WASHINGTON — In his windowless White House office, presidential counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is compiling the rules for a war the Obama administration believes will far outlast its own time in office, whether that is just a few more months or four more years.
The “playbook,” as Brennan calls it, will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaida and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.
“What we’re trying to do right now is to have a set of standards, a set of criteria, and have a decision-making process that will govern our counterterrorism actions — we’re talking about direct action, lethal action — so that irrespective of the venue where they’re taking place, we have a high confidence that they’re being done for the right reasons in the right way,” Brennan said in a lengthy interview at the end of August.
A burly 25-year CIA veteran with a stern public demeanor, Brennan is the principal architect of a policy that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional fight centered in Afghanistan to a high-tech global effort to track down and eliminate perceived enemies one by one.
What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.
Four years ago, Brennan felt compelled to withdraw from consideration as President Barack Obama’s first CIA director because of what he regarded as unfair criticism of his role in counterterrorism practices as an intelligence official during the George W. Bush administration. Instead, he stepped into a job in the Obama administration with greater responsibility and influence.
Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency. Still, during Brennan’s tenure, the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and opened a new base for armed drones in the Arabian Peninsula.
Although he insists that all agencies have the opportunity to weigh in on decisions, making differing perspectives available to the Oval Office, Brennan wields enormous power in shaping decisions on “kill” lists and the allocation of armed drones, the war’s signature weapon.
When operations are proposed in Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, it is Brennan alone who takes the recommendations to Obama for a final sign-off.
As the war against al-Qaida and related groups moves to new locations and new threats, Brennan and other senior officials describe the playbook as an effort to constrain the deployment of drones by future administrations as much as it provides a framework for their expanded use in what has become the United States’ permanent war.
“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”
There is widespread agreement that Obama and Brennan, one of the president’s most trusted aides, are like-minded on counterterrorism policy.
“Ever since the first couple of months, I felt there was a real similarity of views that gave me a sense of comfort,” Brennan said. “I don’t think we’ve had a disagreement.”
But the concentration of power in one person, who is unelected and unconfirmed by Congress, does not sit well with critics.
To many in the international legal community and among human rights and civil liberties activists, Brennan runs a policy so secret that it is impossible for outsiders to judge whether it complies with the laws of war or U.S. values — or even determine the total number of people killed.
“Brennan says the administration is committed to ‘greater transparency,’ ” Human Rights Watch said in response to a speech he gave in May about drones. But despite “administration assertions that ‘innocent civilians’ have not been injured or killed, except in the ‘rarest of circumstances,’ there has been no clear accounting of civilian loss or opportunity to meaningfully examine the administration’s assertions.”
Although outsiders have criticized the policy itself, some inside the administration take issue with how Brennan has run it. One former senior counterterrorism official described Brennan as the “single point of failure” in the strategy, saying he controls too much and delegates too little.
A former top Defense Department official sounded a similar note. “He holds his cards incredibly close,” he said. “If I ask for the right one to be seen, he’ll show it to me. But he’s not going to show me everything he’s got in his hand.”
Michael E. Leiter, who headed the National Counterterrorism Center until mid-2011, described Brennan as a forceful leader and “a critical player in getting this president comfortable with the tools of the trade.”
Leiter said that he and Brennan “disagreed not infrequently” on fleeting issues, including interpretations of a piece of intelligence or how to respond to a specific threat. But there was one deeper dispute: Leiter said Brennan did not adequately address the root causes of radicalization, in part because of how Brennan defined his job.
Leiter was one of the few people who allowed his name to be used among the nearly dozen current and former senior national security officials interviewed for this article. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity under restrictions imposed by the administration or because they were not authorized to discuss certain issues.
For each of Brennan’s critics, there are many associates who use the words “moral compass” to describe his role in the White House. It is Brennan, they say, who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy.
Brennan’s bedrock belief in a “just war,” they said, is tempered by his deep knowledge of the Middle East, Islam and the CIA, and the critical thinking forged during a classic Jesuit education.
Some White House aides describe him as a nearly priest-like presence in their midst, with a moral depth leavened by a dry Irish wit.
One CIA colleague, former general counsel John Rizzo, recalled his rectitude surfacing in unexpected ways. Brennan once questioned Rizzo’s use of the “BCC” function in the agency’s e-mail system to send a blind copy of a message to a third party without the primary recipient’s knowledge.
“He wasn’t joking,” Rizzo said. “He regarded that as underhanded.”
Brennan, 57, was born in the gritty New Jersey town of North Bergen, across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. His Irish-immigrant parents, now in their early 90s, were strict and devout Catholics, traits his brother Tom said Brennan embodied from an early age. “It was almost like I had two fathers,” Tom Brennan said.
John Brennan’s formative experiences at Fordham University, where he earned a degree in political science, included a summer in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, and a junior year at the American University in Cairo, where he studied Arabic and the region that would dominate his intelligence career and greatly influence his White House tenure.
In 1980, soon after receiving a master’s degree in government from the University of Texas at Austin, Brennan answered a CIA recruitment ad in a newspaper. By the middle of the decade, he had spent two years in Saudi Arabia and was among the agency’s leading Middle Eastern analysts.
“He was probably the hardest-working human being I ever encountered,” said a former senior CIA official who worked for Brennan on the Middle East desk. Brennan, he said, was regarded as insightful, even imaginative, but had a seriousness that set him apart.
In 1999, after a second tour in Saudi Arabia as CIA station chief, he returned to headquarters as chief of staff for then-Director George J. Tenet. In 2001, he became deputy executive director, just months before a team of al-Qaida operatives — most of them from Saudi Arabia — used four hijacked U.S. airliners to kill nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11.
Brennan’s belief in his competence and probity has sometimes led to political blind spots. Tenet tapped him in 2003 to build the new CIA-based Terrorist Threat Integration Center to bridge pre-Sept. 11 intelligence gaps. But Brennan was bypassed by the Bush administration a year later for two key jobs — head of the National Counterterrorism Center and deputy to the new director of national intelligence — largely because of his criticism of the Iraq war.
As a private citizen after leaving government, Brennan spoke publicly about counterterrorism controversies of the day. He defended the CIA’s rendition of suspected terrorists as “an absolutely vital tool” but described waterboarding as within “the classic definition of torture.” Brennan also criticized the military as moving too far into traditional intelligence spheres.
His career in government appeared to be over until he was invited in late 2007 to join the nascent presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Although Obama and Brennan did not meet until after the election, their first conversation during the transition revealed profound harmony on issues of intelligence and what the president-elect called the “war against al-Qaida.”
But when Brennan’s name circulated as Obama’s choice to head the CIA, he again came under political fire — this time from liberals who accused him of complicity in the agency’s use of brutal interrogation measures under Bush. Spooked by the criticism, Obama quickly backtracked and Brennan withdrew.
“It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration such as preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding,” he wrote in an angry withdrawal letter released to the media.
Several former intelligence colleagues said that, although Brennan had criticized the CIA interrogation methods after he left the government, they could not recall him doing so as a senior executive at the agency.
Brennan was given responsibility in the White House for counterterrorism and homeland security, a position that required no Senate confirmation and had no well-defined duties. At the outset, colleagues said they wondered what his job would be.
But to a young administration new to the secret details of national security threats and responsibilities, Brennan was a godsend.
And for the man passed over for other posts, it was vindication. “I’ve been crucified by the left and the right, equally so,” and rejected by the Bush administration “because I was not seen as someone who was a team player,” Brennan said in the interview.
“I’m probably not a team player here, either,” he said of the Obama administration. “I tend to do what I think is right. But I find much more comfort, I guess, in the views and values of this president.”
Brennan and others on the inside found that Obama, hailed as a peacemaker by the left and criticized by the right as a naive pacifist, was willing to move far more aggressively than Bush against perceived extremists.
From the outset, Brennan expressed concern about the spread of al-Qaida beyond South Asia, particularly to Yemen, according to administration officials involved in the early talks.
U.S. counterterrorism policy had long been concentrated on Pakistan, where the Bush administration had launched sporadic CIA drone attacks against senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders. Within two years, Obama had more than tripled the number of strikes in Pakistan, from 36 in 2008 to 122 in 2010, according to the New America Foundation.
Eventually, Obama and Brennan decided the program was getting out of hand. High-value targets were becoming elusive, accusations of civilian deaths were rising, and strikes were increasingly directed toward what the angry Pakistanis called mere “foot soldiers.”
But with Pakistan’s adamant refusal to allow U.S. military operations on its soil, taking what was considered a highly successful program out of CIA hands was viewed as counterproductive and too complicated. Although CIA strikes in other countries and military strikes outside Afghanistan require Obama’s approval, the agency has standing permission to attack targets on an approved list in Pakistan without asking the White House.
Although the administration has “wrestled with” the Pakistan program, it was always considered an initiative of the previous administration, a senior official said. In Yemen, the Obama team began to build its own counterterrorism architecture.
The turning point came on Christmas Day in 2009, when a Nigerian trained by Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group, penetrated post-Sept. 11 defenses and nearly detonated a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.
In the wake of the failed attack, Brennan “got more into tactical issues,” said Leiter, the former NCTC head. “He dug into more operational stuff than he had before.”
Brennan made frequent visits to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, its closest neighbor and the dominant regional power. He used his longtime contacts in the region to cement a joint U.S.-Saudi policy that would ultimately — with the help of Yemen’s Arab Spring revolt — bring a more cooperative government to power. He often spoke of the need to address “upstream” problems of poverty and poor governance that led to “downstream” radicalization, and pushed for economic aid to buttress a growing military and intelligence presence.
Yemen quickly became the place where the United States would “get ahead of the curve” on terrorism that had become so difficult to round in Pakistan, one official said. As intelligence and military training programs were expanded, the military attacked AQAP targets in Yemen and neighboring Somalia using both fixed-wing aircraft and drones launched from a base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.
Despite Brennan’s professed dismay at the transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary entity with killing authority, the agency was authorized to operate its own armed aircraft out of a new base in the Arabian Peninsula.
Beginning in 2011, discussions on targeting, strikes and intelligence that had been coordinated by a committee set up by Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were gradually drawn into the White House under Brennan, who, according to several accounts, struggled to pare back increasingly expansive target lists in Yemen. At one meeting last year, one senior official said, Obama weighed in to warn that Yemen was not Afghanistan, and that “we are not going to war in Yemen.”
Today, Brennan said, “there are aspects of the Yemen program that I think are a true model of what I think the U.S. counterterrorism community should be doing” as it tracks the spread of al-Qaida allies across Northern Africa.
As targets move to different locations, and new threats “to U.S. interests and to U.S. persons and property” are identified in Africa and elsewhere, Brennan described a step-by-step program of escalation. “First and foremost, I would want to work through local authorities and see whether or not we can provide them the intelligence, and maybe even give them some enhanced capability, to take action to bring that person to justice,” he said.
For those governments that are “unwilling or unable” to act, he said, “then we have an obligation as a government to protect our people, and if we need then to take action ourselves . . . we look at what those options are as well.”
In late August, Brennan said he saw no need “to go forward with some kind of kinetic action in places like Mali,” where al-Qaida allies have seized control of a broad swath of territory. Since then, Brennan and other officials have begun to compare the situation in Mali to Somalia, where drone and other air attacks have supplemented a U.S.-backed African military force.
Where Obama and Brennan envision a standardized counterterrorism program bound by domestic and international law, some others see a secretive killing machine of questionable legality and limitless expansion.
Many civil libertarians and human rights experts disdain claims by Brennan and others that the drone program has become increasingly transparent, noting that the administration has yet to provide even minimal details about targeting decisions or to take responsibility for the vast majority of attacks.
“For more than two years, senior officials have been making claims about the program both on the record and off. They’ve claimed that the program is effective, lawful and closely supervised,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said last month in appealing repeated court refusals to force the administration to release more information.
Some critics have described it as immoral, rejecting the administration’s claims that few civilians have been among the nearly 3,000 people estimated to have been killed in drone attacks. There is ample evidence in Pakistan that the more than 300 strikes launched under Obama have helped turn the vast majority of the population vehemently against the United States.
None of the United States’ chief allies has publicly supported the targeted killings; many of them privately question the administration’s claim that it comports with international law and worry about the precedent it sets for others who inevitably will acquire the same technology.
To the extent that it aspires to make the program’s standards and processes more visible, the playbook has been a source of friction inside the administration. “Other than the State Department, there are not a lot of advocates for transparency,” one official said. Some officials expressed concern that the playbook has become a “default” option for counterterrorism.
The CIA, which declined to comment for this article, is said to oppose codifying procedures that might lock it into roles it cannot expand or maneuver around in the future. Directors at most national security agencies agree on targeting rules that are already in place, an official close to Brennan said. But “when it’s written down on paper, institutions may look at it in a different way.”
The CIA, which is preparing a proposal to increase its drone fleet, considers Brennan “a rein, a constrainer. He is using his intimate knowledge of intelligence and the process to pick apart their arguments that might be expansionary,” a senior official outside the White House said.
Two administration officials said that CIA drones were responsible for two of the most controversial attacks in Yemen in 2011 — one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and a second a few days later that killed his 16-year-old son, also an American citizen. One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.”
Both operations remain secret and unacknowledged, because of what officials said were covert-action rules that tied their hands when it came to providing information.
Some intelligence officials said Brennan has made little substantive effort to shift more responsibility to the military. But Brennan and others described a future in which the CIA is eased out of the clandestine-killing business, and said the process will become more transparent under Defense Department oversight and disclosure rules.
“Deniable missions” are not the military norm, one official said.
Said Brennan: “I think the president always needs the ability to do things under his chief executive powers and authorities, to include covert action.” But, he added, “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that.”
One official said that “for a guy whose reputation is focused on how tough he is on counterterrorism,” Brennan is “more focused than anybody in the government on the legal, ethical and transparency questions associated with all this.” By drawing so much decision-making directly into his own office, said another, he has “forced a much better process at the CIA and the Defense Department.”
Even if Obama is reelected, Brennan may not stay for another term. That means someone else is likely to be interpreting his playbook.
“Do I want this system to last forever?” a senior official said. “No. Do I think it’s the best system for now? Yes.”
“What is scary,” he concluded, “is the apparatus set up without John to run it.”
Greg Miller and Julie Tate contributed to this report.