/ Published May 19, 2021
Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad by John O. Brennan. New York: Celadon Books, 2020, 446 pp.
John Brennan’s autobiography, Undaunted, is a useful and sometimes lively addition to the scholarship on US foreign policy and intelligence. The work discusses Brennan’s life and career, including his service as CIA director and, to some extent, his postretirement years. As a college student, Brennan participated in an exchange program that allowed him to study at American University in Cairo, and this overseas experience helped lead him to join the CIA. Shortly after entering that organization, he decided he was best suited for a career in analysis rather than in operations and obtained a position as a Middle East political analyst. As his career developed, he did analytical work on the region at the CIA’s headquarters and later while visiting and living in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. He also studied Arabic and admits that he would learn, forget, and relearn the language as his assignments caused him to travel between Virginia and the region and he assumed positions of progressive responsibility.
In a major step boosting his career, Brennan became the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) shortly after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991. In this role, he briefed President George H. W. Bush, whom he instantly liked and respected (especially since Bush was a former CIA director). He also maintains that the CTC uncovered Iraqi agents and forced Baghdad to cancel key terrorist plans. Later, Brennan left the CTC and became one of the briefers for President Clinton and Vice President Gore. This position required him to discuss worldwide events and not simply the Middle East and terrorism issues. He correspondingly put in grinding hours of preparation but also benefited by coming to the attention of George Tenet, then the senior director for international programs at the National Security Council. When Tenet rose to CIA deputy director in July 1995, he made Brennan one of his senior aides. Later, in 1997, Tenet became CIA director, while Brennan was assigned to a series of important positions that placed him on a plausible path for the top CIA leadership. While serving with Tenet, Brennan strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq due to his Middle East experience and his resistance to what he saw as oversimplified views of the region.
Brennan was selected to lead the newly established National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004, with the title of interim director. This was an organization with personnel and intelligence drawn from multiple agencies. He was not selected for the formal position of director, however, and subsequently retired from government service, becoming the CEO of a small northern Virginia firm. He also served as an advisor to the Obama presidential campaign. Shortly after Obama was elected, he asked Brennan to become CIA director but quickly ran into Senate opposition due to Brennan’s refusal to call CIA enhanced interrogation techniques “torture” and his assertion that these practices were unethical but legal. Eventually, the administration accepted his offer to withdraw the nomination, and he was appointed Obama’s White House assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism (which did not require Senate confirmation). In this role, he provided input to critical White House decisions, such as the best way to eliminate Osama bin Laden. During the Arab Spring, he was also bedeviled by what he called ”very unrealistic expectations among some of my White House colleagues that democracy was certain to flourish in Egypt and other Arab countries once longtime rulers were pushed aside” (pp. 261–62). These individuals learned a harsh lesson about the difficulties of embracing unrealistic scenarios so completely. Later, Obama used his political clout to gain Senate confirmation for Brennan to become CIA director, despite the concern that he had not vigorously opposed excesses in that organization’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program. As CIA director, Brennan faced enormous bureaucratic headaches and had significant disagreement with congressional figures of both parties. He retired in 2017 following President Trump’s assumption of office.
As any modern consumer of political news knows, Brennan does not think highly of former President Trump. Some of the problems between them are discussed in Undaunted, and Brennan does not pull punches despite admonitions by some that he was going beyond the role of a retired CIA director. He was particularly incensed by what he saw as Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and Trump’s unwillingness to take more serious action against Russian efforts to meddle in US elections. However, those readers looking for a book devoted to attacking Trump will be disappointed. Relatively little space is accorded to the former president, and this work is rather a wide-ranging discussion of major intelligence issues, albeit with political overtones. Moreover, Brennan is deeply critical of a number of politicians of both parties, who have, in his opinion, created unnecessary difficulties for the intelligence community as it moves forward with its missions.
Dr. W. Andrew Terrill
Professor Emeritus, US Army War College
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."