CIA Director Brennan Denies Hacking Allegations
A Conversation with John O. Brennan
Director, Central Intelligence Agency
Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News
CIA Director John O. Brennan discusses the current challenges facing the intelligence community in a conversation with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. Brennan denies that the CIA is trying to prevent the Senate Intelligence Committee from publishing the results of their investigation into the agency's controversial rendition, detention, and interrogation program. He also gives his perspective on the ongoing crises in Ukraine and Syria and the fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks.
MITCHELL: Good morning. I'm Andrea Mitchell from NBC News and MSNBC, and it's my honor to introduce the director of central intelligence, John Brennan, who as—after a career at CIA went to the White House as the president's top counterterror adviser and then was confirmed to be the director of central intelligence. John Brennan will have some opening remarks about his first year at CIA as director, and then we will have a conversation, and we'll open it up to you in the audience and to some of our CFR members who are sending questions in online.
So thank you all very much. Director Brennan?
BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Andrea. And good morning, everyone. I see that some of you noticed that I'm walking in here with a cane. And although the director of CIA job is very dangerous, it was an engagement with a patch of black ice a few weeks ago that led to a fracture in my hip, so that's why I have a cane here.
But it is a pleasure to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations and, as I look out in the audience, to see so many familiar faces. I would like to thank Richard Haass for inviting me to speak to this very distinguished group, and I also thank Andrea Mitchell for lending her considerable knowledge and insight to our discussion this morning.
Now just over a year ago, I had the privilege of placing my hand on the very first printed copy of the Constitution, a draft edited and annotated personally by George Washington himself that is one of the most treasured items held in the National Archives. With my hand on that document, Vice President Biden swore me in as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
I chose to take my oath on that precious piece of history as a clear affirmation of what the Constitution means to all of us at the agency. We have no higher duty than to uphold and defend the rule of law as we strive every day to protect our fellow citizens. Like so many things involving, CIA, though, people read nefarious intentions into my decision to take my oath on an early draft of the Constitution that did not contain the Bill of Rights, our Constitution's first 10 amendments.
So at the risk of disappointing any conspiracy theorists who might be here today, let me assure all of you that I, along with my CIA colleagues, firmly believe in and honor not only the Constitution, but also the Bill of Rights, as well as all subsequent amendments to our Constitution. I just happen to be guilty of being an ardent admirer of George Washington and of the historical foundations of this great country.
My first career at CIA began in 1980, so when I returned to the agency last March, I was already well-acquainted with its people and its mission. Having spent the previous four years at the White House, I also had the benefit of experiencing firsthand the enormous challenges confronting our policymakers as they deal with the myriad challenges our nation faces in the 21st century.
As a result of the tremendous opportunities I was given over more than 30 years working on national security issues, I could see the agency from outside, as well as inside our headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I could see how the agency's work informs policymaking, shapes our intelligence and security relationships with countries around the world, and working with other departments and agencies in the U.S. government, helps keep our country safe from harm.
And although I had plans to retire from government service at the conclusion of President Obama's first term in office, I was humbled by the opportunity to lead the agency I was part of for a quarter century and hopefully to play a role in ensuring that the CIA's future is even more accomplished than its storied past.
So thank you for being here with me this morning. And I'd like to offer a few brief comments before I address the many questions that I know are on your mind.
First of all, being CIA director means that I have a front-row seat to the dynamic and oftentimes dangerous world stage. While I was at the White House, I often spoke publicly about the terrorist challenges we face as a nation. After a year as CIA director, I unfortunately remain convinced that the U.S. government and the American people will be dealing with terrorism in one form or another for many years to come, as too many individuals and groups remain inclined to use violence for political, ideological, or purported religious reasons.
And despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth. CIA's global mission, our intelligence collection, analytic, and cover action authorities and capabilities, as well as our extensive liaison relationships with intelligence and security services worldwide will keep CIA on the front lines of our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come. At the same time, I fully expect CIA's role to evolve as the capabilities and political will of our overseas partners continue to grow in the coming years.
Building the capacity, enhancing the knowledge, and empowering the operations of our partners will be key to mitigating the terrorist threats that the world collectively faces in the decade ahead. Similarly, the intelligence mission on the cyber front will evolve, as well, as sovereign adversaries, criminal networks, terrorist organizations, and hacktivists explore new ways to do our country and our people harm via the digital domain, our planet's new and relatively uncharted frontier.
Much of what makes cyber so challenging is that technology is changing so rapidly and society along with it. In many respects, the world is transforming before our eyes, as more and more human activity migrates to that cyber digital domain and more and more of our daily lives depend on that domain for social interactions, financial transactions, commerce, trade, communication, education, information, entertainment, and the list goes on and on.
But the fact remains that many technological and scientific advances have proved throughout history to be double-edged swords. The power of dynamite that can move mountains and pave the way for road networks, tunnels and bridges, also can bring destruction and death in the wrong hands. The irony of Alfred Nobel's two lasting legacies, the invention of dynamite and the world's most famous peace prize, is testament to both edges of the sword of technological advancement.
Today, the websites and smartphones that enable Syrians to organize themselves against Assad's regime and show the world the brutality of that regime also help Al Qaida and other terrorist groups communicate, as well as to carry out terrorist attacks.
Recent events have brought into stark relief the national—indeed, the international debate about the appropriate role of government and specifically intelligence and law enforcement agencies in this new cyber frontier that is clearly full of wonder and opportunity, but also fraught with great risk.
In the years since my return to CIA, technological advances and their profound implications for both the agency I lead and the world we study have been very much on my mind. If I had the opportunity to start my career all over again, I believe I would start out as a data scientist or engineer in CIA's directorate of science and technology.
Like any other information-based and technology-enabled profession, intelligence is undergoing a profound transformation, and the women and men of our science and technology directorate are tackling some of the most fascinating issues head-on.
For example, we are looking at how we can protect the identities, activities and missions of our clandestine officers. These are the offices who operate internationally on a daily basis, yet increasingly have digital footprints from birth. We are also looking at home we appropriately leverage the seemingly infinite amount of publicly available and not-so-publicly available information so that we can detect the threats to our national security and to the American people while staying true to those cherished principles of liberty, freedom and privacy upon which our great country was founded.
As someone who bears at least partial responsibility to keep my fellow Americans safe, these are the challenges and the questions that truly hurt my head. Now, as challenging as counterterrorism and operating in the cyber domain are, they are but two of the many issues that CIA and the rest of the intelligence community have to follow.
Since returning to government in 2009, the number of issues of major significance to U.S. national interests, demanding constant attention from both policymakers and intelligence officers is staggering. The political turmoil and upheaval attendant to the so-called Arab Spring has fundamentally changed the political and social landscapes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. The tremendous loss of life, humanitarian disaster, and destruction of some of the world's most beautiful ancient cities in Syria is nothing short of a modern-day catastrophe.
The political dynamics that are underway in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Venezuela, South Sudan, Central African Republic, among others, reflect internal tensions, economic stress, sectarian conflicts, and global ambitions. And Russian and Chinese strategic pursuits in both their near and far abroad demand the constant attention and vigilance of our national security experts.
Ukraine provides a real-life example of why it is so important to preserve our intelligence capability to stay on top of the world's events in their totality, rather than just a few key issues. Over the past several months, the CIA and its intelligence community partners have closely followed events in Ukraine, keeping policymakers informed of unfolding developments on the ground, scenarios for escalating tensions, and options available to Ukrainian, Russian and other world leaders.
Now, I know that many of you would like the CIA to predict the future, such as, will Crimea secede and be annexed by Russia? And will Russian forces move into eastern Ukraine? But the plain and simple truth is that with virtually all events around the globe, future events, including in Ukraine, are shaped by numerous variables and yet-to-happen developments, as well as leadership considerations and decisions. While we do not have a crystal ball, it is our responsibility to identify those variables and considerations and point to the key drivers that will ultimately determine future events.
Let me conclude by offering a few final words about CIA as a learning organization. We were born in 1947, as the Cold War was just getting underway. Over the past 67 years, we have had the great fortune to play a role in helping keep this country and—country great and its people safe. And while we are exceptionally proud of the work we do, we have not been a perfect organization. Far from it.
We have made mistakes, more than a few, and we have tried mightily to learn from them and to take corrective actions whenever and wherever appropriate. It is no secret that many of the things that the agency has done over the years, things that it was asked to do, that it was directed to do, that it alone had the authority and responsibility to do remain subjects of intense scrutiny, debate and controversy.
The rendition, detention and interrogation program, the RDI program, of nearly a decade ago is a case in point. Now, there have been many things written and many things said—including, I understand, this morning—about the program, some fact and some pure fiction, and these remarks have addressed the CIA's views and actions related to the Senate Select Committee's report on the RDI program. So I wanted to take this opportunity to say two things.
First, my CIA colleagues and I believe strongly in the necessity of effective, strong and bipartisan congressional oversight. We are a far better organization because of congressional oversight. And as long as I am director of CIA, I will do whatever I can to be responsive to the elected representatives of the American people.
Our congressional overseers ask us the tough questions, hold our feet to the fire, and work every day to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently to keep our country strong. Most important, they work to ensure that the CIA and other intelligence organizations are carrying out the responsibilities and activities faithfully and in full accordance with the law. I don't always agree with them, and we frequently have what I would call spirited and even sporty discussions. But I believe we are fulfilling our respected executive branch and legislative branch responsibilities.
Second, the CIA has more than enough current challenges on its plate, which is why far more than any other institution of government, the CIA wants to put the rendition, detention, and interrogation chapter of its history behind it. The agency's detention facilities have long been closed. President Obama officially ended the program five years ago, by which time the CIA had already ceased its interrogation activities. Over the past decade, there have been numerous internal and external reviews of the program, and the CIA has taken steps to address the shortcomings, problems, and performance deficiencies that became evident in those reviews.
Now, the Senate Select Committee has conducted an extensive review of that program, a review that CIA has devoted considerable resources to supporting over the last several years. CIA has tried to work as collaboratively as possible with the committee on its report. We will continue to do so, and I have talked extensively to Chairman Feinstein and Vice Chairman Chambliss about the report and the way forward. CIA agrees with many of the findings in the report, and we disagree with others. We have acknowledged and learned from the program's shortcomings and we have taken corrective measures to prevent such mistakes from happening again.
But we also owe it to the women and men who faithfully did their duty in executing this program to try to make sure that any historical record of it is a balanced and accurate one. We have worked closely with the committee to resolve outstanding issues, and we look forward to working with the committee should it submit any portion of its report to us for classification review. Even as we have learned from the past, we must also be able to put the past behind us so that we can devote our full attention to the challenges ahead of us.
I arrived at CIA in 1980, fresh out of graduate school, and was sworn in as a GS-9 officer, never, ever believing in my wildest dreams that one day I would have the honor and privilege of leading the courageous, dedicated, and exceptionally talented women and men of CIA. Now as CIA director, I go down to the main lobby at our headquarters in Langley once a month to administer the oath of office to our newest employees.
I'm always struck by the quality of these women and men. Many speak several languages. Some have already had successful careers in the private sector and now want to give something back to their country. For all of them, this moment is the culmination of years of hard work, and you can see the enthusiasm in their eyes. They look focused, confident, and eager to make a difference.
As I watch them raise their right hands, I feel an extraordinary sense of obligation to these officers. They have chosen a profession that is filled with great rewards, but also steep challenges and sometimes grave danger. And it's my job to prepare them for it.
And from day one, I want them to understand that they are joining more than an organization. They are also joining a tradition of service and sacrifice unlike any other in government.
For this reason, I always administer the oath of office in front of our memorial wall. There are 100 stars—107 stars on that wall, each one representing an agency hero who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation, and I emphasize that we all have a responsibility to remember the officers and the sacrifices represented by those stars and to carry on their work in a way that would make them proud.
I am sharing this with you because it underscores a defining trait of CIA, our profound commitment to the nation we serve. For more than six decades, the women and men of CIA have devoted themselves to protecting our nation and to advancing American interests around the globe. Their contributions often go unrecognized, but let there be no doubt that CIA officers are essential to the strength and security of our republic.
Thank you. And I very much look forward to taking your questions.
MITCHELL: Thank you all very much. And...
Thank you, Director. We're going to have a conversation here and then, obviously, bring the audience in. First of all, the topic of the morning, which you have addressed here. You said that you want to get the interrogation, the detention past practices behind you, but Senator Feinstein today went to the floor. She said she did this reluctantly, that she has been dealing with you privately, trying to resolve this since January, and only went public today because of events, because of the referral from the inspector general of the CIA to Justice, because a lawyer in CIA had referred a crimes report separately accusing the Senate of going in improperly into CIA computers.
Her claim in this scathing speech, frankly, was that the CIA had hacked into the Senate Intelligence Committee staff computers to thwart an investigation by the committee into those past practices. She also alleges that the Panetta-era report was very similar to the Senate's conclusions about those past practices, but that you, who were involved in that era in the program itself, and the CIA currently was trying to thwart the full review of the harshness of the detention and interrogation practices.
Can you respond to that?
BRENNAN: Yes. Well, first of all, we are not in any way, shape or form trying to thwart this report's progression, release. As I said in my remarks, we want this behind us. We know that the committee has invested a lot of time, money and effort into this report, and I know that they're determined to put it forward.
We have engaged with them extensively over the last year. We have had officers sit down with them and go over their report and point out where we believe there are factual errors or errors in judgment or assessments. So we are not trying at all to prevent its release.
As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's—that's just beyond the—you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.
MITCHELL: She says that there are potentially illegal and unconstitutional breaches by the CIA.
BRENNAN: Well, there are appropriate authorities right now both inside of CIA, as well as outside of CIA...
MITCHELL: The Justice Department.
BRENNAN: ... are looking at what CIA officers, as well as SSCI staff members did. And I defer to them to determine whether or not there was any violation of law or principle, and I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what CIA did there.
And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.
MITCHELL: You said at your confirmation hearing you wanted to restore the trust between CIA and the overseers in the Senate. This is a pretty major gulf. If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?
BRENNAN: I—I am confident that the authorities will review this appropriately, and I will deal with the—the facts as uncovered in the appropriate manner. I would just encourage some members of the—of the Senate to take their time to make sure that they don't overstate what they've claimed, and what they probably believe to be the truth.
These are some complicated matters. We have worked with the committee over the course of many years. This review that was done by the committee was done at a facility where CIA had a responsibility to make sure that they had the computer wherewithal in order to carry out their responsibilities, and so if there was any inappropriate actions that were taken related to that review, either by CIA or by the SSCI staff, I'll be the first one to say we need to get to the bottom of it.
"As far as the allegations of CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's—that's just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do."
And if I did something wrong, I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.
MITCHELL: Malaysia Air and the investigation. A lot of people have been shocked that two years after passports were stolen and reported stolen, that people using stolen passports, whether or not there was a terror link, could still board airlines. What flaw is still in the system post-9/11 all these years, that permits stolen passports to be used so commonly around the world?
BRENNAN: Well, when you think about the number of people who get on a plane somewhere in the world on a daily basis, I mean, the numbers are probably in the hundreds of thousands. Since 9/11 there has been tremendous strides made in trying to share as much information as possible, not only in terms of threat information, but also about individuals who are trying to carry out attacks, to include stolen passports. So I know that the Malaysian authorities are looking very carefully at what went wrong, you know, if these individuals got on the plane with these stolen passports, why they were not aware of it, and I think all of us have to make sure that we're doing everything possible.
You know, it's close to now 13 years since 9/11, and I think the memories and tragedy of 9/11 have receded in the minds of many people, and this is not the time to relax, because we know that there are terrorist groups that are still determined to carry out attacks, including against, especially against aircraft.
MITCHELL: Has there been chatter that would indicate any kind of terror link in this mystery?
BRENNAN: I think there's a lot of speculation right now. Some claims of responsibility that have been, you know, confirmed or corroborated at all. We are looking at it very carefully. We, CIA, are working with FBI, and—and TSA and others. Our Malaysian counterparts are doing everything they can to try to put together the pieces here, but clearly this is still a mystery, which is very disturbing, and until we actually can find out sort of where that aircraft is, we might have an opportunity to do some of the forensic analysis that will lead us in the—in the right direction.
MITCHELL: At this point, you're not ruling out that it could be not some sort of terror...
BRENNAN: Not at all. Not going to rule out, not at all.
MITCHELL: And what is the state of Al Qaida in Malaysia? In the '90s, we knew they were very active. There were in fact airplane plots that were thwarted by our own intelligence, the Mohenka (ph) plot and other plots as well. Is Al Qaida still active as a cell in Malaysia?
BRENNAN: Al Qaida, which, you know, had its sort of birth in the—the Afghan-Pak area, right before 9/11, earlier in Sudan than in south Asia, has spread, metastasized over the years. You know, it's found throughout Africa, it's found throughout Southeast Asia.
You know, there are a number of areas in Southeast Asia where Al Qaida has tried to develop contacts and cells, and put in place the infrastructure, whether it be for fundraising activities or logistic support or facilitation, so you know, there's never been a sort of a place on the globe where Al Qaida said that they were not going to sort of, you know, seek some type of presence, so Southeast Asia is an area where Al Qaida has had a historical presence: humbali (ph) and others in the aftermath of 9/11, but even more recently.
MITCHELL: And going back over all of the chatter before this incident at the counter-terrorism center, you have not found anything to indicate that there was any warning of an incident about to happen before this plane disappeared.
BRENNAN: Not related to the Malaysian Air, no.
MITCHELL: I want to ask you about Ukraine and the charge by some in Congress that there was a massive intelligence failure. We know what Senator McCain has said. There has subsequently been some indication that the CIA got this one right and others in the intelligence community at the Pentagon and elsewhere did not. Was there a disagreement about the analysis of what Vladimir Putin's intentions were?
BRENNAN: Under the DNI's leadership, I think the community has done a very good job to ensure that the different analytic components of the intelligence community are able to work collaboratively together, but also to identify, you know, different types of sort of analyses and interpretation of events. I'm proud of the work that CIA as well as the other members of the intelligence community did on Ukraine.
Our responsibility really is to identify sort of what are the options available, what are the likely scenarios based on, as I mentioned in my remarks, you know, those variables and considerations.
You know, a lot of times, world leaders will make decisions based on what's happening on the ground or how: what's the international reaction. And I think that is very true, right now, when you look at Putin and Ukrainian leaders, you know, seeing what, you know, their actions beget, and I think many of these leaders have not made the decision about what they're going to do, so what CIA tries to do is to identify what are those variables, what—what's in the calculus of these foreign leaders as they try to plot out their, you know, next chess moves?
MITCHELL: When you look at Vladimir Putin, would you project that he would stop at Crimea, or do some of the other indications, some of the public statements about trouble in eastern Ukraine, elsewhere in eastern Ukraine indicate that he might move farther?
BRENNAN: Well, I think he has expressed concern about, you know, Russian compatriots, either Russian citizens or Russian-speaking individuals in the eastern part of Ukraine that might be subject to some type of sort of sectarian sort of violence, so I think he's laid a sort of public predicate for, you know, possible moves. We also see the, you know, the building up of the forces in Crimea, as well as things that have happened along the border.
So, you know, has he made the decision? You know, I guess it's—only Putin knows if he has made that final decision. But what we try to do is to identify what would be the reasons and—and how he might make those moves. What are the factors that he will take into account? And what are the costs that he's willing to incur if he decides to move across the border?
MITCHELL: And according to some reporting, including Stephen Myers' (ph) reporting in the New York Times, and other corroborating reporting, there has been a very small group of former KGB colleagues from the '70s and '80s, from Leningrad days, of Putin's who are his key advisers, that he's not counseled with his foreign minister, with his economic advisers, with his national security council. Does that track with what you are seeing as well?
BRENNAN: Well, I think Putin, like many world leaders, will rely on those individuals that he's gained trust in over the course of many years and whose views he respects. You know, there's still intelligence officers from the '80s and '90s that I, you know, still work with, and look to, so it's not out of keeping given that somebody of Putin's background and intelligence pedigree would be looking to those individuals.
MITCHELL: Well, there's so much to talk about. I know that our audience has a lot of questions. If you would all raise your hand and then identify yourself and your affiliations, wait for the microphone of course, and also keep the questions as short as possible so that all of our colleagues can have a lot of time.
QUESTION: Thanks. Barbara Slaven (ph) from The Atlantic Council and AllMonitor.com (ph). I'd like to turn you to Syria. What is your sense of how long Bashar Assad will remain in power? Do you feel that he is much stronger now than he was a year or two ago? His forces, how strong are they? Can he sustain himself in power in a small part of Syria? And also, if you could talk a little bit about the consequences of allowing Al Qaida to remain in force in Syria, and proliferate there, thank you.
BRENNAN: Well, certainly I believe that Assad probably feels more confident as a result of some developments on the battlefield over the last year. I think initially, the forces were sort of struck pretty hard by the—the insurgency, and by the oppositionists. You know, Syria is a real army. It's been, you know, trained and equipped and outfitted by Russians for—for decades, and so, I mean, this is a large conventional military force with tremendous firepower. And I think the opposition deserves a fair amount of credit for staying in the game and—and bloodying the—the Assad military machine as much as it has.
And you know, as we look along the western part of Syria, that—that backbone that runs along Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama, I think he has tried to protect those urban centers and tried to reclaim some of the ground that he's lost. The internecine fighting within the opposition has certainly not helped those forces that are trying to unseat Assad.
And to then getting to the second part of your question, the fact that Al Qaida, not just the Jabhat al-Nusra which is Al Qaida's sort of element there, but also the Islamic state of Iraq in Levant, which is sort of Al Qaida in Iraq that has migrated over. Clearly, they are quite, you know, proficient fighters in many respects. They engage in a lot of suicide bombings. They've engaged in a lot of attacks against their—their fellow Syrian oppositionists, and so in many respects, too, Assad has been able to sort of stand back and sort of watch that fighting.
But the—the tragedy that has been put upon the Syrian people by the Assad regime, you know, the barrel bombs, the—the chemical weapons, the slaughter, and I said, you know 150,000, you know, deaths so far in this—in this fight. I mean, I remember being in Aleppo years ago, and I see now the pictures of Aleppo, and humanitarian disaster, 9 million people that are displaced both internally and in the region. It really is a tragedy, and Assad has become magnet for a lot of those extremists and terrorists who have migrated into Syria to use Syria not just as a place to carry out their version of their, you know, violent jihad, but also, potentially, to use it as a springboard outside of Syria, which is very, very concerning, and which has been the focus of a lot of my engagements with my foreign counterparts over the last year.
QUESTION: Good morning. Tom Risen with U.S. News and World Report. I'd like to follow up on some—talk about the intelligence gaps. Edward Snowden, yesterday, said that he's accused the NSA's mass surveillance of distracting from pinpointed, credible threats. Do you think from where you sit that there's been any intelligence gaps in the NSA or the CIA on how they could conduct monitoring or spying better?
BRENNAN: Well, you know, anybody who violates their oath in terms of protecting sensitive classified information really has done a great disservice not just to the country, but also has put the American people at harm. NSA, CIA, and others now are looking at what it is that we need to do to mitigate whatever types of—of gaps that we might now face as a result of—of disclosures, publicly.
"I think the [Syrian] opposition deserves a fair amount of credit for staying in the game and bloodying the Assad military machine as much as it has."
So we are trying to stay ahead of the challenge, do what we can, both in the HUMINT and SIGINT, as well as other fronts, working very closely with our intelligence partners. But, you know, distractions, you know, do take away from our focus on the—the substantive functional issues that really deserve our full attention.
MITCHELL: This lady here in the white jacket, please? Excuse me? Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Deepti Choubey with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Two weeks—less than two weeks from now, there's going to be the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands where 53 countries and 40-plus heads of government will gather in this accelerated effort to prevent nuclear terrorism. I wanted to get your assessment of what you think about that effort as one of these variables for diminishing risk, considering that as a result of that effort the Ukraine isn't an even bigger disaster in terms of having weapons-usable material available, because of a commitment they made to get rid of that and it was cleaned out in 2012? So considering those dynamics, how do you think about it?
BRENNAN: Well, I once was a policymaker at the White House, and I participated in some of those nuclear summits, and I found them invaluable, as far as identifying various initiatives that can really help to minimize the potential calamitous effects of proliferation.
And as you point out, you know, what happened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in Ukraine I think really did help to minimize, you know, what could be, in fact, a much more serious and dangerous situation in Ukraine right now.
From the intelligence community standpoint, from CIA standpoint, what we try to do is to make sure that we're able to tee things up to the policymakers in terms of, what are those additional initiatives that, you know, presidents and prime ministers can agree on? What are those materials that are still available or what are the precautions and actions that should be taken to make sure that there is going to be the appropriate security measures taken when any type of nuclear material is transported or any type of sort of, you know, nuclear reactors are sort of brought online.
So there's been, I think, a very, very strong relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers. And this is globally, too, because what we do before the nuclear summit is to work with our counterparts overseas, our close partners, to identify what we believe are the priority issues that the nuclear summit attendees really need to agree on.
MITCHELL: We have a Ukraine-related question, also, from Elizabeth Pond (ph) in Berlin. From the analysis you've seen, do you think it might be possible to prevent a repetition of the Russian takeover of Crimea in eastern Ukraine?
BRENNAN: Russia had quite an extensive military presence already in Crimea based on the Black Sea treaty of 1997 that allowed them to have a certain number of military naval personnel, as well as equipment and vessels there as part of its, you know, Black Sea fleet port.
Clearly, the actions that it's taken over the past several weeks have far exceeded and have violated the terms of—of that understanding and in terms of what their military personnel are doing on the streets of Crimea now. And so is it—is it possible—does Russia have the capability to move into eastern Ukraine? Absolutely, they do, but I think what President Putin and others are doing right now is trying to determine exactly what they believe they need to do, as well as what they're willing to do, in light of such international condemnation of the Russian moves, whether or not they need to move in to Ukraine proper in order to protect their interests.
Now, the events in the coming, you know, week or two, in terms of referendums in Crimea and whether or not they'll, you know, decide to try to secede and whether or not, you know, Russia will sort of accept them into the Russian republic is, you know, to be seen.
So I do think we're at a very delicate and dynamic time. This is why I think President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and others are engaging on—on a constant basis with world leaders to try to de-escalate tensions and to make sure that, you know, Russia's interests can be fully understood and addressed, but at the same time Ukraine's territorial integrity and the future of the Ukrainian people can be decided by the Ukrainians.
MITCHELL: Just to follow up, the Ukrainian acting government has, by all accounts, been remarkably restrained, despite a lot of provocation in Crimea and elsewhere, in fact. Do you think that, if this referendum goes forward and if there were moves into larger Ukraine, eastern Ukraine, that the Ukrainian government, their military could resist taking action?
BRENNAN: I agree that the Ukrainian government has been, you know, remarkably and thankfully restrained in its actions. What we need to avoid is provocations on either side that could lead to confrontation, bloodshed, or whatever. So I think, you know, we're really hoping that calmer heads are going to prevail in Moscow, in Kiev, in Crimea, and other areas, so that this can be worked out diplomatically and peacefully, so, you know, provocation is something that we need to make sure that we—we try to avoid.
MITCHELL: We had—we had a question over here. Sorry. Could you bring the microphone up? Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Audrey Kurth Cronin from George Mason University. One of the implications of the Arab Spring is a devolution of what we used to call Al Qaida to local interests. And that's not necessarily a good thing. There's a lot of civil war, sectarianism. The way we frame the kind of conflict that's going on in that region is quite complex.
So my question is, we tend to use a shorthand with respect to Al Qaida, calling every group that has a Salafist agenda, a violent Salafist agenda Al Qaida. Doesn't that undercut our own interests? What exactly is Al Qaida? And aren't there violent Salafist groups, many of whom go back hundreds of years, that are not Al Qaida?
"Does Russia have the capability to move into eastern Ukraine? Absolutely, they do, but I think what President Putin and others are doing right now is trying to determine exactly what they believe they need to do, as well as what they're willing to do, in light of such international condemnation of the Russian moves."
BRENNAN: You're absolutely right. You know, there's Al Qaida core, you know, bin Laden and Zawahiri and those that are around, you know, the core of Al Qaida in South Asia. There are those groups, like Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that are clearly affiliated. The head of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Wuhayshi, is the number-two in Al Qaida core in Al Qaida central. There are other elements, like Jabhat Al-Nusra that is in Syria that is taking, you know, their orders, directions from Al Qaida core.
There are a lot of other, though, groups, you know, throughout the region that may have an ideological affinity with sort of Al Qaida, but have not sworn bayat, do not follow their direction and guidance, pursue a Salafist, even Takfiri sort of agenda. It's a loose confederation of groups, and as you point out, it—you know, Al Qaida has metastasized, and—which makes it all the more challenging, because a lot of these groups have local agendas, but also are being exploited by Al Qaida core for more sort of violent global jihadist purposes.
So the—you know, Islamic extremism and terrorism, the Salafi, Takfiri sort of dimension, has some political implications, clearly, with—you know, a number of these countries in the Arab Spring are dealing with that, but the violence that is attendant to a number of these groups is very, very challenging. And that's why I pointed out that building up the capacities and capabilities of our partners really is going to be the key to success here. We, CIA, we, the U.S. government, you know, we can't do everything around the world on the counterterrorism front. We have to rely on those partners, and we're trying to build up their capability so that they can deal with these problems.
MITCHELL: Yes, and right here.
QUESTION: Jim Louie (ph) with Oppenheimer. As we all know, the Cold War was a war of ideas. Sometimes it was hot in Vietnam and other places, but it was basically a war of ideas, as I see it, and I lived in a communist country during part of that time. Why—I would maintain—and correct me if I'm wrong—that we're also in a war of ideas right now. Often Islam is equated with violence, with 90 percent of Americans think that Islamic religion is automatically a violent religion. Actually, having lived in three Muslim countries, I know that Islam—to kill someone, an innocent person, is as great a crime under Islam as it is under Christianity or Judaism.
So in your work, is there any way to bring that—bring that crucial information sort of more to the table than I think most of us have experienced?
BRENNAN: Well, when you say the Cold War was the war of ideas, and, you know, Al Qaida is a—almost an ideology of ideas, I mean, ideals give birth to actions. And too often actions give birth to repressive policies, authoritarian actions on the part of many countries that had the communist ideology and it was suppression and repression of individuals.
Same thing with Al Qaida. You know, they have a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Koran. One of the things that I'm struck with when I travel throughout the Middle East and I meet with leaders, military and civilian, these are individuals who are Koranic scholars themselves and they are the ones who are most annoyed at how Al Qaida has hijacked their religion and how they have really distorted the teachings of Mohammed, you know, for violent purposes.
Now, quite unfortunately, though, that ideology, that agenda of Al Qaida has gained resonance and following in many parts of the world. It's fed a lot of times by, you know, political repression, by economic, you know, disenfranchisement, by, you know, lack of education and ignorance, so there—there are a number of phenomena right now that I think are fueling the fires of, you know, this ideology.
And it's unsetting in—throughout the entire Middle East in South Asia. It is something that's nascent in fledgling governments having to come to grips with the role of these extremist organizations in a political system. What is their role? You know, are they going to try to pursue legitimate participation in the political system, but yet they have ultimate designs of not having a pluralistic society, but having a sort of one—one concept society, which is, you know, Takfirism and, you know, is an extremist, again, interpretation of Islam.
These are challenges that we're going to be facing over the next decade, but I think we do need to separate out, because too often people tend to put into one basket sort of everybody of one color or persuasion.
MITCHELL: And right here and then here upfront.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Celeste Ford. I'm CEO of Stellar Solutions, a system engineering company that supports your organization, as well as others. And I'd like to shift gears a little bit, because I know a lot of the work we do protects our nation and the rights of individuals. And it seems like the facts show one thing and the PR shows another thing. And is there something you can do about that? Or, you know, a plan of attack to maybe leverage on the good that really is done versus the PR that you get?
BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, thank you for the question. I made a deliberate decision my first year that I was going to not come out and give, you know, speeches. And I have now decided to come out. I was down at the University of Oklahoma two weeks ago. I find that the narrative out there publicly is one-sided and misrepresents and mischaracterizes what the intelligence community professionals do on a daily basis. I find too often that in Washington, where partisan politics tend to drive commentary, that there are, you know, comments that are made are done for partisan purposes, which is very unfortunate because I think national security is too important to allow it to be used by the partisan politicians.
I also find that the media will seize that sound bite, that little bit. I could speak for an hour, and if I sort of in any way either misspeak or there's one little snippet that's taken out of context, it will make the nightly news. You know, Andrea's editors and overseers will make sure that they do that and put it out.
And so it really is sort of an uphill battle. And that's why I think, you know, informed audiences like this who recognize that, you know, the intelligence business is a difficult one, but it's also a critically important one. We need to get this right. This country has, you know, gone through so much over its history. We need to keep it strong, we need to keep it safe, and the world is a challenging place.
And so CIA plays, I think, a very important role there, and I am going to go out more and more. I'm not going to go out and start trashing, you know, sort of, you know, other people. I think we have to sort of proceed on this as responsible adults and responsible national security professionals, and that's what I'm determined to do.
MITCHELL: Let me just say—I don't want to lay it off on any editors or producers, because I do—I take responsibility for anything that we put in my name...
BRENNAN: I will be watching tonight.
MITCHELL: ... on any broadcast.
Now I think you might. Let me ask you about those security clearances, because one of the things that came out after Edward Snowden is the investigation that's now a Justice Department investigation, as well, into the firm that has been doing the majority of security clearances for contractors and government employees and showing that in many, many cases they were not doing the appropriate follow-on, that they—this private company was failing to do the second calls back, and they did do Snowden's clearance, although it's not clear that it took place in his case.
BRENNAN: Yes. And there are so many parts of our national security establishment that need to make sure that they're doing the best work they can do every day, because the chain of national security is only as strong as the weakest link. And so the—maybe it's a company that has responsibility for doing this security background investigation of an individual that just signs off on things and doesn't do it. Or, you know, the IT professionals that are to make sure that the technical obstacles are in place that will prevent somebody from scraping and downloading, you know, information that they shouldn't, in fact, have access to.
So I think it's a collective responsibility. You know, when you think about the hundreds of thousands, millions of people who have some form of security clearance, that's a tremendous, tremendous systems engineering challenge that has both technical aspects to it, but also personal security requirements, so it's—this is a big government, you know? And, you know, it's very, very unfortunate that somebody, you know, like an Edward Snowden would decide, you know, on their own to do what they did. That is just, I find, reprehensible.
And, you know, the people who are putting their lives on the line every day for this country overseas in some very, very dangerous places are really just so disheartened that somebody would take such reckless action.
Yes, privacy, civil liberties, individual freedoms need to be respected. We in the intelligence community are trying to get this right. Believe me, we're trying to get it right, and it really is challenging. And some of the laws have not kept up, in fact, with the changes in the—in the private sector. You know, look at what the private sector is doing with our data, you know, in terms of making it available to other companies, whatever.
So, you know, President Obama has made it very clear to us, we have an obligation to keep this country safe. At the same time, we have an obligation to uphold this country's laws and to do it consistent with what this country's founded upon.
MITCHELL: And can you do that without the mass collection of metadata?
BRENNAN: You know, there—there are a lot of challenges as that digital domain has changed. You know, you ask five people what metadata means, you know, they'll have probably five different explanations. Probably three or four of them are going to be totally off the mark. Metadata itself is changing. You know, content, bulk data collection, these are things that, you know, really, you know, challenge the mind as far as, how are you going to ensure that if there is a terrorist in this country and he's determined to do harm with, you know, a conventional explosive or a, you know, biological or chemical weapon, how are you going to be able to operate at the speed of light so that if you get intelligence you find out where that person is? You know, as I said, memories of 9/11, I think, recede in the smoldering ashes on the Manhattan landscape.
MITCHELL: And this gentleman here has been wanting—thank you very much.
BRENNAN: Ambassador Cutler?
QUESTION: Walt Cutler, former foreign service. I just wanted to ask you about a country you know well, Saudi Arabia, which over the decades has been one of our closest allies out there. And recently, you've seen—we've all seen all kinds of media reports about strains in our relationship—serious strains relating to—well, to Iran, to Syria, even to Egypt.
The president's going back to Saudi Arabia. People forget, I think, that one of his—I think his first visit ever to—when he was president to an Arab country was Saudi Arabia, before he made his famous Cairo speech. Are these passing clouds? Or is this something more fundamental that we're facing with our relationship?
BRENNAN: Well, the United States and Saudi Arabia truly share a strategic partnership that goes way, way back, you know, to avoid the USS Quincy when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz, you know, met together sort of at the end of World War II.
You know, there is a lot of things in the press about differences of view between ourselves and Saudi Arabia on a variety of regional issues. There is no doubt that, you know, we have had differences, you know, over the course of the years. I think a lot has been made about some anonymous, you know, comments that come out about, you know, the U.S.-Saudi, you know, tension. I have spent over five years of my life in Saudi Arabia working, partly under your leadership, and have visited Saudi Arabia dozens of times, and I can tell you that that partnership goes well beyond my intelligence portfolio, in the economic and the trade and the security and the diplomatic front. President Obama is going out to Saudi Arabia to underscore just how important that relationship is. He stays in very close touch with King Abdullah and other members of the Saudi government.
And so this is something that, yes, there are maybe differences of view, but what we have committed to do is to ensure that we have a very robust and private dialogue about those issues, ranging from Iran to Egypt to Iraq to Syria and others. And so I feel as though that relationship right now with Saudi Arabia is on very, very strong and solid ground and we're able to move together.
MITCHELL: First there, and then we'll move over.
QUESTION: Joe Onick (ph) of the Raven Group (ph). Joe Onick (ph) of the Raven Group (ph). The president and the White House have talked about the need for greater transparency in national security matters, but with the exception of disclosures forced upon the administration by Mr. Snowden, has there been that greater transparency? Or is the crackdown on leaks that we've seen, the failure to get out the so-called torture report over all these years, does that indicate that there's really been no change in the degree of transparency in this administration?
BRENNAN: Well, I think there has been tremendous progress made. When you take a look at, you know, the—all the things that are put out under the Freedom of Information Act, you know, the—the amount of resources that are dedicated to ensuring that we're able to address those requests on a timely basis is significant. And I think just, you know, a number of the—the speeches and addresses and public hearings that have been made over the years, I think, we're trying to be as transparent as possible.
But let's face it: You have an intelligence business that really does require many times to have secrecy, because otherwise—I mean, people are putting their lives at risk, you know, worldwide. And so you have to make sure that you're balancing the transparency and secrecy, and this president certainly is determined to, you know, ensure that we try to optimize both. And I'm trying to do that, as well.
And as I said in my remarks, if the Senate committee, you know, submits this report that they have to CIA for classification review, which they haven't done yet—I mean, it's not as though we're holding it back. You know, we've worked with them. We've gone over it, you know, showing them what we agree with and disagree with. It's up to them to decide whether or not they want to put it out publicly or not.
You know, again, are there things I disagree with in there? Absolutely there are. I think they missed a lot of, you know, sort of important points. But it's their prerogative. And so, you know, I'm not going to stand in the way.
However, I will protect sources and methods, you know, in terms of the tremendous investment that this country has made in some of, you know, the very sensitive collection systems that help to keep this country safe. So, you know, it's sort of, you know, rendered to Caesar that which are Caesar's. Give, you know, transparency its due, and we will make sure that we're able to address these issues.
When I was at the White House, I gave a number of speeches on counterterrorism and talked about, you know, Predators and drones and remotely piloted aircraft, trying to underscore exactly what are the criteria that we use as a government in order to take those actions.
But this is a delicate business. And, you know, some people who feel as though they can just, you know, again, recklessly put things out, they don't understand the implications and how it can put very sensitive programs and lives at risk.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto with CNN. I wonder if I could ask about the other land—well, actually, sea disputes going on right now in the East China Sea between China and Japan, particularly as it relates to Ukraine, China in a difficult position, sanctity of borders, but it has this other battle going on. How closely are they watching our reaction to how we handle the situation with Ukraine and Russia? And is it your assessment that they could be peeled off of that traditional alliance with Russia on the Ukraine issue?
And just as a follow-up, because this is just new information, there's information now that the transponder was turned off on this Malaysia Airlines flight and that it continued to fly, made that turn after the transponder was—was turned off, and if that information gives you any more indication or just suspicion that it was an act of terror?
BRENNAN: As far as, you know, does one big power watch how sort of developments in another sort of big power sort of sphere affect their equities? We all look at that, you know, in terms of how they act.
So, you know, in the South China Sea area, what China has done with these air defense identification zones and, you know, how they butt up against, you know, the—the sovereignty and equities of, you know, the other countries in the region, I think, you know, we are certainly watching that closely. We have, you know, engaged with our partners out there, as well as with the Chinese. What we don't want to do is to have an unfortunate sort of incident that would, you know, lead to an escalating sort of cycle of, you know, tension. We don't want to do that.
So are the Chinese watching what's happening in Ukraine? You know, they probably are. It'd be probably prudent for them to be looking at things that are happening worldwide and see how it affects their interests.
On this issue of the transponder, you know, there are a number of very curious anomalies about all of this and the sort—still a mystery at this point. You know, did it turn around? You know, were the individuals with these stolen passports in any way involved? You know, what about the transponder? Why did it sort of, you know, just disappear from the radar?
There are a lot of unknowns at this point. And so—which leads to a sort of rampant speculation about what the—you know, the reasons and the causes of this are, but I think at this point we just have to, again, be patient and wait and let the authorities continue to investigate.
MITCHELL: The authorities this morning said, just to follow up on that, that there could be a psychological component, so perhaps not organized terror, but there could have been some pilot decision—we remember what happened with Egypt Air and some of the other past accidents. Is that another theory that is credible to you as far as inquiry?
BRENNAN: I think you can—you cannot discount any theory, you know? Who had the ability to turn off the transponder? I don't know. I don't the—the answer to that question. You know, how can it be done? How can one's actions be masked in terms of technologically sort of on the aircraft? You know, might it have been something that had happened inside the aircraft that led to its ultimate fate? Or could it have just been some type of sort of catastrophic event that unfortunately led to that aircraft's and those passengers' demise? I don't know. But I don't think people should at this point rule out any of these lines of inquiry.
MITCHELL: I just want to thank DCI John Brennan for coming. First of all, he does not speak publicly that often, so this is a rare opportunity for the—for the Council. We appreciate that, especially on a very difficult day, when there's a lot of late-breaking news. We thank you for being here and taking the questions of all of us.
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