What can we learn about the future from the past? A lot, if we look closely at Obama’s CIA director John Brennan, his Master’s thesis, and his beliefs and track record on human and media rights.


In 1980, a 25-year old graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin wrote a master’s thesis called “Human rights, a case study of Egypt.” In it, he argued that the aim of achieving and maintaining political stability justifies human rights violations by apprehensive governments— including crackdowns on unbridled journalists:

Since the press can play such an influential role in determining the perceptions of the masses, I am in favor of some degree of government censorship. Inflamatory [sic] articles can provoke mass opposition and possible violence.

Why should we care what a 25-year old grad student wrote over 30 years ago? Because that student grew up to be John Brennan—recently appointed director of the CIA.  And because the theory he outlined in his master’s thesis seems to have shaped his attitude toward the exercise of power since then.

Four Months Make An Expert?

Brennan wrote the thesis, first made public by Charles C. Johnson, for an article in the Daily Caller (additional pages here), to earn a master’s degree in government with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies. The paper analyzed human rights in Egypt under the 1970s regime of Anwar Sadat — a regime Brennan experienced firsthand while studying at the American University in Cairo for four months (from September 1975 to January 1976).

Under Sadat, Egypt saw riots over the price of bread, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, high unemployment, widespread malnutrition, and other turmoil.

For the sake of stability, Brennan wrote, Sadat rightly introduced legislation to restrict assembly, strove to replace the judiciary in political trials with his own special prosecutor, and subjected the press to frequent, extensive censorship.

The powerful have long used emergencies or purported emergencies as excuses to seize power. In terms of Egypt’s dire conditions, Brennan wrote,

Sadat’s authoritarian approach to the democratic process has brought widespread criticism from his opponents. The motivation for this approach is obvious: in limiting personal liberties, Sadat has sought political order and stability in Egypt […] Looking at the present policies of the Sadat administration, one gets the impression that democracy does not exist in Egypt. But if democracy is a process rather than a state, the democratic process may involve, at some point, the violation of personal liberties and procedural justice. Sadat’s undemocratic methods, therefore, may aim at the ultimate preservation of democracy rather than its demise.

We Had to Destroy Democracy to Save It

These Orwellian arguments should not be dismissed as the busywork of a college student hurrying to get a grade. The thesis is written in the same confident style —blunt sentences, few hedges — that he speaks with today. Back then, the graduate student clearly saw himself as a potential “decider,” like Sadat, tasked with picking whose human rights get violated in the purported best interest of “the State.”

A long career has made Brennan that decider.

There is some question as to when his career at the CIA really started. He tells a story that seems a little improbable: while riding a bus to Fordham University, where he earned a bachelor’s in political science between 1973 and 1977, he read “an ad in The New York Times and it said the CIA was looking for a few good people.” Overseas travel had aroused his wanderlust, he said, so he talked to a CIA recruiter.

A classmate of his from fourth grade to his undergraduate years recalls that Brennan spent the summer after freshman year with a cousin who worked for the Agency of International Development in Indonesia and that he visited Bahrain on the way home. Brennan was working at the US embassy in Indonesia and researching the politics of oil. “I wondered if he had even been recruited that early,” the classmate said. If true, Brennan would have written the thesis while a CIA recruit. It has also been speculated that the American University in Cairo is a site of CIA recruitment and training.


Regardless of his actual recruitment date, Brennan did start his official career at the CIA right out of college. He worked for the CIA for 25 years, including as an analyst, as station chief in Riyadh from 1996 to 1999, as the agency’s daily intelligence briefer to President Clinton, and as chief of staff for former CIA director George Tenet. WhoWhatWhy has previously examined the implications of Brennan’s Saudi connections.

While still at the CIA, he directed the Terrorist Threat Integration Center from 2003 to 2004—charged with integrating intelligence from the seventeen member agencies of the intelligence community on counterterrorism issues. The center became the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), where from 2004 to 2005 he was Interim Director.

Two months after he stepped down from the NCTC, The Analysis Corporation (TAC), which specializes in databases and is now named Sotera Defense Solutions, reportedly secured a lucrative deal to improve the NCTC terrorist watch-list. Like many defense contractor firms, TAC was based in McLean, Virginia, close by the CIA headquarters in Langley. Just one month later, in November 2005, Brennan conveniently followed the watch-list’s path to TAC, where he became president and CEO, making $760,000 a year.

His time in the government — including working in surveillance during the time of the post-9/11 illegal warrantless wiretapping program — was also marketable elsewhere in the private sector. Starting in April 2007 he spearheaded the private security industry as chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), earning $30,000 a year for an hour’s worth of work a week. INSA, representing 150 security corporations, describes itself as a “catalyst for public-private partnerships.”

“Certain Violations [of Human Rights] May Be Necessary”

In his master’s thesis, Brennan wrote that “absolute human rights do not exist” — “with the probable exception of the freedom from torture.” During his time at TAC, he left even that caveat behind, defending on television news the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques (except for waterboarding) as well as the Agency’s rendition program.

Brennan appears to have been influential in moving the early Obama administration to the right on security issues, and in protecting the permanent intelligence establishment from legal accountability. Interviewed in early 2008 about advising Senator Obama’s presidential campaign, he said that telecommunications companies should be granted immunity for their past participation in illegal warrantless wiretapping and that there should not be a “housecleaning” of intelligence. “Not just in terms of people, but also programs. You don’t want to create upheaval, because it will create a disruption in the system,” he said. “You don’t want to whipsaw the [intelligence] community. You don’t want to presume knowledge about how things fit together and why things are being done the way they are being done.”

When President Obama first proposed Brennan for CIA director in 2008, liberal anger at his public support for CIA torture led to Brennan withdrawing his name from consideration. Obama instead appointed him Assistant to the President for homeland security and counterterrorism, a post which did not require Senate confirmation and made him the Administration’s top counterterrorism official. He worked in a windowless room in the White House a few steps from the Situation Room, and met with Obama several times a day.

When the NCTC provoked controversy in 2011 with its database containing millions of records of U.S. citizens — casino-employee lists, flight records, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, and much more — Brennan seems to have been the one to decide to move forward with the program. Homeland Security privacy and civil liberties officials had raised concerns at the White House over new guidelines that allowed the NCTC to “mine” the database for possible criminal behavior, even without reason to suspect any wrongdoing by the Americans under surveillance. “Mr. Brennan considered the arguments,” the Wall Street Journal writes. “And within a few days, the attorney general, Eric Holder, had signed the new guidelines.”

As adviser to President Obama, Brennan often appeared at the nexus of intelligence and public relations. He was the chief source of the shifting, contradictory panoply of details about what actually happened in the raid on Osama bin Laden. The raid occurred in the afterglow of the royal wedding, and the press was all too ready to embrace his manipulations, as WhoWhatWhy previously reported.

In his years as counterterrorism czar, Brennan was the driving force behind the CIA’s drone program, in which unmanned aircraft, operating overseas but piloted remotely from the US, fire missiles at terrorist targets in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, often hitting civilians gathered in tribal councils, wedding parties, and other non-combatant assemblies.  Sometimes these instances of “collateral damage” result from so-called “signature strikes,” in which a person whose name is unknown is targeted based entirely on the “signature” of his behavior patterns — in other words, killer drones sometimes target patterns, not people, but it is people (often the wrong ones) who get killed. It appears Brennan has been the last person to sign off on drone strikes before Obama gives the final go-ahead.

As the president’s top counterterrorism official, he took the targeting decisions for drone strikes and moved them deep into the White House, further shielding the process from public view. At the same time he orchestrated a propaganda campaign about the purported care that went into compiling “kill lists.”

Asked at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in June 2011 about targeted killings — a reference in this case to CIA drone strikes — he replied:

“In fact, I can say that the types of operations that the US has been involved in, in the counterterrorism realm, nearly for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

This was an outright lie. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in an analysis of that past year, found that 116 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan alone resulted in at least 45 civilian deaths, six children among them. Given the difficulty in obtaining on-the-ground data, the Bureau says it is likely many more civilians died in additional strikes there.

Brennan’s office and the White House refused to respond to the Bureau’s findings. Further, the Obama administration categorizes any “military-age male” in the vicinity of a strike target as a combatant, thereby removing these victims from the official civilian casualty figures. While the carnage of the drone program serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda (in Yemen, with the Predators and Reapers buzzing overhead for weeks on end, terrorists approach survivor families and offer a path for revenge), much of mainstream media has been content to portray Brennan as a civil-liberties-minded member of the administration pushing for reform, in laudatory profiles with such titles as “Hawk with a Heart.”

“Certain violations [of human rights] may be necessary in order to insure against violence and instability,” Brennan wrote in his master’s thesis. “Human rights, therefore, does [sic] not take precedence over all other political goals.”

Killing the Messenger

Journalists who take seriously the mission of a watchdog press have suffered retaliation at Brennan’s hands, according to an internal memo of the private intelligence firm Stratfor. (WikiLeaks began releasing internal Stratfor emails in February 2012; some were published for the first time in conjunction with a WhoWhatWhy article about General David Petraeus.)

A September 2010 Stratfor email with the subject line “Obama Leak Investigations (internal use only – pls do not forward)” focuses on Brennan’s work against the press. This memo, from Stratfor’s vice president for intelligence Fred Burton, went to the firm’s “secure” list for senior analysts discussing continental US matters. While Burton seems at times prone to hasty judgment and exaggeration, he has close connections to the national security powerbase from his long career in counterterrorism and intelligence.

The email reads in full:

Brennan is behind the witch hunts of investigative journalists learning information from inside the beltway sources. Note — There is specific tasker from the WH [White House] to go after anyone printing materials negative to the Obama agenda (oh my.) Even the FBI is shocked. The Wonder Boys must be in meltdown mode…”

The Obama administration has accelerated the George W. Bush-era war on whistleblowers and journalists, a fulfillment of the young Brennan’s call in his thesis for restraining the press to achieve national security aims.

Where is This Heading?

Today’s CIA is an increasingly paramilitary spy agency. Some Brennan apologists have said he favors moving “the bulk” of the Agency’s drone program to the Pentagon (which already has its own drone program), where it would supposedly be under tighter rein.  The ramifications of such an inter-agency shuffle, even if it comes to pass, are nevertheless difficult to ascertain.

Brennan hasn’t had time to put his signature on the CIA, but reassurances about his devotion to the rule of law in the espionage jungle are hardly justified, given his career to date. And his early beliefs: as Brennan noted in his 1980 thesis, political stability is a need that “can provide a convenient excuse for any authoritarian leader in any country of the world.”

And Egypt? Near the conclusion of his thesis, Brennan made a bold prediction: “Paradoxically, Egypt appears to be heading in a direction that will eventually lead to an increase in human rights.”

Over thirty years later, Egypt has seen revolution and further turmoil. During the Arab Spring, in January 2011, President Hosni Mubarak blacked out the Internet almost entirely, an unprecedented act of censorship. And his vice president Omar Suleiman, a man who collaborated in torture with the CIA and whom the US once backed as a replacement for Mubarak, blamed journalists for encouraging dissent when pro-government forces assaulted them and burned down an Al-Jazeera facility.

Today, Egypt is in an official state of emergency, amid riots, factory closings, and strikes, including a possible bakers’ strike that could lead to bread riots like those in 1977. This reminds us that the stability promised by Brennan as the payoff for human rights violations just somehow never seems to come to fruition.

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