Although the president’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, led an unsuccessful effort in October to persuade European leaders to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group, the man President Barack Obama has chosen to lead the CIA hasn’t always been convinced the label fits. Brennan argued from 2006 to 2010 for a more permissive view of the Iran-backed Lebanese militants best known in America for bombing a U.S. Marine barracks in 1983.
In an August 2006 C-SPAN interview, Brennan said the second-deadliest terror organization in U.S. history should be understood not as a thoroughly evil force, but as a “complex” organization with a “social and political nature.”
“Americans throughout the country really have to have a better sense of what’s going on in the world,” Brennan said in that interview, “because world events affect our lives whether we live in Washington, or we live in Indiana, or in California. And unfortunately, sometimes there is an unsophisticated understanding of some of these challenges.” (RELATED: In graduate thesis, John Brennan argued for government censorship: “Too much freedom is possible”)
“For example … it would be nice to be able to put Hezbollah in a category of being totally evil, but Hezbollah as an organization is a very complex one that has terrorist arm to it. It has a social and political nature to it as well.”
“You can’t divide the world into good and evil,” Brennan continued. “There is a lot of good out there that tends to be camouflaged along with the evil. What we need to do as a government and a people is to really have a better appreciation of the needs and the challenges that people throughout the world face.”
Hezbollah, a dominant Shiite group in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the Oct. 23, 1983 truck bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 members of a U.S. peacekeeping military force. The attack marked the deadliest single day for the U.S. military since the beginning of the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Earlier that same year, a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 63 Americans in a blast that leveled portions of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
But Brennan’s remarks on C-SPAN, along with others he has made since then, suggest the Obama administration’s top spy will see America’s Middle Eastern foes in a different light.
“Though Brennan has made relatively few public statements, these should be understood as coming from Obama’s ‘counterterror brain,'” Center for Security Policy Strategic Communications Vice President David Reaboi told The Daily Caller. “The massive strategic blunders, empowering Islamist groups around the globe, are right in line with Brennan’s worldview and almost certainly emanate from his office.”
Angelo Codevilla, professor emeritus at Boston University and fellow at the Claremont Institution, has heard Brennan-style arguments before. He has worked in the U.S. Foreign Service, the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and President Ronald Reagan’s transition team.
“The argument is always that they [Islamist terrorists] do things other than cutting people’s throats,” Codevilla told TheDC, referring to Brennan’s view of a more “complex” Hezbollah.
“Of course the courts have rejected that argument when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he explained. “That same logic applies to Hezbollah.”
Despite Hezbollah’s history of subverting democratic processes, Brennan has long argued for including Hezbollah in the democratic process in Lebanon.
“It would not be foolhardy … for the United States to tolerate, and even to encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system, a process that is subject to Iranian influence,” he wrote in a 2008 essay published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an academic journal.
“[R]educing the influence of violent extremists within the organization as well as the influence of extremist Iranian officials … is to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes,” Brennan explained.
And increasing Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanese government, he added, would likely mean convincing Israel to abandon its “aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force.”
Brennan’s 2008 essay was published just two months after Hezbollah’s military wing committed a series of terrorist attacks in Beirut.
During an August 2009 conference at the liberal Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan said Hezbollah “started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time.”
“And now it has members of parliament, in the cabinet. There are lawyers, doctors, others who are part of the Hezbollah organization. … And so, quite frankly, I’m pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process [in Lebanon] in a very legitimate fashion.”
State Department spokesman Robert Wood denied one week later, however, that the Obama administration drew a distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. “Until Hezbollah decides that it’s going to change and stop carrying out the acts of terrorism and other acts that are causing instability in the region, there’s no reason for our policy to change,” Wood said, specifically answering questions about Brennan’s remarks.
Brennan continued offering support for some elements inside Hezbollah, following his May 2010 visit to Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Reuters quoted Brennan telling a Washington conference. It had changed from “purely a terrorist organization” to a more robust political movement, he said.
“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said, giving no indication of who Hezbollah’s moderate elements were, or how he would empower them.
In October 2012, Brennan met with European leaders in a failed attempt to press the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization — a move that was widely seen as undercut by the Obama administration’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. In 2006, Hagel was one of only a dozen U.S. senators who refused to sign a letter calling on the E.U. to call Hezbollah a terrorist group. (RELATED: Obama nominates Hagel as defense secretary, Brennan as CIA chief)
Reaboi told TheDC that Brennan exhibits a “lack understanding of what motivates the self-identified Islamic movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas.”
“It’s not hyperbole to suggest Brennan’s directives shut down free inquiry into terrorist threats and disarm the nation’s intelligence apparatus,” he said.