During the Vietnam War era, peace activists compared American war planners like Robert S. McNamara and Henry Kissinger to Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of War Production and Armaments who stood out for his lack of ideological zeal in supporting the Nazi cause. What motivated Speer, rather, was a cold and calculating careerism which was combined with a lack of regard for his country’s victims.
Former CIA Director (2013-2017) John Brennan’s new memoir, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad (New York: Celadon Books, 2020) reveals a man who displays some of the same qualities as Speer—and other American contemporaries.
Particularly striking is the pride that he takes in helping to coordinate better bureaucratic procedure for carrying out drone strikes, which terrorized whole communities.
The London Observer editorialized in April 1944 that it was Speer’s lack of “psychological ballast and the ease with which he handles the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of our age,” which made this “slight type go extremely far nowadays. This is their age; the Hitlers and Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular special man, will long be with us.”
Brennan’s name could be substituted for Speer’s if we consider the ease with which he has handled the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of the drone war, along with a mass surveillance apparatus that is unprecedented in human history.
In his memoir, of course, Brennan, presents what he is doing as helping to win the fight against America’s enemies—including especially Islamic terrorists and the big bad Russians.
He wants us to believe that he and Obama helped develop a rational and reasonably humane approach to target selection for the drones by adopting a bureaucratic system of four Cs—conditions, circumstances, criteria and considerations—which would reduce or eliminate the number of civilian casualties.
While civilians were “tragically killed in some strikes,” Brennan claims that, because of the new system, the number was far fewer than the “wildly exaggerated” and “unsubstantiated claims that were circulating in media accounts.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, however, reported between 384 and 807 civilians killed in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s presidency, which was above many initial media estimates, and between 65 and 101 civilians killed in Afghanistan in just one year, 2016, when the Bureau began counting those deaths.
A report by Stanford and NYU law professors called “Living Under Drones” quoted a charity director who stated that an entire region [Waziristan on the Af-Pak frontier] was being
These comments show Brennan to be delusional in his belief that the bureaucratic procedures helped mitigate the human costs of the strikes, which can be compared with Speer’s misconceived beliefs about bureaucratic efficiency in Nazi Germany.
Brennan was very much like Speer also in his yearning for access to power at any cost. He drops names in his memoir like a star-struck teenager who has just visited the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The grounds of the White House in his description are “awe inspiring,” evoking in him “deep and, at times, emotional patriotic pride,” when he would “walk back and forth in the snowfall on West Executive Avenue,” seeing “the power and majesty of the U.S. government revealed with each office light.”
Brennan’s purpose, as this passage makes clear, is to dutifully serve the powerful who run the majestic government and advance his country’s interest without thought or regard for those who might be adversely affected in doing so.
This worldview appears to have been forged growing up in Hudson County, New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, when young Brennan fantasized about becoming a spy after reading historical accounts of the American revolutionary and civil and world wars. While attending Fordham University in the early 1970s, Brennan travelled to Indonesia to write a research paper on oil and politics.
This topic would have exposed him to the massive human rights abuses that resulted from the CIA-backed campaign to destroy Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI), which had wanted to nationalize Indonesia’s oil industry. Brennan, however, was not aroused by this great injustice, but rather by a fourth of July party at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, which made him feel that he had “become part of a family that was dedicated to bringing America’s ideals, values, resources and capabilities to the rest of the world.”
When spending a year as an exchange student at the American University in Cairo, Brennan said, he was charmed by Cairo and its people and learned that Egyptians resented U.S. support to Israel, believing it responsible for Israeli occupation of Arab and Palestinian lands seized in 1967. Characteristic of a bureaucratic functionary, Brennan refused to say, however, if he thinks that the latter was true.
He goes on to suggest that “most Egyptians greatly admired Americans and viewed the God-fearing United States as a vital bulwark against the expansionist designs of an atheistic Soviet Union,” which made them okay in his view. Brennan makes a further point of showing his strong ties to Israel when he says that he felt “very much at home” in the modern and cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv, which he visited after his time in Egypt.
Brennan joined the CIA in the late 1970s, while pursuing graduate study at the University of Texas. His wife, Kathy, was unhappy about his graduate student routine and low salary and encouraged him to sign up. John was happy to oblige, though initially thought that the agency might reject him because he had voted for Communist Party candidate Gus Hall in 1976—not out of any conviction or support for the Communist Party, but rather because he was fed up with partisan politics.
Brennan’s initiation into the CIA culture came during a training course he took at “the farm” where the instructor, whom he identified only as Jack, told the new agents that it was important to get signed receipts from new “assets” so that there was a record with which they could be blackmailed and threatened with exposure if they ever wanted to terminate their relationship with the CIA. When Brennan questioned this method, Jack responded that “you need to be tough if you want to be a case officer.” He would take this latter lesson to heart.
Brennan’s exploits running the drone war earned him the nickname “the assassination czar” and “grim Irishman.” He also forged close alliances with the security services of some of the planet’s most brutal regimes.
Brennan holds the Saudi King Abdullah in particularly high esteem, calling him a mensch (Yiddish term for a man who does good deeds) even though he oversaw the rounding up of peaceful dissidents, public flogging of liberal bloggers, and detention of thousands of workers in inhumane jails.
After serving as a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, Brennan worked with the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC), which was established by the Reagan administration to intercept and sabotage terrorists’ supplies, carry out surveillance, disrupt their finances and kidnap suspects and return them to the United States, in a forerunner to the modern rendition program.
According to Brennan, one of the CTCs major accomplishments was the “piecing together fragmentary evidence to prove that Libya was the perpetrator of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.” Independent investigations, however, have determined that the perpetrator of the crime was likely Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the U.S.S. Vincennes a year before.
When the first Persian Gulf War broke out in 1991, Brennan says that he had to explain to his son that “the man in charge of Iraq [Saddam Hussein] is a bad man, who hurt a lot of people and has taken over another country.” While there is some truth to these statements, Iraq’s conflict with the U.S. was more complicated and rooted in the U.S. drive for control of Middle-Eastern oil. The kind of juvenile understanding he imbues in his son is promoted by Brennan throughout his memoir.
Left out completely is Brennan’s tenure in the mid-2000s as president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation (TAC), a defense contractor which helped develop intelligence analysis and terrorist watchlists.
After Brennan left TAC to become an adviser to the Obama campaign, a TAC employee was accused of improperly looking at the passport files of presidential candidates, including Obama.
This incident has raised suspicion that Brennan was involved in trying to cover up Obama’s personal history and rumored employment with the CIA.
Brennan as Director of CIA under the Obama-Biden Administration
Brennan sheds very little light, generally, on his close relationship with Obama, which according to The New York Times, was as close a bond between a president and CIA Director as there has been in American history.
He does though make an interesting admission regarding Cuba when he writes that the “goal of normalized relations as envisioned by President Obama” was that Cuba’s “repressive security practices, political oppression and socialist economy would fade from view.” [Italics added.] The normalization policy by implication was not altruistic, but designed as part of the U.S.’s long-standing program of regime change.
Brennan’s own counter-revolutionary outlook is exemplified in his anger that, at a ceremony marking the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Havana, Alejandro Castro would extoll the heroism of his father Raul, and Uncle Fidel, during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Brennan is further upset that Alejandro presented him with an inscribed copy of his book, The Price of Power, which he dismisses as a “289-page screed” detailing the “intemperance, and vice of the United States towards Cuba and other worldwide victims of American imperialism.”
Saudi officials are more to Brennan’s liking despite their support for Islamic terrorism and the criminal invasion of Yemen, which was carried out with high-tech U.S. weapons. Brennan in Undaunted recounts an interesting conversation in which Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) boasted about “finishing off the Houthis [rebels in Yemen] in a couple of months,” though sheds no new light otherwise on the U.S.-Saudi relationship and war.
Befitting his position, Brennan is further evasive about the massive covert operation he helped oversee to arm the Free Syrian Army and other jihadi groups in an effort to topple the nationalist government of Bashir al-Assad. He does repeat, though, politically charged claims about Assad’s use of chemical weapons that have never been verified.
Brennan’s deceptiveness extends to his suggestion that Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric and U.S. citizen assassinated in a drone strike, was behind the mass shooting at Fort Hood Texas by Nidal Malik Hasan that killed thirteen U.S. soldiers. Al-Awlaki was found to have exchanged emails with Hasan who had worshipped at his mosque in suburban Virginia, but an FBI inquiry into Awlaki’s criminal culpability in the shooting was dropped, and the FBI concluded Hasan had acted alone.
In a chapter entitled “A Tortured Senate Report,” Brennan dismisses as partisan a Senate report that exposed CIA torture methods under the rendition program during the Bush era.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.) subsequently accused Brennan and the CIA of engaging in “illegal and unconstitutional breaches” by searching the computers and spying on Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers who had helped compile the report. Brennan’s moral indignation in his book predictably focuses on Feinstein and a 2019 film depicting these events called The Report which he derides for being “way beyond the pale.”
In one of his last acts as CIA Director, Brennan oversaw the writing of a report by the major intelligence agencies which claimed to have “high confidence” that Russia hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and supported Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election. The report, however, did not provide any significant evidence to support its own allegations and merely provided “an assessment” which journalist Robert Parry notes is “an admission” that the classified information blaming Russia was “less than conclusive because, in intelligence world speak, to ‘assess’ actually means to ‘guess.’”[i]
Russia Gate is best understood as a major volley in a long war between the social democratic wing of the U.S. intelligence establishment, led by Brennan and Obama, and the neofascist wing, which is aligned behind Trump.
Most troubling has been the politicization of the intelligence agencies and their interference in partisan domestic politics—which Brennan claims to vehemently oppose. Russia Gate has also contributed to a Russophobic climate driving a new Cold War.
Early into Trump’s presidency, Brennan issued a public warning to Trump about his Russia policy, telling Fox News: “I think Mr. Trump has to understand that absolving Russia of various actions that it’s taken in the past number of years is a road that he, I think, needs to be very, very careful about moving down.” When an unelected intelligence official can intimidate a president into backing away from efforts at diplomatic engagement, then democracy has been destroyed and a permanent warfare state institutionalized.
Brennan’s place in history is generally as an heir to past agency directors who have abused constitutional liberties, deceived the public, and carried out policies that helped devastate Third World countries.
His memoir, Undaunted, shows him to be a particularly close contemporary of Richard Helms (1966-1973), who helped protect the agency’s secrecy, as opposed to William Colby (1973-1976), who went public with information that appears to have led to his assassination.
The comparison between Brennan and Speer becomes resonant when one considers Brennan’s fixation with career advancement and service to power, his disregard for the human consequences of the policies he is tasked with carrying out, and his effort to institutionalize state killing under the drone war through a bureaucratic process that applies heavily sanitized language.
What is so dangerous about the two “organizational men” ultimately is the normalcy through which they carry out their duties and satisfaction that they gain from bureaucratic triumphs and advancement irrespective of the human costs. Their psychological archetype enables large-scale killing machines to operate expeditiously, now and into the foreseeable future.
 See Bradley R. Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008).
 Ironically, Brennan’s future boss, President Barack Obama, was in Indonesia at the same time as a pre-teen living with his mother and step-father, Lolo Soetoro, who served in the anti-PKI pogroms and worked as a liaison between the Suharto regime and Western oil companies. Obama at least acknowledged in his memoir the atrocities going on and hypocrisy of the oil companies, even if whitewashing his own family’s role in the genocide. See Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, rev. ed. (New York: Broadway Books, 2004).
 David C. Wills, The First War on Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism Policy during the Reagan Administration (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
 See Edward S. Herman, “Lockerbie and the Propaganda System: Release of Al-Megrahi Evokes Selective History,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, October 1, 2009; John Ashton, Megrahi: You Are My Jury: The Lockerbie Evidence (London: Birlinn, 2012); http://www.lockerbietruth.com/.
 For Obama’s complicated family history and allegations of ties to the CIA, see Wayne Madsen, The Manufacturing of a President: The CIA’s Insertion of Barack H. Obama, Jr. into the White House (Self-Published, 2012); Jeremy Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars (Atlanta: Clarity Press Inc., 2019).
 For discussion and key investigations and sources, see Jeremy Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019).
 Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars, 154; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Fort_Hood_shooting#Anwar_al-Awlaki.
 Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano, The Russians Are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), 34.
 Quoted in Kuzmarov and Marciano, The Russians Are Coming, Again, 34.
 See Thomas Powers, Richard Helms: The Man Who Kept the Secrets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979); Randall B. Woods, Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.