Looking back on his youth, John O. Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, recalls having been an earring-wearing, at least one-time hashish-smoking rebel who in the 1976 election cast a ballot for the Communist Party’s presidential candidate — a protest vote spurred by his disgust at “the partisan politics of both the Democrats and the Republicans,” he writes in his memoir, “Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad.” A few years later, when he applied for a job at the C.I.A., Brennan confessed this vote but was assured that it would not affect his application — a response “affirming my rights as a citizen” that “dispelled any concerns I had about joining an organization that had been routinely accused over the years of flouting American values and liberties.” Brennan had found his own group: the permanent national security bureaucracy that President Trump would someday portray as an evil “deep state.”
Before Donald Trump’s rise, Brennan had been something of a nomadic public figure in polarized America. At the start of the Obama administration, many liberals viewed him with suspicion because he had been a C.I.A. official during the time of the agency’s post-9/11 torture program, although he was not directly involved and has long maintained that he opposed it; his book for the first time publicly names three officials to whom he says he expressed concerns in 2002. Brennan went on to oversee President Obama’s drone strikes targeting terrorism suspects in non-battlefield zones, and publicly claimed in June 2011 that they had caused no civilian casualties over that past year; Brennan writes that he stands by that claim without addressing the reasons many were skeptical: For example, a high-profile March 2011 strike appears to have killed Pakistani tribal elders who had gathered to discuss a chromite mining dispute.
But Republicans have viewed Brennan with suspicion, too. He recounts making enemies in the George W. Bush White House in 2006, during a brief period in the private sector, by writing an op-ed that criticized the president’s hyping of purported links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; while he never published it, the Bush White House found out about the draft and blocked him from becoming deputy C.I.A. director. That seeming career setback cleared the way for him to become an even more senior official in the Obama administration, during which he often hit back when he thought Republican lawmakers were politicizing national security matters for partisan gain.
Brennan’s pugnacious personality hasn’t changed since 2017, when he left the C.I.A., but political conditions have. He has lashed into Trump for disparaging the intelligence community and suggested that the president did collude with Russia. Even as some Democrats came to see him as a #Resistance hero, the White House in August 2018 accused him of leveraging his experience and access to information to make unfounded accusations and declared that Trump had revoked Brennan’s security clearance. This was false, he writes — there was no legal basis to strip his clearance and he still has it today. Nevertheless, Trump did apparently instruct the executive branch not to share any classified information with him, and the C.I.A. even denied his request to review his own records as he worked on his memoir, despite having routinely permitted other former directors to do so.
Brennan’s memoir presents a rich portrait of his unusual life, which took him from a working-class New Jersey neighborhood to a position as a Middle East specialist who met with kings and presidents and witnessed the rise of Al Qaeda. But as a reporter who has spent much of the last two decades writing about counterterrorism matters in which Brennan played an important role, I recognized the virtual absence of certain topics — like his significant support, both internally and in public, for using traditional civilian courts rather than Guantánamo’s dysfunctional military commissions system to prosecute terrorism suspects, a topic that led to a great deal of partisan demagoguery during the Obama years. One wonders if his inability to use his files to refresh his memory resulted in such holes.
Still, memoirs by former national security officials always exhibit a certain Swiss cheese quality because so much about their professional experiences remains classified. Brennan sometimes writes around that problem, as when he invents a hypothetical briefing to President Obama about whether to approve a drone strike. And he takes advantage of the large amounts of information that has been declassified about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound to produce a dramatic chapter on that episode. This is now an oft-told tale, but he adds fresh details, like his firsthand account of his call to a Saudi official who declined to take custody of the Qaeda leader’s corpse for burial.
Nevertheless, much else surely remains submerged, as is suggested by a few episodes that involve publicly known but technically still classified information. Regarding a debate over whether to arm Syrian rebels, Brennan writes that he is “unable to address many important aspects and details of U.S. policy toward Syria during the Obama administration because they remain highly classified.” One thing he omits is that, as has been widely reported, the C.I.A. covertly funneled arms to certain rebels. And discussing his conversations with a since-assassinated Yemeni president about what he vaguely refers to as “gaining Yemeni government support for U.S. counterterrorism actions,” Brennan provides a vivid description of the leader — a diminutive, mafia don-like figure with restless leg syndrome — but leaves out the substance of the deal they cut. Leaked diplomatic cables revealed that it permitted strikes on Yemeni soil, so long as the Americans did not publicly acknowledge it.
Brennan also has personal blind spots. He dismisses a 2014 call by two Senate Democrats for him to resign as “life in the highly partisan waters of Washington.” The context was that the C.I.A. had objected to findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee about the agency’s defunct torture program, but then it turned out that the Senate had obtained an internal C.I.A. review that instead supported those findings; furious, the agency responded by treating Senate staffers like spies, searching their computers and making a criminal referral to the Justice Department.
Brennan suggests the Democratic lawmakers really just wanted to score political points against the Bush administration officials who authorized the torture program. But the Senate report made those Republicans look better because one of its key disputed findings was that the C.I.A. had lied to them to win and maintain that authorization — so, fair or not, the senators’ criticism was not partisan.
But even if Brennan’s narrative often cannot stand alone as a one-stop-shopping account of the events it covers, his own reflections on his long and momentous career are a worthy addition to the available history of the post-9/11 era. And his high-profile criticism of Trump since leaving the agency, along with the backlash that has provoked, has only added to his consequential public life. “Undaunted” opens and closes with scathing discussions of Trump. There can be little doubt whom the book’s subtitle, with its reference to fighting America’s enemies “at home,” is pointing to.
“I have received many welcome words of encouragement from friends and strangers alike to continue with my public commentary,” he writes. “If, after 33 years of public service, I also must endure a steady stream of derisive and offensive comments, false allegations and physical threats from those who are upset with me, so be it. It is a path I have freely and willingly chosen. I remain undaunted.”
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