Inside the Ring: CIA director battle

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Pentagon intelligence official Michael Vickers and National Security Council counterterrorism adviser John Brennan are being looked at by President Obama as top candidates to head the CIA.

Both officials have their detractors. Mr. Vickers, currently undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was brought in to the Pentagon by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and opposed the troop surge in Iraq.

Mr. Vickers angered conservatives after an article in 2007 in The Washington Post praised him as the “principal strategist” for the CIA covert operation to arm Afghan rebels in the 1970s, and he was inaccurately portrayed in a 2003 book and 2007 movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as a leading figure in what was portrayed as CIA success in the Afghan program.

Former Reagan administration officials said the CIA vehemently opposed the covert program to send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghans and was overruled. The missiles helped defeat the Soviets and began the unraveling of the entire Soviet empire.

The now-deceased Fred Ikle, a key Pentagon policymaker in the Reagan administration, criticized the movie and said the CIA initially fought against sending Stingers, while Mr. Wilson, a former Democratic congressman from Texas who died in 2010, was lukewarm.

John Brennan, President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, speaks with The Associated Press during an interview in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, speaks with The Associated Press ... more >

“Senior people in the Reagan administration, the president, [CIA Director] Bill Casey, [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger and their aides deserve credit for the successful Afghan covert-action program, not just Charlie Wilson,” Mr. Ikle said in 2007.

Mr. Vickers also has no fans among many special-operations commandos and policy officials for his handling of covert operations while assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, his previous Pentagon position. He was criticized by military special operators for favoring intelligence methods over aggressive commando activities that might have found Osama bin Laden years earlier.

Mr. Brennan, a career CIA analyst, has been major target of some national-security specialists who say he is the mastermind behind the Obama administration policy of playing down the Islamist nature of terrorism.

It was Mr. Brennan, these critics say, who has tried to banish the term “Islamist terror” from being used by the administration. Instead, Mr. Brennan has directed that Islamic jihad, or holy war, be referred to as the more politically correct term “violent extremism.” That in turn has led to the administration’s embarrassment of calling the Fort Hood terrorist attack “workplace violence.”

The failure to identify the Islamic nature of the war on terrorism has led to confusion over the nature of the enemy, and limited strategic communication and other strategic efforts to attack ideologies behind groups such as al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

One official said that as CIA director, Mr. Brennan would be under Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and would lose his current walking-distance access to the president.

Mr. Brennan also remains one of the few administration officials who has been silent on the disaster in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, when a poorly armed CIA and State Department outpost was attacked by al Qaeda-linked terrorists killing four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.

Mr. Brennan is a focus of congressional investigators trying to find out who altered the original CIA talking points on the Benghazi attack by removing references to al Qaeda and terrorism and instead referring to “extremists” who were part of the attack.

Critics have said the changes to the CIA guidance amounted to the politicization of intelligence that sought to play down the terrorist nature of the attack — days after Mr. Obama said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that al Qaeda was on the path to defeat.

The talking points were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice on five Sunday television talks shows when she asserted erroneously that the Benghazi attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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