John Brennan, right, a deputy national security advisor, confers with… (Pete Souza, White House )
In June 2011, in a major speech on anti-terrorism efforts, John Brennan made the startling claim that there hadn't been a "single collateral death" in more than 100 covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan over a 12-month period.
Yet just three months earlier, American missiles had rained down on what senior Pakistani officials said was a tribal council over a mining dispute in North Waziristan, killing as many as 45 men, most of whom the Pakistanis insist were neither members of the Taliban nor Al Qaeda.
It later emerged that, as one former senior intelligence official put it Monday, "It had to do with the way they were counting." Military-age males in the target zone were not considered civilian casualties.
Brennan, who was nominated Monday to be the next CIA director, is widely praised among intelligence veterans as smart and dedicated. Many of his former colleagues celebrated his selection, not only because he served for decades as a CIA officer, but because "he has the trust of the president," which is a spy chief's most important asset, said Michael Leiter, former chief of the National Counter Terrorism Center, the analysis nerve center that Brennan helped start.
But several people voiced a note of concern that could dog Brennan, now the White House counter-terrorism advisor, as he moves to a job requiring him to be an honest broker of intelligence: that his zeal to tout successes has gotten him in trouble.
"He is a horrendously political animal, and there will be a tendency to politicize information to put the best spin for the administration on it," said a former CIA officer who worked with Brennan a decade ago under then-Director George Tenet and who spoke anonymously in order to discuss a former colleague. "As chief of staff to Tenet, he was notorious for asking, 'How will this affect George?' He would say this at meetings."
Brennan's claim of no civilian casualties from drones, which has been challenged even by ardent supporters of the targeted-killing program, was based on CIA data, his supporters note. He later clarified that the U.S. had "not found credible evidence of collateral deaths." People briefed on the program say the level of civilian casualties is low, but it's not zero.
Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the criticisms of Brennan were groundless.
"John's first question on a given matter is, 'What does this mean for our national security?'" Vietor said. "He neither discusses nor cares about politics."
A son of Irish immigrants who settled in northern New Jersey, Brennan, 57, joined the CIA after graduate school and rose to become a senior operative. Fluent in Arabic, he traveled the Arabian Peninsula camping with tribesmen as chief of station in Saudi Arabia and once confronted his Iranian counterpart on the streets of Riyadh in a bid to unnerve him.
Brennan was advising Tenet when the George W. Bush administration and the CIA designed a detention and interrogation program for Al Qaeda prisoners that critics now say involved torture. Criticism for his role during that period, which has never been fully explored, cost him a chance at becoming CIA director during President Obama's first term.
In the White House, Brennan has been the public face of the administration's anti-terrorism efforts, and he has played a lead role in policy toward Yemen after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to bomb an airline flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
"He's quite strategic," another former CIA officer said. "He's watched the agency from both the inside and the outside, so he has a good feel for where the agency is good, where it's not so good."
Brennan had to correct himself in May 2011 after Osama bin Laden was shot and killed by Navy SEALs inside his compound in Pakistan. Brennan told reporters that Bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield and that he resisted capture.
It later emerged that Bin Laden had no weapon, was shot on sight, and did not use his wife as a shield. Brennan allies say he based his comments on erroneous first reports from the Pentagon, and his aim was to discredit Bin Laden, not hype an administration success.
Brennan has played a key role in the drone program, but in recent months he has sought to rein in CIA strikes and steer the agency back to its core mission of espionage, current and former officials say.
"Some people believe the CIA has gotten too tactical, too militarized, too focused on the counter-terrorism campaign," former CIA analyst Mark Lowenthal said. "The question is: Is he the right person to help foster the transition toward a more balanced agenda?"