When The Hackers Become The Hacked: Why Reading John Brennan's Emails Feels Wrong

Wikileaks' dump of Brennan's emails didn't reveal any state secrets, but it did put observers in an odd position.

WASHINGTON ― In a highly anticipated email dump, Wikileaks on Wednesday released the first of what is expected to be a series of CIA Director John Brennan’s personal emails.

The correspondence comes from a self-described “stoner” hacker, who says he achieved something quite sensational ― accessing the spy chief’s personal AOL email account ― in a cleverly unsensational way ― duping Verizon and AOL into giving him the login details. (Disclosure: Verizon owns AOL and The Huffington Post.)

And he found plenty. Wednesday’s release contains letters from Congress, unclassified policy documents on Iran, a sheet on the agency’s positions in a changing intelligence landscape and a doomed bill on interrogation methods.

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the dumped emails wasn’t the information they contained. Most of it was benign, published previously or generally uninteresting, except for the now-CIA director’s 47-page 2008 SF-86 form, the standard official document required to obtain a security clearance.

The information itself wasn’t particularly interesting. More striking was the fact that the man tasked with guarding some of America’s darkest secrets had suddenly had so many of his own splashed all over the Internet.

Except the secrets weren’t that dark. And they weren’t even all his. The emails revealed the addresses and phone numbers of his adult children and his friends. And in a particularly brazen and arguably irresponsible move, WikiLeaks even revealed the Social Security number of Brennan’s wife, Katherine, to whom he’s been married for 38 years. (Their anniversary, we learned, is Aug. 13.)

His friend, George Tenet, whom he listed as a reference, lives near Central Park in New York City. Tenet was the CIA director while the agency’s torture program was going on, and has seen his fair share of controversy. He’s also Brennan’s former boss and has long been known as one of his confidants. A call to the number listed for Tenet was answered by a woman. When asked if the number belonged to Tenet, she said no.

Brennan’s children ― his son Kyle and daughter Jaclyn ― live in Virginia. Their addresses are the same as Brennan’s home address, or at least they were in 2008.

These details, particularly Katherine Brennan’s Social Security number, aren’t of particular interest to anyone with good intentions. Addresses can be helpful, especially to journalists doing reporting, but we have ways of finding them. And when we do, we don’t tend to dump them on social media.

But Wikileaks is not bound by the journalistic code that most news organizations adhere to. (A request for comment from a public relations representative for the group was not returned.)

To some, it seemed a delightfully cruel irony: America’s spy chief, keeper of secrets, forced to frantically try and guard his own. But to others ― including some of the people whose very job it is to be critical of Brennan and his agency ― Wednesday’s email dump felt different. It felt slimy. A bit exploitative. It feels odd to challenge Brennan and the CIA on things like his agency’s historical disregard for citizens’ personal privacy ― and then turn around and casually disregard his.

The unexpected appearance of these personal details on our computer screens had an odd effect. Stripped down to a black and white SF-86 form, John Brennan looked like a person ― and a violated one at that. He’s someone who went to counseling. He has a wife. And a Social Security number. And parents and siblings and friends, all of whom have now had the unpleasant but increasingly common experience of seeing personal information relegated to Twitter fodder.

Unofficial channels suggest the hack is legitimate, and we’ve heard little otherwise to suggest the emails aren’t authentic. So it seems that at least for now, the most personal information about Brennan and his family is now in the public domain.

It’s true that Brennan is a controversial figure. At the time he would have filled out the SF-86 form, mid-November 2008, President Barack Obama had just won the White House and Brennan was on his way to one of the White House’s top national security spots. He was widely rumored to be Obama’s pick for CIA chief in 2008 ― was he thinking of Langley’s top-floor office when he filled out this form? ― but was taken out of the running due to his links with the Bush-era torture program.

Instead of the agency, Brennan spent years in the White House as Obama’s chief counterterrorism and national security advisor, where he made a name for himself as the czar of the Administration’s controversial drone program. In early 2013 ― after the stain of the Bush years had had a few years to fade ― Obama finally tapped Brennan to return to the agency he had called home for nearly three decades.

Still, Brennan’s children do not pull the drone triggers ― at least we don’t think so. And it’s probably safe to assume his wife did not sign off on kill lists or waterboarding. That’s why paging through the personal emails of John Owen Brennan felt a little less like reporting, and a little more like snooping.

Akbar S. Ahmed contributed reporting.

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