in northern New
Jersey on September 22, 1955, John Brennan earned
a B.A. in political science from Fordham University in 1977, and an M.A. in
government from the University of Texas at Austin in 1980. In his graduate
thesis (1980), Brennan denied the existence of “absolute human rights” and
argued in favor of censorship by the Egyptian dictatorship: “Since the press can
play such an influential role in determining the perceptions of the masses, I am
in favor of some degree of government censorship. Inflamatory [sic] articles can
provoke mass opposition and possible violence, especially in developing
Also in 1980, Brennan joined the CIA as an intelligence director, and in the '90s he served a stint as a daily intelligence briefer for President Bill Clinton. According to one former CIA official, Brennan in 1998 was “instrumental in preventing … an operation ... that would have killed or captured Osama bin Laden,” and instead advised the U.S. to “trust the Saudis to take care of” the al Qaeda leader.
In 1999, CIA director George Tenet appointed Brennan as his chief of staff. From March 2001 until 2003, Brennan served as the CIA's deputy executive director. In 2003-04 he headed the newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and in 2004-05 he directed the National Counterterrorism Center. In 2005 Brennan left government to become CEO of the Analysis Corporation, a Virginia company that supported the federal government's counterterrorism efforts. He also chaired the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
In a 2006 interview on C-SPAN, Brennan said: “It would be nice to be able to put Hizballah [Hezbollah] in a category of being totally evil, but Hezbollah as an organization is a very complex one that has terrorist arm to it. It has a social and political nature to it as well.”
When news of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping initiative made headlines in late 2005, Brennan defended the practice and maintained that the telecommunication companies participating in the program “should be granted ... immunity, because they were told to [participate] by the appropriate authorities that were operating in a legal context.” Brennan also supported “enhanced interrogation” techniques and described “extraordinary rendition” as “an absolutely vital tool” that “without a doubt has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.” in a 2007 interview with CBS News, Brennan stated that waterboarding in particular was a highly useful practice: “There has been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency [CIA] has, in fact, used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives.”
Brennan subsequently departed from these positions when he served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In a letter to Obama, for example, Brennan called himself “a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding.”
In a paper he published in July 2008, Brennan called on U.S. officials to "cease public Iran-bashing," and advised the U.S. to "tolerate, and even … encourage, greater assimilation of Hizballah into Lebanon's political system, a process that is subject to Iranian influence." Such political participation, he maintained, was an indication that Hizballah was turning away from terrorism:
"Not coincidentally, the evolution of Hizballah into a fully vested player in the Lebanese political system has been accompanied by a marked reduction in terrorist attacks carried out by the organization. The best hope for maintaining this trend and for reducing the influence of violent extremists within the organization—as well as the influence of extremist Iranian officials who view Hizballah primarily as a pawn of Tehran—is to increase Hizballah's stake in Lebanon's struggling democratic processes."In that same 2008 paper, Brennan endorsed direct political and diplomatic engagement with Iran despite its status as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. Writes terrorism expert Steven Emerson: "He [Brennan] minimized the threat of Iran's nuclear weapons program and blamed American rhetoric as 'brash labeling' for hardening Tehran's position toward the United States."
After Barack Obama's election victory in 2008, Brennan was widely regarded as the leading contender for the position of CIA director, but he withdrew his name from consideration when alalysts noted that his previous support of enhanced interrogation was inconsistent with Obama's stated opposition to the practice. In January 2009, Obama appointed Brennan as deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism—a post that, unlike CIA director, did not require Senate confirmation.
In August 2009 Brennan said that tactics like waterboarding were not only inconsistent with “our ideals as a nation,” but also “undermine our national security” because they “are a recruitment bonanza for terrorists, increase the determination of our enemies, and decrease the willingness of other nations to cooperate with us.” Further, Brennan detailed for the first time the Obama administration's decision to dispense with the term “global war on terror.” Emphasizing the need to target “extremists” rather than “jihadists,” he explained that “jihad” means "to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal.” The use of that term, Brennan elaborated, “risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.” Adding that it was vital “to confront the broader political, economic and social conditions in which extremists thrive,” Brennan called terrorism “the final murderous manifestation of a long process rooted in hopelessness, humiliation, and hatred.”
Also in August 2009, Brennan said he was “pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing ... terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.” “Hamas,” he added, had “started out as a very focused social organization that was providing welfare to Palestinians,” but eventually “developed an extremist and terrorist element” that “unfortunately delegitimized it in the eyes of many” and diminished the chances of the Palestinian people getting “what they truly deserve, which is a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.” Nation reporter Robert Dreyfuss, meanwhile, revealed that Brennan had once told him that (as Dreyfuss paraphrased): “talking to Hamas and Hezbollah is the right thing to do.”
On Christmas Day 2009, Nigerian al Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted, unsuccessfully, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight (from Amsterdam to Detroit) in midair with a powerful chemical bomb. In the aftermath of the incident, Brennan explained that the Obama administration would treat it as a law-enforcement matter rather than as an act of war or terrorism; that the perpetrator would be offered a plea agreement in exchange for information about al Qaeda operations in Yemen; and that if such an agreement could not be worked out, Abdulmutallab would be tried in a federal court rather than a military tribunal. When some commentators subsequently complained that Abdulmutallab’s name had never been added to the U.S. "no-fly" list even though his own father had warned CIA officials of his son's radicalization, Brennan claimed that their “politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering” would “only serve the goals of al-Qaeda.”
Brennan sought to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court as well, stating, in a February 2010 speech to Islamic law students at New York University, that “we need to bring him to justice in an American court”—a goal the Obama administration eventually abandoned, due to the plan's unpopularity with the public. Also during his NYU speech, Brennan referred to Jerusalem by its Arabic name, “Al-Quds”; stated that the 20% recidivism rate of former Guantanamo detainees “isn't that bad” when compared to criminal recidivism trends generally; asserted that "while poverty and lack of opportunity do not cause terrorism, it is obvious that the lack of education, of basic human services and hope for the future make vulnerable populations more susceptible to ideologies of violence and death"; and called Hezbollah “a very interesting organization” whose “more moderate elements” the U.S. should strive to “build up.”
Three months later, Brennan again said the Obama administration was trying to establish a positive relationship with “moderate elements” of Hezbollah.
Around the time of his NYU speech in 2010, Brennan met privately with the founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Salam al-Marayati, who views Hamas and Hezbollah as political and "educational" organizations that engage in "legitimate resistance." After the meeting, MPAC claimed credit for the Obama administration's decision to, as MPAC put it: "rejec[t] the label of 'jihadist' to describe terrorists, because it legitimates violent extremism with religious validation, a point MPAC made in its 2003 policy paper on counterterrorism."
When reporter Patrick Poole in September 2010 revealed that under Brennan's watch, a known, high-level Hamas official in the U.S. had received a guided tour of the top-secret National Counterterrorism Center and FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, several former intelligence and defense officials called for Brennan to resign.
On October 19, 2011, Farhana Khera, president and executive director of the organization Muslim Advocates, sent Brennan a letter charging that the FBI was a bigoted agency which kept "antiquated and offensive documents about Muslims and Islam" on its intranet, and that some of the Bureau's new recruits were taught "that Islam is a religion that 'transforms a country's culture into 7th-century Arabian ways.'" Within two weeks, Brennan capitulated to Khera's demand that the FBI eliminate its "offensive" curriculum/training materials; i.e., he called for a purge of materials that made reference to "jihad" and "radical Islam." In a written response to Khera, Brennan said:
"I am aware of the recent unfortunate incidents that have highlighted examples of substandard and offensive training that some United States Government elements have either sponsored or delivered. Any and all such training runs completely counter to our values, [and] our commitment to strong partnerships with communities across the country..."Brennan added that the Obama administration had already initiated a review of all FBI and Department of Homeland Security training materials on the subject of "countering violent extremism." He also assured Khera that the administration would do everything in its power to improve "cultural competency training across the United States Government," and to emphasize "cultural awareness."
On January 7, 2013, President Obama nominated Brennan for the position of CIA director. During his Senate confirmation hearing on February 7, 2013, he called waterboarding a “reprehensible” practice that “never should’ve taken place in my view.” “As far as I’m concerned, waterboarding is something that never should’ve been employed,” Brennan told Senator Carl Levin, “and, as far I’m concerned, never will be if I have anything to do with it.”
In February 2013, John Guandolo, a former Marine who subsequently worked eight years in the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division as a “subject matter expert” regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and the global spread of Islam, stated that Brennan had converted to Islam years earlier in Saudi Arabia. Said Guandolo:
“Mr. Brennan did convert to Islam when he served in an official capacity on the behalf of the United States in Saudi Arabia. That fact alone is not what is most disturbing. His conversion to Islam was the culmination of a counterintelligence operation against him to recruit him. The fact that foreign intelligence service operatives recruited Mr. Brennan when he was in a very sensitive and senior U.S. government position in a foreign country means that he either a traitor … [or] he has the inability to discern and understand how to walk in those kinds of environments, which makes him completely unfit to the be the director of Central Intelligence.... The facts of the matter are confirmed by U.S. government officials who were also in Saudi Arabia at the time that John Brennan was serving there and have direct knowledge. These are men who work in very trusted positions, they were direct witnesses to his growing relationship with the individuals who worked for the Saudi government and others and they witnessed his conversion to Islam."Brennan has publicly praised "the goodness and beauty of Islam," which he characterizes as "a faith of peace and tolerance." "The tremendous warmth of Islamic cultures and societies," he said in 2010, typically makes visitors from non-Muslim lands feel very "welcomed."
* During Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, three State Department workers—including one who also was employed by the Analysis Corporation, where Brennan was CEO—improperly accessed passport information pertaining to Obama, Hillary Clinton (Obama’s Democratic primary challenger), and Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Author Jerome Corsi suggested that Brennan might have played a role in “what many suspect was an effort to sanitize Obama’s passport records” (i.e., remove damaging information). In a similar vein, blogger Pamela Geller speculated that the State Department employees had “rifled through Clinton's and McCain's files to make it look as if it was all three, but it was Obama's passport records that they accessed.” In April 2008, while an investigation into these passport-related transgressions was ongoing, a key witness in the case was found murdered in his car.
* In August 2009, Scottish authorities released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi—the Libyan terrorist convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland—because he was said to be in the late stages of terminal prostate cancer. Describing the release as “unfortunate, inappropriate, and wrong,” Brennan publicly called for Megrahi's reimprisonment. But The Sunday Times subsequently obtained Obama administration documents which revealed that the White House had secretly told Scottish authorities that a compassionate release of the prisoner would be more palatable than his transfer to a Libyan prison.
* In April 2012 Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the CIA's drone-attack program targeting terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somolia, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. He described the strikes as being legal, ethical, necessary, and proportional.
* In a May 2012 teleconference, Brennan revealed some highly sensitive information that, in turn, was relayed to the press by one of the other parties to the call—Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House. This highly serious intelligence leak blew the cover of secrecy off of an active counterterrorism operation in which the British and Saudi intelligence agencies had successfully placed an operative deep inside al Qaeda's organization in the Arabian Peninsula. Consequently, the initiative had to be terminated immediately, enraging America's foreign intelligence allies.
* Also in May 2012, Judicial Watch reported that Brennan and other White House officials had met twice with Hollywood filmmakers during their production of a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to Patrick Poole, these meetings furnished the movie crews with “unparalleled access including the identity of a SEAL Team 6 operator and commander along with other classified information.” “Amazingly,” added Poole, “these high-level White House meetings between Brennan and the Hollywood filmmakers took place just weeks after the Pentagon and CIA had publicly warned of the dangers posed by leaks surrounding the successful SEAL raid killing bin Laden.”
 Brennan's prediction proved to be wholly inaccurate, as a February 2013 report by the Invesigative Project on Terrorism explained: "The record since then could not be further from Brennan's idealistic hopes.... A new report finds Hizballah, working with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is responsible for a wave of terrorist plots throughout the world."
 Brennan was introduced at NYU by Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.