WASHINGTON — The leading candidate to be CIA director for President-elect Barack Obama withdrew from consideration Tuesday amid mounting opposition from liberal groups, marking the first time that the incoming administration appeared to bow to outside pressure on a high-level appointment.
The withdrawal of John Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and the top intelligence advisor to Obama, complicates the next administration's desire to have a smooth transition on intelligence matters at a time when U.S. spy agencies are involved in two wars and confront the ongoing threat of Al Qaeda.
In a pointed letter to Obama, Brennan removed his name from consideration even while lashing out at critics, whom he accused of distorting his record on the controversial intelligence policies of the Bush administration.
"It has been immaterial to the critics that I have been a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding," Brennan said, referring to a widely condemned interrogation method in which a detainee is made to feel he is drowning.
"The fact that I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored," Brennan said.
Brennan was responding to criticism from an array of outside groups that had begun lobbying the Obama team to find another candidate for the top CIA job.
In a letter sent to Obama last week and signed by dozens of psychologists opposed to harsh interrogation methods, Brennan was described as a "supporter of the 'dark side' policies" of the Bush administration.
The group noted that Brennan had held senior positions under former CIA Director George J. Tenet. A Brennan appointment "would dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration," they said.
Brennan spent a 25-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, serving in a series of high-level posts. Most recently, he was head of the National Counterterrorism Center, which was created in the efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks to improve coordination among the nation's 16 spy agencies on threat data.
He left the government in 2005, and has served as chief executive of the Analysis Corp., a Washington-area consulting firm.
Obama's decisions on intelligence are being watched closely because of the controversy over Bush administration policies and the possibility that U.S. interrogators may require legal protection against prosecution for their use of harsh methods. Transition officials have signaled that Obama is unlikely to pursue prosecutions, but President Bush is believed to be considering preemptive pardons.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials voiced concern that Brennan's withdrawal suggested a standard within the Obama camp that might disqualify any candidate who had recent ties to the nation's preeminent spy agency.
"If you want an intelligence professional -- and they seem to be leaning in that direction -- you're left with somebody who hasn't worked there for eight years," said a senior Democratic aide in Congress. "I don't know who fits that bill."
Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for Obama's transition team, said the president-elect had accepted Brennan's decision.
"John Brennan has served our nation with honor and is a man of talent and integrity," Cutter said, adding that Obama "is grateful" for Brennan's transition work.
It was unclear whether Brennan had been pressured or asked to submit his letter of withdrawal. A former senior U.S. intelligence official close to Brennan indicated that Brennan was pushed.
"John's not the kind of guy who would run away from a fight," said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when sharing personal observations. "And he's very comfortable with his past actions and positions and views. I think he would have stood up well in any confirmation process."
One official on the Obama transition team said that it was Brennan's choice to bow out, and that he had not been asked to withdraw. The official noted that the campaign had staunchly supported other controversial candidates, including economic advisor Lawrence H. Summers, who came under fire for comments he made as president of Harvard University that were considered demeaning to women.
But a Democrat knowledgeable about the transition said that "it would have been too much" for the Obama team to bring in an official seen as too close to the disputed practices of the Bush administration. Such a choice would have alienated not only hard-core Democratic supporters who expect change, but allies in the Arab world, Europe and elsewhere who expect a clean break from the Bush era.
Critics seized on Brennan's comments defending former CIA colleagues after he left government.