- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

If terrorists threaten Americans or plot to crash the nation’s cyber infrastructure, President Obama’s first phone call will almost certainly be to John O. Brennan.

A multilingual CIA veteran from New Jersey who shares the president’s love for basketball, Mr. Brennan is Mr. Obama’s envoy to what former Vice President Dick Cheney called the “dark side”: the community of analysts, operators and intelligence managers who work with allied security services to disrupt terror networks.

The job — officially known as homeland security adviser and deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism — is in part a consolation prize for being passed over as director of the CIA.

As the CIA’s deputy for management, Mr. Brennan played no role in developing the interrogation program that included the waterboarding of three suspected al Qaeda leaders, said John McLaughlin, CIA deputy director at the time.

“His duties at the time did not include that issue,” Mr. McLaughlin told The Washington Times.

Still, the incoming Obama administration’s sensitivity about the torture subject appears to have led to the decision to give Mr. Brennan a job that requires no Senate confirmation.

Given a complicated bureaucratic structure in which a director of national intelligence now outranks the CIA director, Mr. Brennan may wind up being more influential inside the White House than outside.

Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said Mr. Obama meets with Mr. Brennan before any major intelligence briefing.

“The fact is the president seeks John’s views and reactions to every terrorism and homeland security issue,” Mr. McDonough told The Times. “There is no question about that.”

A native of North Bergen, N.J., Mr. Brennan grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood that prepared him for encountering different cultures abroad.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who grew up a few blocks from Mr. Brennan and whose father sold the Brennans their home, said, “No matter where we were in the world, we could always pronounce people’s names because all these guys were in our public school classes.”

Even though they share a hometown, the two did not meet until the late 1990s when Mr. Brennan served as the CIA station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mr. Freeh was investigating the 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force housing facility known as Khobar Towers.

Mr. Freeh said he would at times have to wait until 3 or 4 in the morning for meetings with high-ranking Saudis and in each of these cases, Mr. Brennan would wait with him.

“He had a good sense of humor,” Mr. Freeh said. “The agents we posted there, they had a lot of respect for him. They would also tell you he was a good guy.” Mr. Freeh noted that it is high praise for an FBI agent about someone in the CIA.

Mr. Brennan, a fluent Arabic speaker, first visited the Middle East in 1975, spending two semesters at the American University in Cairo.

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