Just hours before he publicly responded last week to the Senate Intelligence Committee report accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of torture and deceit, John O. Brennan, the CIA’s director, stopped by the White House to meet with President Obama.
Ostensibly, he was there for an intelligence briefing. But the messages delivered later that day by the White House and Brennan were synchronized, even down to similar wording, and the larger import of the well-timed visit was hardly a classified secret: After six years of partnership, the president was standing by the embattled spy chief even as fellow Democrats called for his resignation.
Brennan, 59, who spent much of his career as an Arabic-speaking CIA officer, has been a central figure in Mr. Obama’s world since the beginning of his presidency.
Irritated advisers to Obama believe Brennan made a bad situation worse by battling Democrats on the committee over the torture report during the past year. Some who considered Brennan the president’s heat shield against the agency when he worked in the White House now worry that since being appointed director, he has “gone native,” as they put it.
Several Obama advisers said privately that Brennan made a mistake by letting the situation grow so toxic.
But in the 67 years since the CIA was founded, few presidents have had as close a bond with their intelligence chiefs as Obama has forged with Brennan. It is a relationship that has shaped the policy and politics of the debate over the nation’s war with terrorist organizations, as well as the agency’s own struggle to balance security and liberty.
And the result is a president who denounces torture but not the people accused of inflicting it.
“He was a pretty good analyst. He was a bright guy,” said a former CIA officer of Brennan. “But he always had a reputation of sucking up to power and moving in the direction of power and not being able to exercise any independence.”
Brennan managed “kill lists” for drone strikes and could order air attacks in Yemen without getting further approval from the president. “Brennan’s control over his area was as complete as anyone’s control over anything in the White House,” another former senior official said.
He came to be identified with the escalation of America’s secret war in Yemen and the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but he was also an ally of those resisting more hawkish policies in Afghanistan and Libya, and advocated freeing wrongly held detainees at Guantánamo.
Last week Brennan became the agency’s prime defender, much to the chagrin of some of the president’s allies.