THE SPINE MAY 20, 2010
The dispatch is from Reuters. And the dateline is Wonderland.
Flush with success in turning Iran away from nukes and Syria away from Tehran, the administration seems to be setting its sights on turning Hezbollah away from Hezbollah.
If this is truly the goal of the administration, look for an another spectacular humiliation. No, worse: It will be a spectacular self-abasement. After all, there’s no evidence that the Lebanese terror fraternity is looking to become mild and modest. Actually, it’s mostly an idea in the head of John Brennan, the president’s chief aide on terrorism and homeland security. Pudding-headed notions go far in today’s Washington. So, hey, why shouldn’t he try? Obama himself is trying a less daring experiment, to turn Islam towards the West ... or, rather, the West towards Islam. Or whatever.
But, if Brennan really wants to be helpful, why doesn’t he figure out how Faisal Shahzad got on an Emirates flight bound for Dubai even though his very name—not just a description—had been on a drastic alert list for hours.
What does this have to do with John Brennan, aside from the fact that the man happens to be the president’s counselor on such matters?
Plenty! More than you imagine, unless you read the news when he was appointed or Eli Lake’s detailed report that dealt with other matters. And then there are the fashionable questions, such as whether Brennan did or did not support rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He did.
And why not? After all, Saudi Arabia, where Brennan had spent three years as CIA station chief and a later term in the American embassy there, tortures galore without any finicky objections from the Jeddah Civil Liberties Union. During the campaign and afterwards, Obama made a big to-do about torture. But not about Brennan’s torture counseling during the Bush administration. The president initially wanted him as head of the Agency but really couldn’t go that far. So he gave him the White House post, maybe because he thought him indispensable. How could someone whose career was intimately intertwined with George Tenet’s—you do remember him, don’t you?—be anything other than indispensable!
But back to the watchlist.
Not the Shahzad watchlist, which didn’t work anyway. This is about the watchlist that didn’t exist, the one for the 23-year old pampered Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who got his explosives mixed up in his underwear on Christmas morning. After Janet Napolitano told us that everything was swell and the Justice Department read the young man his Miranda rights (of which he promptly availed himself), Obama promised a “thorough review” of the watchlist system. A thorough review, indeed.
Or, as Laura Rozen and Carol E. Lee put it in Politico on December 30, 2009:
President Barack Obama promised a “thorough review” of the government’s terrorist watch list system after a Nigerian man reported to U.S. government officials by his father to have radicalized and gone missing last month was allowed to board a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit that he later allegedly tried to blow up without any additional security screening.
Yet the individual Obama has chosen to lead the review, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, served for 35 years in the CIA, helped design the current watch list system and served as interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center, whose role is under review.
In the three years before joining the Obama administration, Brennan was president and CEO of The Analysis Corp., an intelligence contracting firm that worked closely with the National Counterterrorism Center and other U.S. government intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies on developing terrorism watch lists.
“Each and every day, TAC makes important contributions in the counterterrorism (CT) and national security realm by supporting national watchlisting activities as well as other CT requirements,” the company’s website states.
According to financial disclosures forms released by the White House, Brennan served as president and CEO of TAC from November 2005 until January 2009, when Obama named him to the White House terrorism and homeland security job. The disclosures show that Brennan reported earning a $783,000 annual salary from The Analysis Corp. in 2008.
The forms also show that Brennan sat on the board of directors for TAC’s parent company, Global Strategic Group, from August 2007 until January 2009. Brennan’s ties to the system he is now charged with reviewing could raise questions about the independence of Obama’s review. One former senior intelligence official told POLITICO it is “unsavory to see Obama put Brennan in charge of a review of this matter, since it is possible that NCTC or TAC could have failed in their responsibilities.”
Senior administration officials said that for the past few days, the White House’s legal and ethics counsel has been reviewing Brennan’s ties and determined that given Brennan’s knowledge of and experience with the intelligence community, any conflict was outweighed by the need for Brennan’s expertise on the issue.
“By virtue of his experience, John brings a unique mixture of know-how and understanding to this assignment,” said Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff. “The applicable ethics rules recognize that when the public interest outweighs other issues, an official should be authorized to proceed with an assignment, particularly in the national security arena. Our counsel have determined that to be the case here and have authorized John to proceed — with the understanding that others will review specific issues relating to TAC should any arise.”
If a scenario arises where Brennan has to deal with an issue concerning TAC, White House officials said that someone else involved in the interagency review without those ties will handle it. The officials said that at this point no one outside the government is involved in the review.
The White House has posted a blog item written by Norm Eisen, special counsel for ethics and government reform, noting the ethics waiver for Brennan and explaining why Obama believes he is the right person to head this review and how its legal counsel determined that it was in the public’s interest.
“Nobody had any hesitation on this one,” one official said.
A career CIA official, Brennan served as chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Tenet assigned Brennan with setting up and heading the Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC), which was intended to integrate U.S. terror threat intelligence from multiple agencies and the FBI — to “connect the dots,” as officials and pundits then ubiquitously put it.
The TTIC evolved into the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004, and Brennan briefly served as its interim director. In 2005, Brennan left the U.S. government to become the president and CEO of The Analysis Corp., which, according to company literature and former intelligence officials, had the major contract to maintain terrorism watch lists with the U.S. government.
“Brennan took with him to [The Analysis Corp.] the management of the database system he had created at NCTC,” the former intelligence official said.
Additionally, one of TAC’s biggest customers is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which manages NCTC, Tim Shorrock reported earlier this year on a website associated with his book on intelligence contractors, “Spies for Hire.”
Not all observers see Brennan’s experience as problematic. Indeed, such experience is precisely why the White House thought Brennan could provide a useful critique of counterterrorism policies and programs in the job.
Another former top CIA official, who insisted on anonymity, said excluding Brennan from the process would be foolish. “That would be just silly. He did first set up the TTIC and the NCTC, but he left at a point where it was just meeting the runway,” the ex-official said. “It’s been under different leadership now for years. John successfully started it.”
Asked if Brennan might have a conflict of interest or an interest in defending the existing watch list, the ex-official said, “I don’t think he can be viewed that way. He’s a very solid guy. People might say that, but it would be kind of goofy. He’s the right guy to do it. No one works harder or is more conscientious than John Brennan.”
Brennan, who advised Obama on intelligence and national security issues during the campaign, is not a stranger to controversy. Initially he was the leading candidate to be Obama’s CIA director. But he withdrew his name from consideration in November 2008 after critics on the left assailed his ties to controversial interrogation policies under Tenet and the Bush administration.
At the time, Brennan wrote to Obama, pointing out that he was “strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration,” including harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
“The fact that I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored,” Brennan wrote.
Later in the day, Rozen added more information on her blog:
The White House is standing by President Obama’s pick to conduct his watch list review, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, though he served as interim director of one intel agency under review and, more recently, served as president and CEO of a company on contract with the NCTC to do watch-listing, POLITICO’s Carol E. Lee and I report in a story today.
In a letter to Obama Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she thought the NCTC’s standard for when to add a person like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to the no-fly list was too restrictive. “It is clear that the U.S. Government was warned of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s radicalization more than a month before he flew from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit,” Feinstein wrote. “Yet apparently no action was taken other than to put Mr. Abdulmutallab in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). .... I understand that no such action was taken because of a policy, established in 2008 and remaining in place today, that limits the circumstances under which the government adds an individual to the watchlist.”
“I believe the 2008 standard is too restrictive and should be changed,” she wrote. “The U.S. Government should watchlist, and deny visas to, anyone who is reasonably believed to be affiliated with, part of, or acting on behalf of a terrorist organization.”
And from the Washington Times:
The White House official leading the interagency review into the U.S. terrorist watch list system that contributed to a near-catastrophe on Christmas Day used to head a company that provides critical analysis to those who create the watch list.
John Brennan, President Obama’s special assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, is expected to report to the president Thursday on how the national system for detecting and preventing terrorist attacks failed to prevent a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a Northwest Airlines plane in Amsterdam with a military-grade explosive sewed into the crotch of his underwear. Passengers subdued the would-be terrorist after he failed to set off his bomb.
Mr. Brennan served between November 2005 and January 2009 as the chief executive officer of what was then known as the Analysis Corp., a contractor that provides intelligence analysis used in developing the watch-list system.
And who is going to review the new failed watchlist? John Brennan. Who else? Who is better qualified? Having been in on the unbelievably ineffective watchlist business, privately and in government, since just about 9/11 and before, Brennan seems just right for the job.
Unless, of course, he is switched to some actual foreign policy position in which he can pursue his Hezbollah fantasy.
I very much suspect that there is a Saudi angle here also. The kingdom paid for the present arrangement in Beirut and got very little for it. The ascendancy of the Shi’a, in general, and the Shi’a terror encampment, in particular, would not seem to be in the interests of Riyadh. Nor are the abject terms of the dominion of Bashar Assad over Saad Hariri, who began by placing the assassination of his father in Assad’s hands and ended up kissing them. Well, the Saudis are always very realistic, realistic according to their mercenary calculations. It would make sense that they should try to find a foothold in Hezbollah, and what better way to do it than through an American client? I don’t mean Obama. I mean Brennan.
Of course, the president tried a similar gambit with Syria and lured several wise folks into the campaign, including Senator Kerry, who, I very much suspect, knows better. As it happens, there is now a movement afoot in the Senate—and not just among the Republicans—not to confirm any ambassador to Syria. I hope it succeeds.
What won’t succeed is Brennan’s hare-brained idea to convert Hezbollah elements to nice boys and girls:
“Hezbollah is a very interesting organization.”
This is undeniable.
“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing…”
Is Brennan also illiterate?
“And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and try to build up the more moderate element.”
Go at it, John. And, please, leave the watchlist to someone else.