrook, and you get the chapter with the most F-bombs.

Brennan’s major legacy at the agency was “Modernization,” which did away with geographical divisions to restructure headquarters components in mission centers, regional and functional. The plan integrated operations officers, analysts, targeters, and the other 60-odd professional agency disciplines. It created a new mission center for cyber. The models for Modernization were the CIA’s existing Counterterrorism Center, Crime and Narcotics Center, and Counterintelligence Center, highly effective entities that had already integrated the different career services.

An early casualty of the redo was Brennan’s deputy director for operations, Frank Archibald, who resisted the perceived encroachment against the espionage mission. In legend, Modernization created opportunities to elevate analysts into overseas positions traditionally held for operations officers, and may have been all the more unpalatable to some traditionalist DO officers because it was Brennan’s idea. In practice, it may have been inevitable or overdue.

On Russiagate, Brennan complements James Comey’s and Andrew McCabe’s accounts with the view from CIA. He touches the Steele dossier, but with a 10-foot pole, and strenuously denies rumors that he raised it in his famous August 2016 phone conversation with Harry Reid to brief the then-majority leader on Russian interference. He acknowledges that it was “salacious, unverified,” and “infamous” but makes no mention of its connection to the Clinton campaign or of the bureau’s view of Christopher Steele as untrustworthy. He goes into high dudgeon at the president’s public allegation that our intelligence agencies had leaked the dossier to the press, without noting that that was likely the FBI’s doing.

The final chapter (titled “Undaunted”) is a jeremiad against the Trump administration, chiefly focused on the loss of Brennan’s clearances, and it craters the book. The torrent of personal spite and lack of self-control make for a shaming, juvenile contrast to Hayden’s final chapter, which also documented tensions with a sitting president but in a way that is sly and fun to read. The high point of the final chapter of Leon Panetta’s memoir is his being given a rosary by Pope Benedict. I hope he loans it to Brennan.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.