ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Reconcilable Differences
A little disagreement is a good thing.
In a recent interview, John O. Brennan, the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center, a 25-year CIA veteran, and the intelligence adviser to presidential hopeful Barack Obama, stated his position on a thorny policy matter.
"There is this great debate over whether or not the telecom companies should . . . be given immunity [from civil lawsuits] for their agreement to provide support and cooperate with the government after 9/11," Brennan said, referring to counterterrorism activities conducted for several years after the 2001 attacks. "I do believe strongly that they should be granted that immunity, because they were told to [cooperate] by the appropriate authorities that were operating in a legal context. . . . I know people are concerned about that, but I do believe that's the right thing to do."
A number of Demo-crats, including most mem-bers of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, agree with Brennan. But Obama is not one of them. In February, Obama voted against an amendment to legally immunize the telecoms. A spokesperson said the senator believes the matter is best left to the judiciary.
Not long after Brennan revealed his position, some Obama supporters saw red. Several bloggers highlighted the "split" between the two men, noting that Brennan had sided with President Bush's position. "Obama needs to seriously dump this dude," one campaign supporter recommended. Others thought Brennan had committed an embarrassing gaffe, and some even saw treachery: "Anti-American, anti-Constitution policy positions like this do not belong in the Democratic Party, let alone associated with one of our presidential candidates," one blogger declared.
Hyperbole aside, the bottom line is Obama's intelligence adviser has a different position on an issue of deep importance to the intelligence community and the country. Which makes me shout, "Hooray!"
I don't mean to be glib. Immunity is a serious policy issue-that's why I asked Brennan about it in the interview. Maybe it's because I don't cover politics, but when Brennan told me that he "strongly" favored telecom immunity, my first question wasn't, "So why are you working for Barack Obama?"
What I wish I had asked was whether Brennan thinks this difference of opinion is good for government. For years now, the intelligence community has taken hits for being plagued by group think, for not speaking truth to power. It seems that Brennan has bucked that trend, at least on this point. He's not afraid to differ from his candidate or even to risk causing a minor stir. He respectfully noted that other people take a different view, but he gave a defensible reason for why he disagreed, and why he thought that's important. Obviously, Obama hasn't made mutual agreement on telecom immunity a condition of Brennan's position, so the two men probably have agreed to disagree.
And that's important, too, because there's good reason to believe that if Obama wins the general election, Brennan would be his pick for director of National Intelligence. If that happens, then there's also good reason to believe that Brennan won't feel the need to tell the president what he wants to hear. We should be so lucky.
Obama and Brennan can work out their differences on this and other matters. Ultimately, Obama has to make up his own mind, even when his counselors are trying to change it. If he succeeds, then he will have demonstrated a quality of leadership that many critics of this administration, and the intelligence community, complain has been in short supply.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.