When I arrived at Obama’s Chicago headquarters, I met Denis and Mark Lippert, another close adviser to Obama, as I was getting on the elevator. I had heard Mark’s name many times before but had never met him during the campaign. Like Denis, Mark was nearly twenty years my junior and dressed very casually. Smiling profusely, Mark extended his hand and said, “Well, I finally get to meet the famous John Brennan!”
“You mean ‘infamous,’ don’t you?” I responded. I knew that Obama had surrounded himself with advisers who were rather critical of the CIA and its Bush-era activities, so I figured that my CIA affiliation was a black mark against me in the eyes of some. Not so with Mark and Denis, I found out pretty quickly, as both had a healthy understanding of, and respect for, the Agency’s mission and workforce.
After about ten minutes of small talk with Denis, Mark, and a couple of other folks in the office, I was informed that the president-elect was ready to see me. I looked at Denis, expecting that he would be joining me in the meeting. “You’re on your own for this one, John,” he said, with his trademark grin plastered across his face. I was then guided into a warm and modestly appointed empty office and was directed to take a chair across from where the president-elect would sit. I decided to remain standing, as I could feel the butterflies in my stomach starting to flutter. The feeling was remarkably similar to what I experienced when I met a president for the first time, a little more than eighteen years previously. Although I had met dozens of presidents, prime ministers, kings, and other world leaders in the intervening years, I was more nervous in advance of this meeting than any I could remember.
I had been in the office only a couple of minutes when Obama entered the room with a broad toothy smile that put Denis’s Minnesota smirk to shame.
“Hi, John,” Obama said in a full and friendly voice. “Thanks for coming all the way to Chicago. I hope your travel went well.”
Obama’s smile was captivating, and his demeanor had the effect of immediately neutralizing the butterflies. “Hello, sir. Thanks so much for the invitation.” Losing all pretensions of formality, I proceeded to relate my experience at the airport, telling him that I thought my high school buddies had put Denis up to the ploy.
“Sounds like you went to school with the same type of classmates I had,” he joked. I didn’t think his smile could get larger, but it did.
After another minute or two of pleasantries, he got down to business. “I’ve read about your background, but maybe you can flesh out some of the highlights of your CIA career and tell me what you think about the role and responsibilities of the intelligence community, especially the CIA.”
“Glad to, sir.” I then spoke for about ten minutes. I started with an account of the summer I spent in Indonesia more than thirty years before, hoping to break the ice by referencing my brief visit to the country where he lived for four years as a teenager. I touched upon my study in Cairo and other life experiences and talked about America’s special place and responsibilities in the world. I finished up with a quick list of the key national security challenges his administration would face, including on the terrorism front. At this point he interjected.
“Tell me what you think is the CIA’s appropriate counterterrorism role.”
On the flight to Chicago, I had mentally prepared for how I would characterize the CIA’s record and decided it was best to put all my cards on the table. “I was very proud to serve in the CIA for twenty-five years. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly during that time. What I can say without reservation is that the CIA’s work and mission are essential for America’s safety and security as well as for global stability. But I also recognize that the CIA’s history includes significant missteps, some of its own making and others at the direction of policy makers.” I talked about my views toward the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. I said that I was not in the chain of command for the program and that it never should have been undertaken by the CIA, which had no experience in detaining and interrogating individuals. I also explained why I did not use the term “torture” when referring to the enhanced interrogation techniques, since they were approved and deemed lawful by the Department of Justice. I could see that Obama was listening carefully to me, although he showed no visible reaction to my comments. I also talked about the importance of avoiding the loss of innocent lives during counterterrorism operations, which did bring a nod of approval from the president-elect. I then started to tick off a short scorecard on the CIA’s successes and failures during my time at the Agency. Before long, however, I could see Obama’s eyelids start to get heavy, as if they were in a race with the setting sun visible through his office window. I tried to enliven my remarks with hand gestures, which had no apparent effect.
I looked down at my watch and saw that I was at the thirty-five-minute mark of what was scheduled to be a thirty-minute meeting. I knew that Obama had been on a grueling schedule since Election Day, and it appeared to be catching up with him. Either that or I was more boring than usual. “Well, Mr. President-elect,” I said in a louder-than-normal voice, “I really appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and to wish you well as you get ready for your inauguration.” Obama straightened his slumping posture, smiled, and bid me a kind goodbye.
“Thanks for coming all the way out to Chicago,” he said. “I hope to get to see you after I arrive in Washington.”
I left Chicago that day not knowing whether the invitation to meet with Obama was simply a courtesy to say thanks for supporting his campaign or was a job interview. Before the meeting, I was outwardly agnostic but inwardly excited about a potential return to government service. My family and I had grown accustomed to the salary and the hours of private-sector life over the preceding three years, and I knew that letting it go would be difficult for all of us. When I called Kathy from the airport, however, she could already sense that I wanted to join the incoming Obama administration. “He’s impressive,” I said to Kathy. “He’s really, really impressive. I think he will do great things for the country.”
“Does this mean that you will accept a job if he offers you one?”
I knew Kathy was an even bigger fan of Obama than I was, so I turned the tables on her. “Would you like me to work for him?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I could sense her silent smile over the phone.
Denis called me the following day to ask if I enjoyed the meeting. “Absolutely. He’s going to make a great president,” was all that I could say. Denis quickly shifted to the real purpose of his call.
“There’s a lot of work to do between now and Inauguration Day, and we need someone to take the lead on the intelligence portfolio for the transition team. Would you be willing to do that?”
Without asking what it would entail, I again readily agreed, telling Denis that I would be happy to do whatever I could to facilitate the transition. After several more conversations with transition folks over the next few days, I realized that joining the Obama transition team as a full-time member involved a variety of ethical rules and requirements that were designed to guard against any potential conflict-of-interest issues. Most significantly, I was informed that I needed to take an unpaid leave of absence from TAC as well as from INSA for the entire ten-week transition period, a loss in pay of nearly sixty thousand dollars. On top of the lost income from CBS News, Obama was fast becoming a rather expensive acquaintance.
With little understanding of what my transition duties would entail, I was very happy to hear that my former CIA colleague Jami Miscik had also been invited to be part of the effort. We quickly agreed that we would co-lead the intelligence transition team. Along with about a half-dozen other recruits, including a couple of Hill staffers, we were given workspace in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at Liberty Crossing where we could review files, meet with intelligence officials, and prepare a report on the “state of intelligence” for the incoming Obama administration.
I also was given an office at the president-elect’s transition headquarters, a building in downtown Washington that accommodated several hundred staff as well as the president-elect’s most senior advisers. I was heading out of the building to my car at about 6:00 P.M. on Thursday evening, November 13, when I received a call on my BlackBerry from an unidentified number.
“Hi, John, it’s Barack.”
“Hi, Barack … I mean hello, Mr. President … I mean Mr. President-elect.” Getting personal calls from a future occupant of the Oval Office was new to me, and I didn’t yet have the routine down, especially when answering an unexpected call.
Obama opened by saying that he enjoyed meeting me in Chicago and thanking me for my work on the transition. He then got to the point of the phone call. “John, I would like you to be my director of the CIA.” The words had the effect of pushing my mute button, as I held my BlackBerry in stunned silence. “John? John, are you there?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I’m just a bit speechless. I don’t know what to say other than it would be the greatest honor of my life. Thank you, sir.”
“Great,” he said. “Obviously, you will need to go through the normal background check and a vetting process before an announcement is made, but I know that you’ve been through these things during your CIA career. Denis or someone else handling nominations will be reaching out to you in a few days on next steps.”
To say that I was dumbfounded would be a vast understatement. I was deeply honored, more than I could express. It was an exceptionally surreal moment, and my thoughts quickly flashed back to when I started my CIA career as a newly minted GS-9 officer more than twenty-eight years before.
And now I was being asked by the next president of the United States to be “the” CIA director.
Once the shock wore off, I immediately ducked into a nearby alley to call Kathy. “You will never guess who I just spoke to,” I said. “Barack Obama! And he asked me to be CIA director!” A few shrieks and tears followed on both sides of the conversation. It felt so good to share the news with the person who made my career possible.