Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

A Conversation with Former CIA Director John Brennan

In his time since leaving Langley, John Brennan has continued to be a fixture in the news. He has not
gone gently into the night, trading barbs with President Trump and finding himself on the receiving end
of more than a few Twitter tirades. Brennan has cast the President as dishonest and unfit for office, while Trump
has repeatedly criticized the former CIA chief. The feud culminated two months ago, when the White House announced it was revoking Brennan’s security clearance.

As CIA director, Brennan was at the forefront of high-stakes moments in the Obama presidency: the Snowden leaks, conflicts and uprisings in the Middle East, the use of lethal drone strikes, the planning of the Abottabad raid, and the killing of Bin Laden. The Baines Report caught up with Brennan to discuss public service in the current political atmosphere, why the CIA needs to diversify, and the big geopolitical issues of the day.

You’ve made a few trips down to Texas since departing the CIA. Are you enjoying the freedom that comes with transitioning back to civilian life? 

Leaving government? It’s my second retirement. What I’ve decided to do is give back to my two alma maters, the University of Texas and Fordham. I’ve been telling students here about the importance of public service, intelligence, and law enforcement, and telling them to disregard a lot of the rhetoric in Washington right now.  This is a time when the country needs the best and brightest to ensure our future security and prosperity. I have been outspoken on some matters. My preference would be to not have that type of public profile, but I feel compelled to lend my voice to those who have concerns about the direction of things right now.

I’m sure some students feel dissuaded from entering public service, given the current political atmosphere. What’s your advice for them?

A student graduating from University of Texas right now would be entry- or mid-level. They have responsibilities to carry out the mission and will not be affected by the political winds that blow. It’s different than being appointed as a senior official, where they’d be interacting with some of the directives and policies coming out of the White House. When you go into your job and carry out your duties, you’re not a Republican or Democrat. You are a CIA agent or FBI officer.

You’ve talked publicly a bit before about diversifying the CIA. How was that shaped by your earlier days there?

When I started in the 1980s, it was a white male-dominated bastion. Members of the LGBT community couldn’t get security clearances. I found that to be an egregious violation of their rights, but I also felt that the agency was being deprived of the richness of diversity. I don’t think there’s another agency in the government that can make a better case for diversity and inclusion. CIA is supposed to be the eyes and ears of this government on the global stage. We need people with all different backgrounds, cultures and social experiences. I made it a real push during my directorship. There’s a very strong business case for the CIA to diversify. It makes us a better organization, but I also think the CIA should be representative of the American people.

Was there hesitation among the people you were bringing in, or among the CIA’s rank-and-file? Or was it relatively seamless?

There was reluctance in both camps. Students from underrepresented groups would take a look at some of our demographic statistics and worry they were just going to be the token officer from the Hispanic or African-American community. We tried to have people from the agency who had those backgrounds explain to people what true opportunities there are.

There was also opposition within the CIA. Traditional workforces tend to be rather slow to change. Sometimes people will see things that are new as a threat to them. There was also some resistance against initiatives we had on the LGBT front. I took into account the diversity of views. But if you believe it’s the right thing to do, you have to make sure your leadership team believes that as well. This meant showing the workforce, as well as the people you’re trying to attract, that this is real and not just lip service.

How does all this help the mission?

It goes back to the fact that the CIA is supposed to have a global awareness and a global presence. We send people all over the world. There are some places I can go in the streets and look like a local. And there are places that I can’t. If you are operating clandestinely in another country, you want someone who can look, talk, and think like the locals. The world is a big place, so I wanted to make sure we had that within our workforce. It helps the mission and our ability to operate. Having people from different backgrounds — even different schools — helps. A New England perspective is going to be different than an El Paso perspective.

Switching gears a bit, your colleague Gina Haspel delivered her first public remarks a couple weeks ago. She discussed the CIA’s changing priorities. Do you think that this shift, from counterterrorism to strategic competition between nations, is befitting of the changing global threat landscape?

Over the agency’s 70-year career, adjustments are made to the balance of various priorities. Certainly after 9/11, the agency was asked to dedicate a large amount of its resources to try and prevent something like that from happening again. With the degradation of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as the emerging power of China and what Russia’s doing on a number of fronts, it makes sense to have this re-balancing. Out of crisis comes action or reaction. Right now, the de-emphasis of counterterrorism would change dramatically if an airliner went down over the U.S. That’s just what the U.S. does. Or if you saw a major cyberattack on the electric grid or something else, that would spur the government into action.

How is the intelligence community grappling with the low-grade, short-of-war measures that we see adversaries increasingly taking up, such as the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election?

I think the government is still wrapping its mind around the widespread propagation of information through these social media platforms, from the most bogus claims to the most accurate. How do you prevent that from wreaking havoc or influencing elections? It’s difficult to balance the need for free speech and being vulnerable to exploitation as a nation, to others that will use information campaigns when they can. It’s a really, really tough dilemma. We are still grappling with it, not just as a government but as a society.

As a CIA director, you had a front-row seat as the U.S. uncovered the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election. Are you worried that we’ll see this again — in just over a month in the midterms, in 2020, and beyond?

There were several dimensions of what Russians did in the 2016 election. They went into systems, stole emails, and released that. And then there’s the whole information side. There are a lot of countries and non-state actors that can go in and access information and sit on it. I think some actors may be considering that, but it’s more on the information operation side that is the lesson that we’re taking away from 2016. There is accurate information, misinformation that is wrong but the propagator doesn’t realize it’s wrong, and disinformation, which is intentionally wrong. And all of this can be used to manipulate.

I think we’ll see more of these efforts to influence popular understanding or thinking or electorate leanings. Whether or not it’s the Russians — or even the Chinese, we’re in a trade war right now — this is the digital public square. It is a rich opportunity for different entities to push information in there.

Who are you most worried about in cyberspace?

Well obviously, Russia, by demonstrated actions, is a real concern. China, because over the years we’ve seen a lot of Chinese intrusions. North Korea, with its attacks against Sony Entertainment that were destructive. The Iranians, with their denial-of-service attacks back in 2012 against externally facing websites of a number of U.S. banks. There are many other countries with real capabilities.

I think we’re nearing — or just recently passed — the one-year anniversary of you registering a Twitter account. How’s it going so far? Do you like it?

It’s an outlet. Not my preferred outlet, because with 280 characters you have to be rather pithy. Sometimes that pithiness can be an inhibitor to clarity. It’s tough to be fully descriptive in these things. But I also decided to get a Twitter because I didn’t want to cede the Twittersphere to those who are perpetrators of dishonesty and misrepresentations. I go out there to try to address and criticize those who are inaccurately depicting events or unfairly maligning my former colleagues.

Last question, you knew it was coming. To the best of your knowledge, do you still have a security clearance?

I don’t know.

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