John Brennan joined the CIA after responding to a job advertisement in the New York Times in 1980. He initially served in the Directorate of Intelligence, the analytical branch of the CIA. In 1981, he served with the State Department at a political office at the US embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to CIA headquarters, he spent about five years doing analysis for the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs division before moving onto counterterrorism in the early 1990s. From 1994-1995, he served as Clinton’s daily briefer.
Brennan rose rather quickly in the ranks of the CIA, so much so that he was promoted from a junior analyst to station chief in Saudi Arabia. At the time, the perception is that he was promoted due to political reasons at the request of then-President Clinton, not because of anything he did while at the CIA that would have prompted the promotion based on merit.
Brennan was, at the end of the day, an analyst. He worked in the Directorate of Intelligence which has its own culture. Being a CIA analyst is like being a college professor in search of tenure getting things published. They spend their time researching, writing and reporting. The only difference is the CIA has incredibly more information with reports pouring in from overseas. The point of the exercise is to move up the bureaucratic ladder and this sometimes involves backstabbing, ass kissing, and internecine war. The ultimate goal is to get your stuff in the PDB- the granddaddy of intelligence- the President’s Daily Brief. Getting an article published in the PDB is the pinnacle of achievements for an analyst.
Most importantly is what an analyst is not. They are not spies, nor do they manage spies. They don’t tell spies what to do, they do not recruit spies, uncover secrets, go on covert operations or descend on a rope from a Blackhawk helicopter. They do sit in cubicles, research and write and they argue with one another about what they have written. They then brief others on what they wrote.
Because they are not spies in the Tom Clancy mold, they are often envious of the real spies in the field and every so often the head of the CIA will appoint an analyst to become the station chief in a foreign country. John Brennan was an analyst with finely honed in-fighting skills unafraid to torpedo an opposing analyst so that his piece of research and analysis gets attention. Brennan clawed his way to the top of the analytical heap. He snuggled up to and became close with the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet. He ended his career at the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and its successor, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, both of which were supposed to “connect the dots” that were not connected prior to 9/11.
When Tenet went to Langley as Deputy Director, Brennan followed as his assistant. Then Brennan wanted a promotion and it was Tenet who gave it to him when he named him a station chief in Saudi Arabia. Although unusual, it was not unprecedented. There was a problem, however: Brennan’s pay grade. At the time, Brennan was a GS-15 making somewhere between $70,000 and $90,000 per year while a station chief was considerably higher at the time. Brennan did not need a promotion; he needed three promotions. That was unprecedented.
Shortly before he arrived in Saudi Arabia, 19 American servicemen were killed by a truck bomb at the Khobar Towers. A few weeks later, Osama bin-Laden issued a fatwa declaring war on the United States. The announcement failed to capture headlines and few people knew who bin-Laden was. Brennan was no different. Some within the intelligence community were pressing for information and later described Brennan as overly-cautious and fearful of pressing the Saudis too hard for information or action.
By the time 1998 rolled around, intelligence had determined that bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan and the CIA knew where he was. The CIA had developed a plan to capture him but Brennan convinced Tenet that the plan was likely to fail and it would be better if the Saudis could negotiate with the Taliban to expel the al-Qaeda leader, but those talks broke down and the US did not get another shot at bin Laden. Brennan later told a Congressional hearing he was not in the chain of command in the decision.
As best anyone could tell, the only time Brennan was “in the chain of command” and actually carried out a mission, it was almost comical and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. The CIA had put together a disruption campaign aimed at Iranian intelligence and Brennan’s job was to approach an Iranian agent on the streets of Riyadh and ask if he wanted to work for the US. The CIA had shadowed the Iranian for weeks to determine his movements. The closer the meeting got, the more concerned and nervous became Brennan. According to one operative in Riyadh, Brennan asked an FBI agent for a bulletproof vest. The agent said, “He’s not going to shoot you…he’s going to laugh at you.” Regardless, he got his bulletproof vest. When the big day arrived, he approached the Iranian agent and said, “Hello…I’m from the US embassy and I have something to tell you.” The agent jumped out of his car yelling something about Iran being a peace-loving country.
While CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, rumors arose as to whether Brennan had converted to Islam. Whether that is true or not has never been determined as most of the evidence is circumstantial. However, Greg Ford of the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion, later relayed a disturbing story. He claimed that while still CIA station chief in Jeddah, several people had applied for visas to the United States. It was later revealed by ABC News and WikiLeaks that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 had obtained their visas either at the US embassy in Riyadh, or the consulate in Jeddah. According to Ford, the number two person at the Jeddah consulate refused to stamp the visas. A cursory review of the visa applications should have raised red flags as many were either missing information, or were incomprehensible. However, the station chief in Jeddah, John Brennan, overrode the concerns of consulate staffers and approved the visas.
At Brennan’s going away party in 1999, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Wyche Fowler, was so over-the-top in his praise of Brennan that several present thought he was drunk. Fowler was describing a Brennan they clearly did not see.