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Obama's Controversial CIA Pick Is the Best Man for the Job

John Brennan is the best nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency in a generation--alas. The best of a bad lot.

Brennan will be the agency’s eighth director in the past two decades. His immediate predecessors included hapless technocrats, a hopeless congressman, gung-ho generals -- and, lest we forget, Langley’s own Sir Lancelot, George Tenet. He sought the holy grail of Saddam Hussein’s secret arsenal and made the “slam dunk” case for the Iraq war: an intelligence failure ranking with Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks.

It’s been ages since a career CIA officer like Brennan has been chosen to lead the Agency. He did time in the overseas clandestine service, notably as a station chief in Saudi Arabia, where he went belly-to-belly with Iran’s spooks, and he served as an analyst and a top espiocrat at CIA headquarters. He has been Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser in the White House for the past four years. His resume as an American spy is long, varied, and distinguished.

His confirmation hearings, however, may be short, nasty, and brutish. In the few hours allowed him, he has some explaining to do – if Congress has the courage to ask the questions.

Did Brennan really oppose interrogation techniques tantamount to torture, including waterboarding, as he has claimed? As a CIA counterterrorism czar under President Bush, did he voice his moral and legal objections? Did he question the authority of his superiors out loud? Or did he simply agonize in silence? His hearing should be the right time to declassify key passages of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page report on what Senator John McCain has called “the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners” held by the CIA.  

Which does Brennan prefer: kidnapping terrorist suspects and tossing them in secret prisons, or killing them where they live in the wilds of Waziristan? By all accounts, he believes the latter is the lesser of two evils – and recent history shows he may be right. But he should answer in public.

What are the rules of engagement for targeted killings? It will no longer suffice to say that some smart lawyer in the White House Office of Legal Counsel has written a top-secret opinion stating that all’s fair in love and war. Brennan has been the White House air-traffic controller for the obliteration of hundreds of terrorists by drone aircraft. There is no question that American missiles have killed key members of al Qaeda. Nor is there doubt that they also have killed innocent civilians.

The CIA has become, in great part, a paramilitary organization providing tactical support to the Pentagon over the past decade. Military men, including David Petraeus, have run the show for most of the past six years. But by its charter, under law, the CIA is a civilian intelligence agency created to steal secrets abroad and inform the president about what’s going on in the world, to help him solve big strategic puzzles. Brennan should lead it back to that unique and vital role. The motto on the wall at CIA headquarters is: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” It’s not: “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.”  Brennan, despite his devotion to drones, should know which motto matters most.

Is murder a proper role for the CIA? The traditions of American intelligence say no. Killing people is a job for soldiers, not spies. Intelligence is the hard work of trying to know your enemy. It is not the dirty business of political murder. That is warfare, and war belongs to the Pentagon. Brennan should give them back their missiles.

Brennan has worked as a CIA analyst, and he should know better than anyone that analysts need to get out from behind their ergonometric desks in Virginia. The best of them should work overseas for the State Department, serving the American embassies in the nations they analyze. That requires more C.I.A. officers who speak Arabic – as Brennan does – and other hard languages. He should focus his analysts on coming battles requiring smart people more than smart bombs. Set them on a few hard questions – like how to end our last two cold-war conflicts, in Cuba and North Korea.

Having served in the CIA command structure, Brennan knows how bloated and bureaucratic the Agency can be. Langley hasn’t had anything approaching a major overhaul since the 1950s. If its analysts go to serve diplomats and American foreign policy, as they should, and its paramilitaries are seconded to the Pentagon, where they belong, then the CIA at headquarters can focus on its only unique mission – espionage.

The old cold-war structures of CIA oversight by Congress and a White House advisory panel are derelict. Brennan should create a new board of CIA overseers – people who have spent their lives running intelligence operations, building information technology systems, and creating corporate cover identities for spies – to report on life-and-death decisions facing American intelligence. Its vote would be required before the CIA submits requests for presidential approval of major covert actions, including lethal attacks abroad and other acts of war.

Brennan has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the CIA what its creators intended: a small, smart, sharply focused espionage organization providing the president with the best intelligence billions of dollars can buy. Let’s hope he succeeds. Because if intelligence fails us again, and we are hit with a third Pearl Harbor, get ready to kiss your cherished Constitutional liberties goodbye.

Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his work on American Intelligence. His most recent book is Enemies: A History of the FBI.