President Obama's choice for CIA director, John Brennan, who is currently deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, speaks at the White House in Washington on Jan. 7. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — John Brennan was headed for the priesthood when, while sitting idly on a bus as a student at Fordham University in the 1970s, he stumbled on a recruiting ad for the CIA. Now, after years of poring through intelligence, trekking with Mideast tribesmen and overseeing some of America's most controversial and lethal counterterror missions, he's pursuing a calling with just as much responsibility and arguably a lot more stress as the nation's top spy.
It's the second time that Brennan has made a run for the job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The stern-looking man who nonetheless salted a few wry quips into his brief comments Monday at the White House pulled himself out of consideration in 2008 after being accused of supporting a terrorist interrogation program that critics called a form of torture. Within weeks, however, President Obama ensconced Brennan as his top homeland security and counterterror adviser, giving the veteran intelligence officer a far broader portfolio — and grasp of power — than he would have had at the CIA.
Now, the White House says Brennan has since helped end the harsh programs, and wants to send him back to Langley, Va., where the CIA is headquartered outside Washington.
"Leading the agency in which I served for 25 years would be the greatest privilege as well as the greatest responsibility of my professional life," Brennan, 57, said in accepting the nomination. He promised to make the agency's highly secretive programs as transparent as possible, without risking security, to preserve public trust in spy games.
He also offered a "shout-out" to his wife, Kathy, his son and two daughters and his parents, whom he thanked for being patient and supportive throughout his years of constant work. "I think I am going to need it for a little bit longer," Brennan said.
Until recently, it was not clear that Brennan even wanted the job. He previously had told friends and colleagues that he was eyeing retirement at the end of Obama's first term, during which he spent chasing down crises and overseeing strategy on such issues as drone strikes in Pakistan to the thwarted attack by so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to rampant U.S. mass shootings to the federal response to Superstorm Sandy.
He also has been dubbed the unofficial ambassador to Yemen for his frequent interplay with Sana'a over rehabilitating detainees from the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay and, more urgently, burgeoning threats from local al-Qaida militants.
Obama called Brennan, who advised his 2008 presidential campaign, "one of my closest advisors" and "a great friend" whom he credited with hobbling al-Qaida and terror threats to the U.S. "He is one of the hardest-working public servants I've ever seen," Obama said. "I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
Despite his steady-as-she-goes assiduousness, Brennan has not shied from scrapping with Congress, and in February 2010 chastised "too many in Washington" for letting politics get in the way of national security. Though it's believed he'll be easily confirmed, he will face pointed questioning in the Senate about the U.S. drone program that has resulted in some civilian deaths and strained diplomacy in its pursuit of militants in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
He'll also be needled about the interrogation program that kept Brennan from heading the CIA four years ago. Brennan served in two top CIA positions and built the National Counterterrorism Center in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, but since has disavowed at least some of the agency's interrogation methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning. When he withdrew his name from consideration in 2008 to avoid a messy Senate confirmation fight, Brennan said he was not involved with the decision-making process about the program or other controversial methods of curbing terrorism, including renditions — spiriting foreign suspects to nations where there are no or few laws preventing harsh interrogations.
However, a year earlier when he was a private national security consultant to CBS News, where he worked after briefly retiring from the government in 2005, Brennan said the interrogations program "has saved lives" because they yielded information from "the real hard-core terrorists ... hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11."
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said he predicted the interrogation issue would not be a matter of debate since Brennan helped end the program while at the White House. But Republican Sen. John McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said Monday he plans to resurrect the matter during confirmation.
"I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs," McCain said in a statement.
Senate Intelligence chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, whose committee will hold hearings to consider Brennan's nomination, said she too will pursue answers about the interrogations program, which was adopted shortly after 9/11 during the administration of President George W. Bush. But she made clear that Brennan will sail through confirmation: "I believe he will be a strong and positive director," Feinstein said in a statement.
The hearings also will give senators a chance to shed new light on a program that Brennan has strongly endorsed: the targeted attacks on militant hideouts overseas by drones, or unmanned spy planes.
Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the drone program, which he termed last April "legal," "ethical" and "wise" despite the civilian casualties. He has described himself as fully committed to upholding moral and legal avenues to combatting terrorism and making the strategies for doing so as public as possible. Experts believed the U.S. has more than quadrupled the number of drone strikes since Obama took over from Bush.
Additionally, Brennan is expected to be asked about alleged Obama administration leaks of classified information to reporters, which is under Justice Department investigation.
If confirmed, he would return to the CIA, where he worked for 25 years, including a stint as station chief in Saudi Arabia and as President Bill Clinton's daily intelligence briefer, to bolster an agency that has been somewhat sidelined by intelligence reforms following 9/11 and the sudden November resignation of former director Gen. David Petraeus, who left after admitting to an affair with his biographer.
CIA officers and other intelligence officials "need and deserve the support of all of their fellow Americans, especially at a time of such tremendous national security challenges," Brennan said.