Because of the looming conflict with Iran, Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense has attracted wide attention. Yet Senate Republicans may have a chance to advance their own national security agenda by zeroing in on John O. Brennan, President Obama's choice for CIA director. This approach will require courage as well as a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and the scandal-before-last.
Long before Benghazigate, we were still basking in the afterglow of the raid on Osama bin Laden and the joys of the Arab Spring when The New York Times published an astonishing story. In a book and a widely quoted series of articles by David Sanger, its chief Washington correspondent, the newspaper essentially published the beyond-top-secret playbook of the Obama national security team.
While sympathetically portraying a technically savvy president coolly orchestrating drone strikes against foreign terrorists, the book also dropped a truly astonishing revelation. The worrying appearance of the Stuxnet virus -- infecting at least 100,000 computers around the globe -- was actually blow-back, collateral damage from a U.S.-Israeli campaign to sabotage the centrifuges of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It was difficult to know whether to be happy that a macho Barack Obama was bamboozling the mullahs or angry that a Pulitzer-hungry journalist had spilled the beans.
There were also other nagging worries. Since industrial sabotage is an act of war, the soft underbelly of the U.S. electronic infrastructure might be vulnerable to Iranian retaliation.
There was the usual amount of descrying and harrumphing with predictably bipartisan calls for congressional investigations. I even testified before one of them, telling the House Judiciary Committee that Mr. Sanger's revelations could hardly have been more damaging had a team of KGB moles taken up residence in the West Wing. For a time, there was loose talk about subpoenas and follow-on investigations. However, there was little real stomach in a divided Congress to take on a Fourth Estate sanctimoniously defending its right to recycle national secrets into ratings, royalties and partisan advantage.
This is where Mr. Brennan comes in. A career CIA officer, Mr. Brennan is steeped in an organizational milieu that, to the unwashed, epitomizes secrecy. To the cognoscenti, however, artful press leaks are to the CIA what haute cuisine is to French culture. When a promising operative progresses toward the higher echelons, he typically is mentored by a more-skilled Auguste Escoffier, carefully groomed in the finer points of modern media practice. Rather than courageously presenting truth to power, the savvy intelligence officer views his press patsy as just another target to manipulate. The primary objective: Always make the boss and the agency look good.
If you don't believe that, then you probably haven't read any of Bob Woodward's books. In "Obama's Wars," for example, he mined sources in the Obama transition team to reveal top-secret code words, the existence of the CIA's "3,000-man covert Army in Afghanistan" and, for good measure, the offensive Computer Network Attack capabilities of the super-secret National Security Agency. How did Mr. Woodward do it? By convincing willing sources that they had nothing to fear by telling him what they knew, exactly as any competent intelligence agent does when recruiting spies.
Because the news is a highly competitive business, it is not surprising that Mr. Sanger and The New York Times had their own motivations for one-upping Mr. Woodward's penetration of the Obama White House. There is little doubt those motivations included politics, specifically the polishing of the president's national security resume. For precisely that reason, it is also likely that Mr. Sanger had what the FBI typically calls the "witting cooperation" of senior White House officials. Compare the Sanger and Woodward books, and certain names keep recurring, especially Tom Donilon, the national security adviser and his deputy, Mr. Brennan, who also oversaw the CIA drone program.
Because the Sanger book extensively profiled that previously covert program, it is worth asking -- under oath and with corroborating witnesses -- exactly what Mr. Brennan knew of The New York Times moles and when he knew it. Did he, for example, ever receive explicit or implicit instructions from his superiors in the White House to cooperate with Mr. Sanger or his principal sources? If so, from whom?
To some, Senate confirmation hearings might not be the ideal venue for revisiting old headlines. Yet Mr. Brennan may become CIA director at precisely the moment when the long-postponed Iranian confrontation reaches critical mass. As The New York Times reported last week, without any trace of irony, Iranian cyberteams are now mounting denial-of-service attacks against U.S. bank websites. Mr. Brennan, as an experienced intelligence officer, please begin your hearing by telling us why the mullahs might be conducting such unprovoked acts?
Retired Army Col. Ken Allard is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.