John Brennan's dangerous national security advice

Under Bush he pushed domestic wiretapping. Now he's advocating expansion of abusive spying on Americans

Published August 14, 2009 1:01PM (EDT)

Editor's note: Glenn Greenwald is on vacation this week. Marcy Wheeler, who blogs at Firedoglake, is guest-blogging today.

Last year, Glenn posted some statements from now-Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan on counterterrorism. The post contributed to pressure that led Brennan to withdraw his candidacy to be CIA Director (which is how he ended up as Deputy NSA, which doesn't require congressional approval).

In addition to passages on rendition and torture, Glenn linked to an NPR story attributing Obama's switch on counterterrorism issues -- particularly his infamous flip-flop on retroactive immunity for the telecoms that had illegally spied on Americans -- to Brennan.

What's important in that statement is Obama's reference to "the information I've received." He's advised on intelligence matters by John Brennan, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Like many intelligence professionals, Brennan says the FISA program is essential to the fight against terrorism.

By adopting Brennan's view, Obama improves his standing with the intelligence community; for someone looking ahead to a presidential administration, that's important.

So it was under Brennan's tutelage that Obama came to the following conclusion about Bush's illegal domestic surveillance program.

"That, in my mind, met my basic concerns. And given that all the information I've received is that the underlying program itself actually is important and useful to American security, as long as it has these [civil liberties safeguards] on them, I felt it was more important for me to go ahead and support this compromise," Obama said.

That's all very, um, interesting in retrospect, given what we've recently learned about Brennan's very complicit role in Bush's illegal program. The IG Report on the surveillance program revealed that from at least May 2003 until April 2005 (and possibly until Brennan retired in late 2005) intelligence centers that Brennan headed -- the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the National Counterterrorism Center -- developed the threat assessments and a list of Al Qaeda affiliated organizations used in the program's targeting. While that section of the report is rather vague about how these threat assessments were used, it appears that John Brennan was either in charge of developing the information that substituted for "probable cause," and/or affirmed the urgency of the Al Qaeda threat to justify the program itself (though the assessments were approved by more senior people). For a period, it appears, John Brennan decided who would get wiretapped and who wouldn't (including organizations like Al Haramain, now suing for having been illegally wiretapped).

Spencer Ackerman asked Brennan last week about his role in the program. Brennan gave a response that Alberto Gonzales himself could have given:

I fulfilled all my responsibilities at NCTC that I was asked to fulfill. And there are a number of different programs, some of which have come out in the press, some of which have not. Some of the things that have come out in the press have been inaccurate in terms of the representations there. And when I look back in terms of my service at the NCTC and those places I believe I fulfilled those responsibilities to the best of my abilities.

These issues related to the so-called domestic surveillance programs and other things -- one of the things I mentioned, there's a lot of hyperbole and misrepresentations about what actually happened. And a lot of times people go down certain roads believing reports as facts. And that's not the case. So I'm not going to go into sort of what my role was in that instance because a lot of those activities are still considered classified and not in the public domain, irrespective of what the press reports might be out there.

For a guy who counseled Obama that this program was "important and useful to American security," Brennan's response is pathetically weak, making himself out to be a guy doing no more than "fulfilling his duties," rather than pushing the program on the presidential candidate as a big success, rather than (apparently) picking and choosing who got illegally surveilled.

There's something fundamentally wrong about the guy who pushed Obama to flip-flop on a campaign pledge now treating the program with this much false ambivalence.

Of course, Brennan may be down-playing his role in the illegal program out of more than just a desire to hide his complicity. After all, the IG Report itself is much more ambivalent about the program's benefit to counterterrorism.

The IGs also examined the impact of PSP information on counterterrorism efforts. Many senior IC officials believe that the PSP filled a gap in intelligence collection thought to exist under the FISA statute shortly after the al-Qa'ida terrorist attacks against the United States. Others within the IC, including FBI agents, CIA analysts and officers, and other officials had difficulty evaluating the precise contribution of the PSP to counterterrorism efforts because it was most often viewed as one source among many available analytic and intelligence-gathering tools in these efforts.

And much closer to home for Brennan, here's a telling detail about how the NCTC developed its threat assessments.

NCTC analysts involved in preparing the threat assessments told the ODNI OIG that only a portion of the PSP information was ever used in the ODNI threat assessments because other intelligence sources were available that provided more timely or detailed information about the al-Qaida threat to the United States. [my emphasis]

That is, the analysts who worked with Brennan at NCTC found that this surveillance program wasn't the best source of information on terrorist threats out there. Never mind, though, because Brennan was going to convince Obama to keep it anyway.

The centrality of Brennan in not just this program, but in the NCTC's collection and dissemination of information on threats--including those threats purportedly presented by US persons--is troublesome for another reason. A few weeks ago, peace activists in the Tacoma, WA area exposed a member of Fort Lewis' Force Protection Service who had infiltrated their groups and gained access to the list-serve they used to communicate with members via email. That information, collected by a military employee or contractor, was shared with the national network of agencies of which NCTC forms the core.

He admitted that he did pass on information to an intelligence network, which, as you mentioned earlier, was composed of dozens of law enforcement agencies, ranging from municipal to county to state to regional, and several federal agencies, including Immigration Customs Enforcement, Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, Homeland Security, the Army in Fort Lewis.

This is not supposed to happen. It's not supposed to happen because Posse Comitatus should prevent the military from this kind of domestic spying (though it is, after all, what NSA is doing as well). And it's not supposed to happen because Congress mandated that this kind of information sharing only take place after consultation with a Privacy and Civil Liberties Review Board. And this consultation (or not) with a board is an area where Obama has continued Bush's disdain for civil liberties. Not only has President Obama, thus far, failed to nominate anyone to serve on that board. But his Administration recently removed all mention of the board from the White House website. The Obama Administration continues to push this kind of information sharing. But they have, literally, disappeared all concern for civil liberties.

Back when he persuaded candidate Obama to flip-flop on a key campaign promise, Brennan appears to have oversold the benefits of the program (according to the IG Report). More importantly, when Obama flip-flopped, he promised to build more protections for civil liberties. Right now, he's not even fulfilling what Congress has mandated.

Glenn was right, last year, to oppose John Brennan for CIA Director. But in his current role as Deputy National Security Advisor, Brennan has not only sustained the Bush's domestic wiretap program, but he seems to be pushing a homeland security strategy that completely ignores civil liberties protections while constructing this massive, abusive -- and not terribly effective -- network of spying on American citizens.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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