Former CIA official John Brennan, once considered the top choice to serve as CIA director in President-elect Barack Obama's administration, was pressured by the Obama transition team to pull his name from consideration, according to friends and former intelligence associates.
Brennan's withdrawal, offered in a Nov. 25 letter to Obama, came after liberal bloggers mounted an opposition campaign against his possible appointment. They said he was tainted by his service in the CIA at a time when the agency was employing coercive interrogation methods, including "waterboarding," on detainees.
But friends and former colleagues of Brennan's say it's wrong to suggest he backed down in response to the bloggers' criticism. "John is not someone who walks away from a fight," said a longtime colleague, "and he wouldn't want anyone to think that."
These associates pin the blame for Brennan's withdrawal squarely on the Obama team. "They pulled the plug on him," said one former intelligence official. Brennan himself declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Obama transition team, asking to remain anonymous, denied that the Obama team abandoned Brennan. "The decision [to withdraw his name] was his," the spokesperson said.
Among Brennan's critics were 200 psychologists who signed a mass letter to Obama, saying Brennan's appointment to a senior intelligence position would "alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration." The psychologists cited Brennan's service as a senior CIA official under former agency Director George Tenet, who approved coercive interrogation methods, plus interviews Brennan gave in which he appeared to stop short of explicitly rejecting those methods.
In his letter to Obama, Brennan vigorously rejected the criticism, saying he was not involved "in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions." Brennan stated that he had actually opposed many Bush administration intelligence policies as well as the decision to go to war in Iraq, and he complained that his critics regarded such opposition as "immaterial."
Nevertheless, he withdrew his name. "The challenges ahead of our Nation are too daunting, and the role of the CIA too critical, for there to be any distraction from the vital work that lays ahead," he wrote.
Brennan's 25-year service in the CIA included stints as a station chief in Saudi Arabia, chief of staff to Tenet, and first director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He left the CIA in 2005. After Obama's victory in the presidential election, Brennan was one of the leaders of the intelligence transition team for the incoming administration.
In a statement released after Brennan requested that his name be withdrawn, Obama transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Brennan "has served our nation with honor and is a man of talent and integrity." She said the president-elect "accepts his decision to withdraw from consideration for a position in the intelligence community, but he is grateful for John's continuing assistance as a valuable member of our transition team."
Meanwhile, Brennan has continued to carry out transition responsibilities for the Obama team.
"Everyone here has a ton of respect for him," said the Obama transition spokesperson.