Shortly before he died in July 1988, former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips said that “My final take on the assassination [of JFK] is there was a conspiracy, likely including American intelligence officers.” He left an unpublished book which was supposed to be fictional in which he wrote “I was one of those officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald… We gave him the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba… I don’t know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the president’s assassination, but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt.” For those who think the CIA played a part in the assassination of JFK, David Atlee Phillips has long been one of the prime suspects, but you don’t have to subscribe to such conspiracy theories to understand that no leader of any country will lightly take on their own intelligence agencies and hold them accountable for actions they may have taken with a prior executive’s approval.

These type of considerations, more than the self-serving motivations attributed to President Obama by Conor Friedersdorf, probably explain why John Brennan isn’t being fired. Without question, John Brennan should be fired. That he isn’t being fired shows that the president is simply afraid to fire him. Friedersdorf explains this fear as trepidation that Brennan will spill damaging secrets that make Obama look like some kind of war criminal himself. I think the fear is more related to the kind of murderous rage than might ensue if the CIA is held to account for their performance in the aftermath of 9/11. Whether this fear is well-founded or not, it is not irrational. Just look at what the CIA has already done to try to cover its tracks.

CIA officer Jose Rodriguez ordered the destruction of 92 video tapes of the CIA torturing people in their custody and at their mercy. He says he did it to prevent retaliation from al-Qaeda, but we all know that he was primarily motivated by his desire to keep himself and his guilty colleagues out of prison.

After this, they stonewalled an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and even went so far as to break into the committee’s computers and read their emails. They not only lied about having done this, but they filed phony charges with the Department of Justice accusing these staffers of doing their own hacking. Finally, they redacted the hell out of the committee’s report on their torturing activities in a final effort to prevent accountability.

Throughout this process, the Director of Central Intelligence, John Brennan, has lied over and over again.

“As far as the allegations of the CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth,” Brennan told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in March. “We wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the, you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we do.”

Earlier, he had castigated “some members of the Senate” for making “spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.” He called for an end to “outbursts that do a disservice to the important relationship that needs to be maintained between intelligence officials and Congressional overseers.”

The administration defends John Brennan’s actions by correctly pointing out that he was the one who asked the Inspector General to investigate this matter, and it’s true that he did that and that he is allowing the investigation to go forward. But he also obstructed the investigation, leveled false charges at the Senate Intelligence Committee staff, filed those charges with Department of Justice, and oversees a process that has overly redacted their report.

By any normal standard, John Brennan would be prosecuted for his actions. But he is being protected by the administration. I don’t think this is best explained by the idea that Brennan is doing a good job in other respects. He’s a major embarrassment to the administration and protecting him makes them look extremely bad. From the very beginning of his administration, I think President Obama has simply been afraid to take on the Intelligence Community. And his official rationale is morally bankrupt.

Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And, you know, it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots, but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects.

This is how the president rebukes these unnamed CIA officers for acting contrary to our values without daring to hold them accountable despite what the law and our treaties say. It would be overly “sanctimonious” to hold them accountable. In actuality, it would be dangerous to hold them accountable. If anything is “sanctimonious,” it is the failure to recognize that danger.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at