What Brennan Knew (Sort of) About Domestic Surveillance
Marc Ambinder follows up on my question to John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism aide, about what role Brennan played in domestic surveillance during the Bush administration. From 2003 to 2005, recall, Brennan ran two organizations — the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and then the National Counterterrorism Center — whose analysts prepared threat assessments that supplied at least a pretextual basis for the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance programs. It’s unclear from a recent inspectors general report whether Brennan himself knew of those assessments, as he said he was “not going to go into sort of what my role was in that instance because a lot of those activities are still considered classified” when I asked yesterday. But it’s highly unusual, to say the least, for an agency head not to know about an activity run by his subordinates that the president considers a top priority.
Unsurprisingly, then, Ambinder’s sources tell him that Brennan indeed knew:
[S]enior intelligence officials with direct knowledge of Brennan’s role confirm that, indeed, as head of the National Counterterrorism Center (and of its earlier incarnation, called TTIC), he was privy to both the NSA’s “take” — the raw product — and the mechanisms used to collect it. The NCTC cross-checked NSA information with everything else collected by the intelligence community and prepared threat assessments.
Ambinder correctly notes that NCTC didn’t play an operational role in the surveillance programs. But he writes that that an aspect of its job was to “determine the significance of the information gleaned from those sessions.” And that’s what’s fishy. The inspectors general found that the information gleaned from those sessions was rather insignificant, mainly a matter of running down certain leads, but not actual utility in combating terrorism. So why did the programs receive their reauthorizations every 45 days? Was no one inclined at NCTC and TTIC to assess that the programs weren’t particularly useful in repelling a continuing terrorist threat?