John Brennan: Obama Homeland Security Advisor

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who was the Obama Homeland Security Advisor? What was his role in the Obama administration?

John Brennan served as Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor. His main role was to serve as a guide for all things intelligence and counterterrorism.

Read more about John Brennan and his role in counterterrorism.

The Obama Homeland Security Advisor Redefined Counterterrorism

The dominant foreign policy issue at the start of the Obama administration was the fight against international terrorism. While there was broad agreement in the administration that the U.S. needed to dismantle and destroy Al Qaeda’s overseas networks, there was also agreement that the Bush administration’s approach had been ill-conceived, ineffective, and contrary to American values.

Obama wanted to prosecute the War on Terror in line with American values, rejecting Bush-era policies of unilateral war, torture, and disregard for the Constitution. He believed that this would not only be more just, but also more effective in the long run, by restoring American moral authority and making it easier to secure the much-needed cooperation of partners in the Muslim world.

John Brennan: Homeland Security Advisor

To mark this shift in America’s approach to counterterrorism, Obama installed John Brennan, a former CIA analyst with over 25 years of experience, as Homeland Security Advisor.

Brennan’s mandate was to serve as Obama’s conduit to the counterterrorism and intelligence communities in Washington and abroad. He was tasked with ensuring that Obama’s reforms were implemented across the patchwork of agencies and departments that comprised America’s intelligence-gathering operations.

Most importantly, Brennan was charged with winding down the Bush-era torture program and codifying counterterrosim practices under a legal framework in line with the Constitution.

Counterterrorism Meets Domestic Politics

As Obama was to discover, however, bringing the battle against terrorism in line with proper legal and constitutional procedure would be an intense partisan battle. The struggle to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp showed how the best intentions of the administration had to give way to the demands of domestic politics.

Guantanamo was the site where prisoners of war captured in Iraq and Afghanistan had been detained for years and denied the due process they were entitled to under the Geneva Conventions. As revelations of torture at Guantanamo became public during the Bush administration, the camp became a notorious symbol of America’s misdeeds and moral failings in the prosecution of the so-called War on Terror.

Obama made it an early priority of his administration to close Guantanamo, repatriate those detainees who had no proven links to Al Qaeda, and put the truly dangerous terrorist suspects (known as HPVs or high-value prisoners) like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed on trial in U.S. civilian criminal courts. He believed that making those who’d targeted American lives stand trial for their crimes in open court would show the nation and the world that America could hold its enemies accountable while still remaining true to its constitutional principles.

Politically, however, this proved to be impossible. The decision to transfer suspected terrorists to American soil (where they would be held in federal and state prisons) met with fear and outrage, eagerly stoked by right-wing media. The GOP (former Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in particular) whipped their supporters into a frenzy with rhetoric about the Obama administration “moving terrorists into your neighborhood.” Seeing that they were at a political disadvantage, even congressional Democrats demanded that the administration back off this plan. The heavily Democratic Congress eventually blocked any federal funds from being used for transfers of Guantanamo detainees. 

The administration had tried to bring the War on Terror out of the darkness and into the light of constitutional procedure—and, on this issue, they lost the battle to the politics of fear.

The Somali Pirate Incident

Despite Obama’s desire to prosecute the War on Terror in conformity with the United States’ constitutional values, the business of protecting Americans and going after terrorists was still a violent and bloody affair.

One of the first occasions in which Obama was compelled to use American force came in April 2009, when a group of Somali pirates hijacked the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. Obama gave the order to U.S. Navy SEALs to retake the ship, rescue the American captain—and kill the pirates if necessary. After a four-day standoff, the SEAL snipers killed the three pirates with long-range shots to the head, freeing the American captain and crew. 

While pleased that the incident resolved with no American casualties, Obama couldn’t see the whole situation as anything but a tragedy. The pirates, violent criminals though they were, were all young men in their teens. Their decision to resort to piracy spoke to the failures of economic development and the general lack of hope for so many young people in impoverished and chaotic parts of the world like Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan.Although he recognized its necessity, Obama hated the parts of the presidency that required him to authorize the use of state violence. He had gotten into politics to lead and inspire young people—not order their execution from the Oval Office.

John Brennan: Obama Homeland Security Advisor

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  • How Barack Obama went from relative obscurity to the first Black president
  • What principles guided his political leadership style
  • Why Obama retained an unshakable faith in the potential and promise of America

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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