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Profile: Denis McDonough
Denis McDonough was a participant or observer in the following events:
President-elect Barack Obama orders two days of secret briefings with the CIA on interrogation policies and procedures. He sends his chief counsel, Gregory Craig; his nominated National Security Adviser, James Jones; foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough; former senators David Boren (D-OK) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE); and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith to Langley. They meet with CIA Director Michael Hayden, his deputy Stephen Kappes, and about 20 senior CIA officials, who brief Obama’s team on the agency’s counterterrorism and rendition programs. In the briefings, Hayden and his colleagues argue for the preservation of the agency’s secret prison and torture programs. Hayden acknowledges that the agency stopped using the secret prisons in 2006, and says that agency operatives stopped using waterboarding as an interrogation method in 2003. He wants the CIA to retain its option to use other “harsh methods” as needed. During the briefings, CIA officials acknowledge that some foreign intelligence agencies have begun withholding information about suspected terrorists from the agency for fear that they might become implicated in the eventual torture of those suspects. As Boren and Smith will later recall, the group is not convinced that whatever useful intelligence those methods may have garnered warrants keeping them as an option. “They said that they had produced valuable intelligence,” Smith will recall. “We took them at their word.” However, the group decides that “whatever utility it had at the outset… the secret prisons and enhanced techniques were no longer playing a useful role—the costs outweighed the gains.” Those costs include the palpable damage to America’s identity and values, and the lost credibility and prestige among many of its closest allies. Boren will later call attending the briefings “one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I have had.… I wanted to take a bath when I heard it. I was ashamed of it.” He believes that “fear was used to justify the use of techniques that violate our values and weaken our intelligence,” and that the agency did not prove those methods “are particularly effective at getting the truth.” [Washington Post, 4/24/2009]
According to ABC News, the Justice Department’s release of a 2004 report by the CIA’s inspector general (see May 7, 2004 and August 24, 2009) is preceded by a “profanity-laced screaming match” between CIA Director Leon Panetta and White House officials. This apparently produces disquiet among White House officials regarding Panetta. According to ABC News, some White House officials are “worrying about the direction of its newly-appoint[ed] intelligence team.” Some reports say that Panetta has already threatened to resign once, and White House officials are discussing “a possible shake-up of top national security officials.” According to one unnamed “senior adviser to [President] Obama on intelligence matters,” “You can expect a larger than normal turnover in the next year.” And another former senior intelligence official predicts, “Leon will be leaving.” But a White House spokesman, Denis McDonough, says the reports of Panetta’s threatened resignation and a potential “shake-up” of top intelligence and national security officials are “inaccurate.” Both Panetta and CIA spokesman George Little say reports of his threatened resignation are “absolutely untrue”; the spokesman says of the alleged tirade that Panetta is known to use “salty language.” Former counterterrorism specialist and current ABC News consultant Richard Clarke says: “It would be a shame if such as talented a Washington hand as Panetta were to leave after one year. It takes that long for any senior bureaucrat to begin to understand what needs to get done and how to do it. The CIA needs some stability.” [ABC News, 8/24/2009] Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball says that Panetta has been sending mixed messages. “Panetta had been kind of ambiguous, at least in terms of his public statements and even his private messages, as to whether he’s strongly opposed to release of documents like this or not,” he says. “Some cases it’s looked like he’s been in favor of releasing documents like this; in other cases, it’s looked like he’s been against it. I think he’s trying to straddle the issue here. I mean, certainly, previous CIA directors like General Mike Hayden and George Tenet have strongly expressed the view that this stuff shouldn’t have been released. Panetta hasn’t been quite as strong in saying that publicly, anyway.” [PBS, 8/24/2009]
In the evening, President Obama meets with his national security team to make final preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan (see March 30-April 19, 2011). Obama meets with four advisers: National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and chief of staff Bill Daley. As the meeting begins, Obama tells them he has finally given approval for the raid. He says, “It’s a go.” The raid is planned to take place the next day. However, officials warn that because of cloudy weather, the raid probably will be delayed one day to May 1 (which is May 2 in Pakistan). That will turn out to be the case (see May 2, 2011). [New York Times, 5/2/2011; ABC News, 6/9/2011]
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