WASHINGTON — A former senior U.S. intelligence official Tuesday withdrew from consideration for a top intelligence post in the new Obama administration amid protests from liberal groups linking him to the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" and secret transfers of terrorism suspects to nations that torture prisoners and political opponents.
The move by John Brennan, a former senior CIA official and head of President-elect Barack Obama's intelligence transition team, is the first personnel setback to hit what's otherwise been a swift and smooth transition to the White House for Obama.
In a letter to Obama, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, Brennan denied involvement in the Bush administration's detainee and interrogation policies and said he was taking himself out of the running to avoid entangling the new administration in unnecessary controversy. Brennan, who held a succession of CIA posts, was reported to have been under consideration as the successor to CIA director Michael Hayden.
Obama is under pressure from liberal lawmakers and others to replace Hayden, a retired Air Force general, for overseeing and defending the Bush administration's program of eavesdropping on Americans' telephone and e-mail communications without court warrants while he was the head of the National Security Agency.
Obama voted in the Senate against Hayden's nomination to the CIA post in May 2006 to protest the eavesdropping program.
A former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter said that Brennan made his decision after he received signals from senior Obama transition officials that they were reconsidering his nomination because of the criticism of his tenure at the agency by liberal commentators, bloggers and others.
"The decision not to fight would not have been Brennan's," said the former senior intelligence official, who asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He's not the kind of guy who would run away from a fight."
There was no immediate comment from the Obama transition team.
Brennan's decision came just days before Obama is expected to begin unveiling his national security team, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the leading contender to be secretary of state and Defense Secretary Robert Gates expected to accept an extension in his post of up to one year.
Obama is also expected to name retired Marine Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser, retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence and former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations.
Brennan's appointment as head of Obama's intelligence transition team ignited a storm of protests by liberal commentators, bloggers and others who linked Brennan to the Bush administration's detainee and interrogation policies.
U.S. allies and many legal authorities have decried the secret transfers of detained terrorism suspects — known as extraordinary renditions — to nations that practice torture and interrogation practices such as water-boarding — which simulates drowning — in secret CIA prisons as illegal under international and U.S. laws.
The Bush administration insists that no laws were violated.
Brennan was serving in top intelligence community posts while the practices, which Obama has opposed, were under way.
In his letter to Obama, Brennan denied involvement in the decisions implementing the policies, and asserted that his internal criticism of the practices prompted the White House to twice block his promotion to more senior intelligence community positions.
"I am extremely proud of my 25-year record of intelligence work and I am prouder still of the courageous and heroic work performed by the men and women of the CIA over the past 60 years," Brennan wrote.
"It is with profound regret that I respectfully ask that my name be withdrawn from consideration for a position within the intelligence community. The challenges ahead for our nation are too daunting, and the role of the CIA too critical for there to be any distraction from the vital work that lays ahead."
Brennan said he'd remain head of the intelligence transition team.
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