No Comment — November 24, 2008, 10:08 pm

John Brennan for CIA? Think Again

Today at a press conference in Chicago Barack Obama introduced his economic team. The market reacted by giving the president-elect a big kiss, with the Dow closing up about 400 points. The team shaping up behind the new president will reassure many; whereas the Republicans spent the final weeks of the campaign charging that Obama was a “Marxist” who would take the country far to the left, his team so far is pretty much exactly what Obama promised—drawn from the right-center of the Democratic Party. But just as importantly, Obama has drawn on players who offer solid brainpower and a wealth of experience. President Bush surrounded himself with “team players” who were hesitant to challenge even the most persistently wrong-headed of the president’s notions. A few, such as Paul O’Neill, resigned after figuring this out. Colin Powell will probably long regret his failure to make a timely exit. But it’s already clear that we won’t witness this same dynamic in the Obama Administration. His team may be fractious, but it won’t include any toadies.

In the coming week, Obama is likely to focus on his national security team. The leading player appears to be Hillary Clinton, and Robert Gates will likely stay on at least for a year in the Pentagon. But the post which is drawing the most critical attention right now is Director of Central Intelligence. A number of names are now being circulated for this appointment: John McLaughlin, Jim Steinberg, Richard Danzig, Tim Roemer, Jane Harman, and John Brennan. But of this group, Brennan’s name is now the most prominent and he’s being described by some as “likely” to emerge as Obama’s pick for the job. That would be a serious mistake.

A Brennan nomination would draw heavy fire from some of Obama’s most loyal supporters. Indeed, there might well be enough concentrated firepower there defeat the nomination in the Senate. The problem isn’t John Brennan’s lack of credentials. He was a career intelligence operative who gets consistently strong marks for his effectiveness and intelligence from people who have worked with him. But he has a critical shortcoming: his completely ambiguous and inconsistent views about the CIA’s use of torture and torture by proxy as techniques. As a company man, Brennan was quick to justify and support what was done. As an “independent” analyst for broadcast journalists, he also provided support and cover for practices from waterboarding to the use of psychotropic drugs. As an adviser to the Obama campaign, Brennan experienced an unconvincing epiphany and came to reject President Bush’s “program” along the same lines as his boss. The timing and circumstances of Brennan’s conversion suggest that it was dictated by political expedience and not ethics.

No one is saying that the CIA has to play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules–no one is even saying that CIA operations have to square with the law around the world. No intelligence service does that. But CIA operations do have to respect the law of the United States, and specifically they have to respect the legal prohibition on torture that the Bush Administration spun so feverishly to avoid. President Obama has promised to put an end to torture. In the political geography of the Bush Administration, real torture was relegated to the dark quarters of the CIA. If Obama wants to convince the world of his commitment to end this national nightmare, then he must appoint a Director of Central Intelligence who can believed when he says “we do not torture.” Both of the last two directors made this statement and lied through their teeth.

About 200 of the nation’s leading psychologists have written President-Elect Obama protesting the possible nomination of John Brennan. The psychologists review Brennan’s public statements condoning or justifying torture and then they state:

In order to restore American credibility and the rule of law, our country needs a clear and decisive repudiation of the “dark side” at this crucial turning point in our history. We need officials to clearly and without ambivalence assert the rule of law. Mr. Brennan is not an appropriate choice to lead us in this direction. The country cannot afford to have him as director of our most important intelligence agencies.

As psychologists and other concerned Americans, we ask you to reject Mr. Brennan as Director of the CIA. His appointment would dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration. We ask you to appoint a Director who will truly represent “the change we need.”

The psychologists are right to be out front on this issue. They have seen the damage that torture brings—to the individuals subjected to it, to those who practice it, to the health care professionals drawn into it, and to our nation as a whole. John Brennan may find an important role serving in a new administration. But he is morally unfit to serve as the Director of Central Intelligence.

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