President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor Thursday asserted that the administration is aggressively pursuing terrorists around the world, with an emphasis on diplomacy and civil liberties that eluded the Bush administration.
John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, addressed an audience of more than 250 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He noted that eight years to the day earlier, he read the now well-known intelligence assessment indicating that Osama bin Laden was intent on carrying out attacks on U.S. soil. The 9-11 attacks would come a month later.
“America could not prevent that attack. But the American people should know that we are doing everything within our power to prevent another attack,” said Brennan, a career CIA officer who briefly headed the new National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004 and 2005 before a stint in the private sector.
Brennan divided the administration’s counterterrorism efforts into two elements: the pursuit of al Qaeda and its allies, and outreach efforts aimed at thwarting the global spread of radical ideologies that spawn terrorist violence.
Brennan cited common criticisms of the administration’s counterterrorism efforts from the right and left, respectively: that Obama has retreated and that he has maintained the status quo set by the Bush Administration. “They can’t both be right, and in fact, they’re both wrong,” he said, describing Obama’s approach to counterterrorism “nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not idealogical.”
“Not only has he approved [current] operations, but he has encouraged us to be more aggressive, more proactive, and more innovative,” Brennan said of Obama.
The administration’s efforts, Brennan said, center on Afghanistan, Pakistan, east Africa, and the Trans Sahel, a geographic band that stretches across the center of North Africa.
Of the diplomatic push to stem the growth of radicalism, Brennan said the administration is working to foster civil liberties, democracy, and economic opportunity throughout the developing world, and not only where terrorists and their supporters compete for support.
In his prepared remarks, Brennan thoroughly parsed the semantics of the administration's fight against terrorism. Quoting Obama, he said that the United States is “at war with al Qaeda” and its allies. It is no longer, however, waging a “global war on terrorism,” which Brennan said bin Laden carried out the 9-11 attacks to instigate. Brennan further restated the president’s contention that the country is not at war with “jihad,” a term that many Muslims define in purely spiritual, nonviolent terms.
After delivering his speech, Brennan fielded questions from members of the audience, who raised a number of hot-button issues, including Obama’s orders to close the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo and Brennan’s reported resistance to Obama’s decision to release Bush Administration memos regarding interrogation. Brennan declined to answer those questions in detail.
Asked about press reports that while heading NCTC he was involved with domestic spying by the National Security Administration, Brennan said, “There’s a lot of hyperbole and misrepresentation about what happened,” but declined to speak further “because a lot of it is still classified.”
Photo of John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, by Pete Souza/WikiMediaCommons