Brennan is wrong for CIA

John Brennan , nominee for CIA director. CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP
John Brennan , nominee for CIA director. CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP
Posted: February 07, 2013

By Eric Rozenman

Before Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies famously failed to connect the dots that would have revealed the terrorist threat from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. President Obama's pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, John O. Brennan, isn't sure the dots exist.

Brennan, whose Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing is set for Thursday afternoon, aggressively denies the nature of Islamic fundamentalism. In congressional testimony in 2010, he attempted to redefine jihad - Islamic holy war - as unthreatening. "Jihad," Brennan stated, "is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women, and children."

Focusing narrowly on what is called internal jihad, the deputy national security adviser ignored external jihad, holy war in defense of Islam or to extend it. An Arabic speaker who served as CIA station chief in Riyadh, Brennan ought to know better. Saudi Arabia is home to Wahhabi Islam, the puritanical school from which bin Laden, among other anti-Western radicals, emerged.

Soon after the 9/11 mass murders, novelist Salman Rushdie - living in hiding at the time as a result of a fatwa issued by Iranian clerics calling for his death - insisted that the extremists are "tyrants, not Muslims," who oppose everything from free speech and multiparty government to women's rights and evolution theory. However, he added, "there needs to be a thorough examination by Muslims everywhere of why it is that the faith they love breeds so many violent strains."

Such an inquiry Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism aide, refuses to make. He reportedly has helped lead administration efforts to expunge references to Islamic radicalism and Islamist terrorism from intelligence training materials.

His outlook may well have influenced the Obama administration's 2010 National Security Strategy. The 52-page document reportedly did not use the word jihad, mentioned Islam only twice, and then only to separate it from violence by Muslim extremists, and referred to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in various ways, but not as terrorists.

Senators should quiz the nominee: Are members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, who joined the murderous raid on an Algerian natural gas plant recently, or those of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and of Hezbollah - which used to call itself simply Islamic Jihad - less familiar with their own faith than you?

In a speech to the Islamic Center of New York University, also in 2010, Brennan, a Roman Catholic who has spent considerable time in Muslim-majority lands, termed Islam a religion "of peace and tolerance and great diversity" and said it "helped shape my worldview."

He referred to the Israeli capital both as Jerusalem and "al-Quds," the Arabic name for Jerusalem and, not coincidentally, of the "Quds force," an overseas terrorist arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

The Islamic Society of North America helped arrange Brennan's NYU talk. ISNA is the largest American-Islamic civic-cultural organization. It also was an unindicted co-conspirator in the United States' biggest terrorism-financing trial, in which five men went to jail for raising more than $12 million for Hamas.

Brennan was at the president's side when approval was given to launch the mission that killed bin Laden. He has been a key figure in the administration's expanded drone slayings of al-Qaeda, Taliban, and similar enemy actors in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Regardless, he may be wrong for the CIA. According to the essayists collected in a new book, Fighting Ideological War: Winning Strategies, From Communism to Islamism, global jihadism is a persistent threat, rooted in and adept at using Islamic tradition. Its proponents seek nothing less than an international "coercive orthodoxy."

If senators recognize this reality, they'll reject Brennan.

Eric Rozenman is a Washington-based news media analyst. E-mail him at

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