John Brennan on Transnational Threats to Global Security
A Conversation With John O. Brennan
Director, Central Intelligence Agency
John O. Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, discusses the current transnational threats to global security. Brennan explores the challenges posed by instability and increasing anxiety within the European Union and the growing migrant crisis. He also provides his perspective on the potential cybersecurity and biotechnology threats to national security, thwarting ISIL’s growth, the JCPOA, and the necessity of good intelligence sharing between our allies.
WOODRUFF: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I am Judy Woodruff of the PBS “NewsHour,” and I am delighted to introduce our speaker this afternoon. I don’t think there could be a better time or moment for us to hear from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Without further ado, please welcome Director John Brennan. (Applause.)
BRENNAN: Well, thank you very much, Judy. And good afternoon, everyone. It is indeed a pleasure to be back at the Council to compare notes on a remarkably complex and dynamic international scene. And I very much look forward to talking with Judy and Council membership on the many topics that are in the headlines. But I would first like to offer some brief opening remarks to kick off the conversation today.
Now, whenever I administer the oath of office to new officers at our headquarters in Langley, Virginia, I tell them that they are coming aboard at a critical moment in our agency’s history. In the 36 years since I first entered government, I have never been witnessing a time with such a daunting array of challenges to our nation’s security.
Notable among those challenges is that some of the institutions and relationships that have been pillars of the post-Cold War international system are under serious stress. As you well know, the United Kingdom voted last week to leave the European Union. Of all the crises the EU has faced in recent years, the U.K. vote to leave the EU may well be its greatest challenge.
Brexit is pushing the EU into a period of introspection that will pervade virtually everything the EU does in the coming weeks, months, and even years ahead. Euroskeptics around Europe, including in Denmark, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, are demanding their own referendums on multiple EU issues. This will surely make decision-making and forging consensus in the EU much harder.
No member state has ever left the Union, so Europe is entering a period of uncertainty as the U.K. and the EU take stock of the situation and begin staking out their negotiating positions. Discussions about how an exit will work will dominate the EU agenda in the months ahead. Negotiations for the exit agreement will not begin until the prime minister formally notifies the EU of the U.K.’s intention to leave, which Prime Minister David Cameron has said will occur under his successor. EU and member-state leaders, excluding the U.K., will be meeting in the coming days and weeks to begin laying the groundwork for those negotiations.
Now, regardless of what lies ahead, I would like to take this opportunity to say that the Brexit vote will not adversely affect the intelligence partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom in the months and years ahead. Indeed, I spoke to my counterpart in London early Monday morning, and we reaffirmed to one another that the bonds of friendship and cooperation between our services are only destined to grow stronger in the years ahead. These ties are and will always be essential to our collective security.
I presume a few of you have questions about terrorism and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. I look forward to addressing them in the question-and-answer session. I know that our collective hearts, though, go out to the families of the latest victims of the horrific terrorist attacks perpetrated as well as incited by ISIL. The despicable attack at Istanbul’s international airport yesterday that killed dozens and injured many more certainly bears the hallmarks of ISIL’s depravity.
Let me take a few moments to say a few words about some less discussed but still some very important issues that we at CIA and our colleagues throughout the intelligence community are watching closely. I’ll start with the overarching challenge of instability which continues to grip large sections of the globe.
Global instability is one of the defining issues of our time, and its implications are hard to overstate. As instability spreads, extremists and terrorists are finding sanctuary in ungoverned spaces. Energy supplies are being disrupted. Political reform is suffering as too many governments opt for authoritarian measures at the expense of democratic principles and respect for human rights.
Most devastating of all, though, is the human toll attendant to instability. Last week the United Nations reported that the number of people displaced by global instability and conflict had reached 65 million, the highest figure ever recorded. In a host of countries, from East Asia to the Middle East to West Africa, governments are under stress, and civic institutions are struggling to provide basic services and to maintain law and order.
As governments in these regions recede from the center of national life, more people are shifting their allegiances away from the nation-state and toward sub-national groups and identities, leading societies that once embraced a national identity to fracture along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the Middle East, a region that I have studied closely for much of my professional life. When I lived there years ago, I liked to walk through neighborhoods and villages to observe the rhythms of daily life. I remember seeing people of different backgrounds and beliefs living side by side, secular and devout.
Today relations among these groups are too often marred by suspicion and distrust, and even outright hostility. Extremist groups have played a key role in fueling these tensions, luring impressionable young men and women to join their cause and spreading false narratives meant to divide and inflame. In some areas, a whole generation are growing up in an environment of militarism without a chance to develop the skills to contribute or even to engage in modern-day society.
The underlying causes of these trends are complex and difficult to address, and the long-term consequences of these developments are deeply troubling. Global instability is an issue that affects all countries, from Russia to China to the United States, and it must be met by (audio break) community. I am certain that this issue will loom large on the agenda of the next administration.
Another strategic challenge is dealing with the tremendous power, potential, opportunities, and risks resident in the digital domain. No matter how many geopolitical crises one sees in the headlines, the reliability, security, vulnerability, and the range of human activity taking place within cyberspace are constantly on my mind.
On the cybersecurity front, organizations of all kinds are under constant attack from a range of actors—foreign governments, criminal gangs, extremist groups, cyber-activists, and many others. In this new and relatively uncharted frontier, speed and agility are king. Malicious actors have shown that they can penetrate a network and withdraw in very short order, plundering systems without anyone knowing they were there until maybe after the damage is already done.
While I served at the White House, cyber was part of my portfolio, and it was always the subject that gave me the biggest headache. Cyber-attackers are determined and adaptive. They often collaborate and share expertise, and they come at you in so many different ways, with an ever-changing array of tools, tactics, and techniques.
Moreover, our laws have not yet adequately adapted to the emergence of this new digital frontier. Most worrisome from my perspective is that there is still no political or national consensus on the appropriate role of the government—law enforcement, homeland security, and intelligence agencies—in safeguarding the security, the reliability, the resiliency, and the prosperity of the digital domain.
The intelligence community is making great strides in countering cyber-threats, but much work needs to be done. As we move forward on this issue, one thing we know is that private industry will have a huge role to play as the vast majority of the Internet is in private hands. Protecting it is not something the government can do on its own.
Right up there with terrorism, global instability, and cybersecurity is nuclear proliferation and the accompanying development of delivery systems, both tactical and strategic, that make all too real the potential for a nuclear event.
Unsurprisingly, top of my list of countries of concern is North Korea, whose authoritarian and brutal leader has wantonly pursued a nuclear-weapons program to threaten regional states and the United States instead of taking care of the impoverished and politically repressed men, women, and children of North Korea.
So what else is there besides terrorism, global instability, cybersecurity, and nuclear proliferation that worries the CIA director and keeps CIA officers busy around the clock and around the globe? Well, as a liberal-arts guy from the baby-boomer generation, the rapid pace of technological change during my lifetime has been simply dizzying. Moreover, as we have seen with just about every scientific leap forward, new technologies often carry substantial risks, to the same degree that they hold tremendous promise.
Nowhere are the stakes higher for our national security than in the field of biotechnology. Recent advances in genome editing that offer great potential for breakthroughs in public health are also cause for concern, because the same methods could be used to create genetically engineered biological-warfare agents. And though the overwhelming majority of nation-states have tended to be rational enough to refrain from unleashing a menace with such unpredictable consequences, a subnational terrorist entity, such as ISIL, would have few compunctions in wielding such a weapon.
The scope of the bio-threat, as well as potential measures to mitigate it, were laid out very clearly last October in the bipartisan report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. As with the cyber threat, the international community’s response to this issue lags behind the technology driving it. Effectively countering this danger requires the development of national and international strategies, along with a consensus of the laws, standards, and authorities that will be needed.
And as CIA officers and their intelligence community colleagues work hard to protect our country from the darker side of technological change, we are mindful of how even beneficial advances can have destabilizing effects in the long run. Agency all source analysts, drawing from academic studies and other elements of the ever-expanding pool of global open-source information, seek to offer our national leaders early warning of potential challenges that could arise from the advances we are seeing today across the spectrum of technological endeavors.
As former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Bob Gates is fond of saying, when intelligence officers smell flowers, they look around for a coffin. That remains a pretty good depiction of our intelligence mindset. (Laughter.)
One example, again, taking a page from the biotech and life sciences sectors, is how a wide range of breakthroughs that potentially could extend life expectancy, such as new methods of fighting cancer and a greater understanding of the aging process, could reinforce the trend toward older populations in advanced nations. Some of the world’s leading economies, and even the lesser economies, could face even stronger headwinds from having significantly larger proportions of retired people and older people relative to working-age citizens.
Another example is the array of technologies, often referred to collectively as geoengineering, that potentially could help reverse the warming effects of global climate change. One that has gained my personal attention is stratospheric aerosol injection, or SAI: a method of seeding the stratosphere with particles that can help reflect the sun’s heat in much the same way that volcanic eruptions do. An SAI program could limit global temperature increases, reducing some risks associated with higher temperatures, and providing the world economy additional time to transition from fossil fuels. This process is also relatively inexpensive. The National Research Council estimates that a fully deployed SAI program would cost about $10 billion yearly.
As promising as it may be, moving forward on SAI would also raise a number of challenges for our government and for the international community. On the technical side, greenhouse gas emission reductions would still have to accompany SAI to address other climate change effects, such as ocean acidification, because SAI alone would not remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On the geopolitical side, the technology’s potential to alter weather patterns and benefit certain regions of the world at the expense of other regions could trigger sharp opposition by some nations. Others might seize on SAI’s benefits and back away from their commitment to carbon dioxide reductions. And as with other breakthrough technologies, global norms and standards are lacking to guide the deployment and implementation of SAI and other geoengineering initiatives.
Now, I could go on and on and on and on about the things that fascinate me. But rather than talk about them, I thought I’d stop here and start the conversation with Judy, and then I can take some of your questions. I very much appreciate the invitation to come back here in the Council on Foreign Relations. And as I say to all the groups I speak to, it is a tremendous honor and privilege every day to be referred to as the director of Central Intelligence Agency. I lead an organization full of patriotic men and women who take great risks and put themselves on the front lines in order to keep their fellow Americans safe and secure, and to do what they can to keep this country’s security secure. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
WOODRUFF: Thank you. Well, I think we’re all impressed with the array of challenges and issues that you deal with on a regular basis, Director Brennan. But I do want to come back to—and I do want to come back to what’s in the news right now, and that is this latest attack in Istanbul. The—what the administration has been saying—and I think you referenced it just now—is that it has the earmarks of ISIS. How much is known about who’s behind this, and why does it point in their direction?
BRENNAN: Well, to my knowledge, there is no credible claim of responsibility at this point, but that’s not very surprising because, at least in most instances, if not all, ISIS has not claimed credit or responsibility for attacks that are perpetrated inside of Turkey. I think what they do is, they carry out these attacks to gain the benefits from it, in terms of sending a signal to our Turkish partners, at the same time not wanting to potentially maybe alienating some of those individuals inside of Turkey that they may still be trying to gain the support of.
WOODRUFF: Why are they able to pull off these attacks with what seems to be great regularity without the ability to prevent them ahead of time?
BRENNAN: Well, I think there’s a variety of reasons. First, when individuals are committed to carry out these attacks, these so-called suicide attacks, that kill and maim so many people, they really don’t have to worry about an escape route. It makes carrying out that attack so much easier, because what they do is then just want to make sure they’re able to penetrate whatever sort of perimeter defense there might be. And in a lot of these civilian areas, there is no perimeter defense. That’s part of what an open society is.
And also, they’re able to get their hands on weapons, automatic weapons, whether it be illegally procured in some countries, or through the black market in others. And also, they’re able to take advantage of the technologies that allow them to communicate quite securely without having security and intelligence agencies able to understand what it is that they are plotting. So being able to fabricate a plot, carry it out among a small group of individuals—one, two, or more—it is unfortunately a feature of our times that ISIL in particular has been determined to carry out these attacks.
WOODRUFF: Is it something that the rest of the world just has to get used to?
BRENNAN: I don’t think we should ever get used to it. I think what we have to do is to redouble our efforts to try to uncover what they’re doing, stop them, in terms of carrying out these attacks, but also go to the source of it, which is those who are directing and orchestrating these attacks. And ISIL, most of the attacks are either directed or incited by their external operations group, which is resident in the Syria/Iraq theater.
WOODRUFF: I’m struck that in several news interviews you’ve done recently, Director Brennan, you’ve made a point of saying, or you have said, that our efforts have not reduced ISIS’ capability and global reach. There’s a frustration that seems to come through in your—you don’t—not that there’s an expression on your face, but what—how—what is it? I mean, what does this mean to you, as somebody who’s been working in this area for so long?
BRENNAN: Well, any intelligence or security or law enforcement professional who has the responsibility to try to prevent these attacks from occurring, and those who have been involved in counterterrorism for quite some time, are interested and determined to do whatever we can to destroy these organizations that give birth to these horrific attacks. And as I’ve said recently, we’ve made, I think, some significant progress, along with our coalition partners, in Syria and Iraq, where most of the ISIS members are resident right now. But the—ISIS’ ability to continue to propagate its narrative, as well as to incite and carry out these attacks, I think we still have a ways to go before we’re able to say that we have made some significant progress against them.
WOODRUFF: Is it—is it the need for better intelligence? Is it better—do we need more resources, more money poured into the effort? What is it?
BRENNAN: The challenge with ISIS, which is much different than al-Qaida—Al-Qaida at its height had maybe a couple thousand individuals with, you know, a core of several hundred—ISIS has tens of thousands of individuals that are scattered not just in the Middle East but also to West Africa, to Southeast Asia, and beyond. And so there’s the scope of the problem, number one.
Number two, they have made very sophisticated use of communications systems. And in order to protect and prevent—protect their communications as well as prevent the authorities from having insight into what they’re doing—and also, they’ve fed upon the instability that has wracked the Middle East. We see that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, al-Qaida and ISIS had nothing to do with the initiation of the Arab Spring, but they have taken full advantage of the collapse of some governments, the ungoverned spaces. And the movement of people and goods in this 21st-century world, I think in many respects can facilitate what it is that ISIS is trying to do. And so we’ve seen that they don’t even have to reach out and touch somebody. The horrific attacks in Orlando, an individual was able to, you know, access the material. But also you have individuals that they’re able to guide and direct and to deploy. And so there’s a range of challenges that intelligence security agencies have.
But also, it’s sharing information among nations around the world. And we saw that in the aftermath of Brussels, the attack in Paris, we’re trying to work with our European partners. There are 28—I guess, soon to be 27—EU members. And they have different legal systems, different structures. How are they going to share information in a rapid and timely fashion in order to stop individuals who we may have a bit a data on?
WOODRUFF: Well, and speaking of that, with the Brexit vote you said that it’s not going to affect the U.S. partnership with Great Britain, with the U.K. But what about these other 27, 28 members, give or take? How can it not affect your ability, the ability of the CIA, and other intelligence—members of the intelligence community in the U.S. to deal with every one of these different entities in this other nations?
BRENNAN: Well, that’s what we do right now. Much of our interaction is with the intelligence security services in bilateral challenges. We’re trying to have multilateral sharing arrangements, whereby we can all collectively use the information that we individually collect and have access to. The EU has not been an operational element of the counterterrorism effort. It is more of a policy and a governance structure. So I really do not see it affecting our ability to work with the Brits, as well as with the remainder of the EU, on the counterterrorism front.
WOODRUFF: So you see seamless cooperation with the partners that the U.S. needs to have intel sharing?
BRENNAN: I don’t think I said seamless. (Laughter.) I just said I don’t think that the Brexit is going to adversely affect how we deal with the Brits. I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to try to put together a mission architecture that will allow Europe as a whole to share information in a timely fashion. We’re working with the Brits, as well as with the rest of the Europeans. But it’s not just a European issue. It’s with the Middle Eastern countries and African countries. So this is going to be a journey that I think we’re going to be on for quite some time.
WOODRUFF: And here in the U.S., with the Orlando attack, which you just mentioned, with what happened in San Bernardino, do you feel you’ve learned something from those two incidents that puts you in a better position to understand what to do to prevent or to get into the minds of these young people—mainly young men—who are carrying out these ISIS-inspired—what appear to be ISIS-inspired—
BRENNAN: Well, I think there are a couple of takeaways. One is that this country has done a great job since 9/11 making the American homeland much more difficult for terrorist organizations abroad to penetrate physically and send people over, because of things like the watch lists and the very close cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence. We see the most recent examples of those who were here and who were incited to carry out these attacks.
I have tremendous respect for the FBI’s capabilities. I interact with Jim Comey on a regular basis. The FBI has a real challenge because here are individuals who could be in their home will have no interaction with other people, but will be on the Internet and will be shaped and influenced by what they’re seeing in terms of this narrative, and will decide on their own—maybe with a spouse or maybe with others or maybe alone—to carry out an attack. And if they get their hands on a weapon or, you know, explosive material, they can do great damage before the signatures that are traditionally associated with traditional terrorist groups are seen.
WOODRUFF: And what is the CIA’s role in working with the FBI on that? Because you’re right, it’s a domestic challenge. But the CIA, I mean—
BRENNAN: Well, the CIA, working with our other partners, NSA, Homeland Security, as well as the National Counterterrorism Center, I think we do a very good job of sharing as much data information as possible, all the puzzle pieces. And so any lead we may have from overseas collection or access, we make sure it’s shared with our partners. Any of the trends or developments that we see in terrorist organizations in terms of their modus operandi, we share that immediately. And so it’s a constant interaction between all the different elements of the U.S. counterterrorism community that I think has helped protect this country. So the vulnerabilities that existed in 9/11, that the 9/11 hijackers and killers took advantage of, they no longer exist. However, there are other ways that an ISIS can adapt to the reality now to be able to carry out these attacks.
WOODRUFF: Right. I want to come back to ISIS in Syria and in Iraq because, yes, there’s been some progress, as you say, but it’s frustratingly slow. And you’re dealing with—you have the Iranians playing a role in Iraq and, I guess to a lesser extent, in Syria. But certainly in Iraq. I mean, do you see the Iranians of being supportive—of being in a supportive role, because of the side they take in Iraq? Or do you see them as being in the opposite role?
BRENNAN: Yes. (Laughter.) There are things that they can do, and have done, in order to address some of the terrorist threats that they face, which are similar to ones that we face. One of the things about ISIS that really distinguishes it from al-Qaida is that it has a very strong anti-Shia dimension to it. That’s how it’s sort of rolled over many parts of Iraq because of the years when the Sunni community felt as though a Shia-dominated and Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad was not addressing the needs of the Sunni community. So I think they’re very concerned about that growth.
At the same time, Iran is still identified by the U.S. government as the leading state sponsor of terrorism because of what they have done. So they are both a part of the problem, but they also—and I’m hopeful that maybe with the growing influence and ascendance of some of the more moderate elements within the Iranian government and President Rouhani, that we may see Iran truly move toward rejoining the community of nations and fulfilling its role and responsibility. But while it continues to provide support to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and others in Lebanon—because they have Hezbollah inside of Iraq and other groups—there’s a real problem with Tehran.
WOODRUFF: And what is your—what’s the level of communication between your agency and Iran?
BRENNAN: I don’t communicate with Iran.
WOODRUFF: There’s zero communication—indirect—
BRENNAN: I do not personally have any interaction—
WOODRUFF: Not personally. (Laughter.)
BRENNAN: I do not have any interaction, any formal liaison relationship or engagement with Iran.
WOODRUFF: Does the agency?
BRENNAN: The agency does not.
BRENNAN: No formal intelligence liaison relationship. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: No formal intelligence? Maybe somebody out here can phrase it better—phrase it—
BRENNAN: No. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: President Assad—
BRENNAN: But we know the Iranians very well. (Laughter.) Just saying. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: President Assad does not seem to be—certainly weakened to some extent, but hanging on in Syria. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence right now that he’s budging from his position. How do you weigh where the Syrian conflict stands right now?
BRENNAN: Last year at this time Assad was really on the ropes in terms of the Syrian military was taking it on the chin in a number of areas, particularly north of Damascus in the Latakia area. And that was what prompted Moscow to decide to send several thousand Russian military personnel—aircraft, weaponry, artillery, tanks, you name it—in order to prop up the regime that they have invested in over the last 50 years or so. And so the downward trajectory of the regime’s fortunes was reversed, as a result of that engagement on the part of Moscow.
We believe fervently that Assad is part of the problem, he’s not part of the solution. He is the reason—after the atrocities that he has perpetrated on his people, that he has lost all legitimacy in terms of ruling that country. And that’s also one of the reasons why we have so many of the Syrian people up in arms against Assad and the government in Damascus, as well as the foreign fighters. So we believe that although he’s maybe strengthened on the battlefield relative to where he was last year, we really are continuing to push the Russians, because the Russians play a critical role in this. There’s going to be, I think, no way forward on the political front without active Russian cooperation, as well as true and genuine Russian interest in trying to find a political path, because this is not going to be resolved on the battlefield.
WOODRUFF: And do you see any progress on that front?
BRENNAN: I have had numerous interactions with my Russian counterparts. I visited Moscow and talked with them. I feel as though they can do more. They probably feel that we can do more. But they, I don’t believe, have lived up to the commitments as far as honoring the cessation of hostilities and getting the trajectory of the Syrian conflict on a better course, particularly on the—on the political transition front.
WOODRUFF: So how do you—how do you turn that around? How do you change that?
BRENNAN: The dogged determination of our diplomats, led by, you know, the indefatigable John Kerry, who continues to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov and others. We have interaction with our counterparts on the Russian intelligence side to try to have a common appreciation of what the situation is inside of Syria. I have no doubt that the Russians are motivated in part in terms of their investment in Syria out of concern about the growth of ISIS and terrorist forces there. Whether it’d be ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaida in Syria, they are determined to I think try to crush those forces. At the same time, though, I think that they recognize that these forces have grown because of the problems that have existed in Syria, in the Syrian government.
WOODRUFF: I have a last question, and then we’re going to open it up to the—to the audience. I was struck—I guess I shouldn’t have been—that you said the greatest nuclear proliferation threat still comes from North Korea. Is there any progress in terms of intelligence, information, communication with the North? Is it still chiefly through China? I mean, how—help us understand where that is.
BRENNAN: That is another one of the more frustrating aspects of our international agenda, that you have someone like Kim Jung Un who continues to pursue these nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities almost irrespective of what his people need. I do not believe that he yet has come to realize that the international community is going to remain united against the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and that we’re not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, which is what he is demanding.
And so therefore, I think the international community wants to be able to bring North Korea out of its international isolation and to help the North Korean people. But there needs to be a better appreciation on the part of Kim Jung Un that his continued pursuit of these military capabilities, nuclear capabilities, is only going to undermine his long-term prospects.
WOODRUFF: But you don’t sense that message is getting through in any way?
BRENNAN: He seems to be exceptionally stubborn and not a very good listener. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: With that, I now want to invite all of you to ask questions. I am told that this meeting is on the record. I think we already knew that. We are—we have microphones. We’re going to bring them to you. So raise your hand, then stand up. We’re asking you to tell us who you are, give us your affiliation. And we ask you to keep it to one question so we can get to as many of you as possible. So who has a first question? Why don’t we start right here on the third row. Yes. Gentleman in the middle.
Q: David Goldwyn, Atlantic Council.
I wonder if you’d comment on the Iranian-Saudi rivalry and particularly how Mohammed bin Salman’s plans might help or hurt that relationship.
BRENNAN: Well, as you know, it’s a longstanding rivalry that predates Mohammed Salman, the current leadership as well as the current governments in both countries, this rivalry, unfortunately, between Persian and Arab, Shia and Sunni. Unfortunately, it has undermined I think some of the efforts in the past to try to bridge that gap.
Unfortunately, the continued problems that exist inside of Iraq and Syria do not help to facilitate even a productive dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh. And there are sharply differences of view about what the future of Syria and Iraq should look like.
So I—it’s important for two very large, important, and influential countries in the Gulf region to be able to find some type of modus vivendi. And we are hoping that some of the more rational actors inside of Iran are going to recognize that there needs to be some type of accommodation with the Saudi leadership and the Saudi government. And in my engagements with the Saudis—and I do have a liaison engagement—relationship with Saudi Arabia—they are interested in pursuing that if they feel as though the Iranian leadership is genuinely interested in pursuing something that—other than antagonistic relationship.
WOODRUFF: Is that something the U.S. is trying to persuade them of?
BRENNAN: I think one of the real motivating factors behind the JCPOA was, in addition to stopping Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program, was to tamp down the tensions that were rising as a result of that program in the Gulf with the ultimate aim of having the Gulf states, the ones that are in that region, find a better way to communicate with one another, first of all, and then secondly, to see whether or not there can be some repairing of those relations.
And in the past, there have been times when Saudi Arabia and Iran, under different leaders, were able to work together. There are areas where I think there is quite a bit of interaction. The Iranians have decided not to send pilgrims to Mecca this year because of security concerns there and because of this antagonism that continues to exist. So we are—we are encouraging this type of tamping down of tensions and dialogue. You’re only going to improve relations if you have dialogue.
WOODRUFF: OK. Far against the wall over here. Yes.
Q: Hi. John Sullivan with George Mason University.
There have been a number of excellent articles recently in Council publications and others talking about the erosion of the democratic trend around the world and the revival of the authoritarian or autocratic tendencies. That wasn’t one of the factors that you listed, but I wonder, in your major overarching concerns, to what degree do you worry about this fracturing of democracy and increase in authoritarian—of authoritarian revival?
BRENNAN: Well, we will make my remarks available on the CIA website, which is www.cia.gov, later on today. And I do say in there that a lot of these governments and regimes have opted for authoritarian measures at the expense of democratic principles and human rights. And I do think that there—unfortunately, some of these governments feel as though they are being overwhelmed by the security challenge they face, and they will resort then back to some of the traditional measures of suppressing these challenges with authoritarian measures.
We also, though, I think have to recognize that Western-style democracy, which has taken, you know, several hundred years to really take root—and it’s continuing to be a journey for us—that it’s not a light switch that can be just flipped in these Middle Eastern countries and Arab states. Going from very traditional societies and—with having the trappings of modernization in some of these cities, they’re still socially, culturally, politically very unfamiliar with the practices and democratic principles that we hold so dear. So I think we have to be understanding that this is going to take some time.
At the same time, we, the U.S. government, and we, CIA, are very, very clear in terms of the types of behaviors and actions that we will not tolerate if—that type of suppression and abuse of human rights. We, CIA, have not only threatened to cut off relations with some of those liaison partners that we have information that they practice; we have cut off relations. So I think we need to keep the pressure on them. But also, we have to make sure that this—the navigation of the shoals that stand between these governments today and a thriving democracy are significant. And I think we have to help them navigate it.
One of the real concerns I have is that the economic challenges that these countries face are overwhelming. When I think about the suffering that’s taking place in Yemen—and it’s still in the midst of, you know, active fighting—the reconstruction that is going to be required to put that country back together, and Syria, and Iraq, and Libya, and the economic reform that has to take place in some of the countries of the region that are not wracked by this instability are also very significant. So how do you make these structural changes, both on the economic front and the political front, while you’re dealing with some of these insidious threats that some individuals who purport to want—who demonstrate or protest purportedly in the name democracy, are not really interested in a flourishing democracy, they’re interested in bringing down one authoritarian regime in order to maybe put up another one?
So I think the Middle East is wracked by a number of problems right now that I think it’s going to be front and center for this United States government and the next administration for many years to come.
WOODRUFF: Yes, in the back. This woman right here. Yeah. Hand up. Thank you.
Q: Kim Dozier with the Council.
Sir, you mentioned in recent testimony that ISIS/Daesh/ISIL, would have to lose a lot more money, materiel and manpower before we’d really see them, quote/unquote, “on the back foot.” Is it also possibly time to retire phrases like “on the back foot” or “in retreat,” because all of these different groups over the past 15 years have seemed to just changed names, but the ideology just switches to a new group?
BRENNAN: Terrorism has been with us for millennia. It has been used by groups over the years for all sorts of political and ideological purposes. The sad fact is that carrying out these acts of terrorism can be very—relatively inexpensive. They can be relatively easy to fabricate, put together, and then to carry out. And when you have, though, a motivational engine like ISIL/Daesh that is able to encourage as well as to participate in this, it makes the situation and the potential even that much greater and more serious.
So when I commented in recent testimony that we have made progress on the battlefield and we’re still, though, a ways from being able to say that we’re able to successfully thwart this ISIL growth, what I’m saying is that it really has been generated now by what has happened, the phenomenon within the Syria-Iraq theater. It has a trajectory and a momentum that is carrying it forward.
We need to have efforts that are designed to go upstream, where the external plotters are, inside of Syria and Iraq. We need to be attacking the networks in terms of the flows of individuals, as well as flows of the narrative and the poison that goes out, as well as working downstream to stop the attacks, whether it be in Istanbul, Paris, Belgium, Orlando, or whatever.
So it needs to be a collective effort and a combined effort to attack all these different areas. But right now I am still very concerned that the ISIL-generated engine of foreign terrorism outside of Syria and Iraq still has a lot of momentum that we cannot rest at all. We have to increase our efforts.
I was struck, after I gave that testimony, how a lot of members of the esteemed media were trying to highlight how I—my comments differed from the White House’s comments. I must tell you, I’m hard-pressed to think about where President Obama and I differ on this issue in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish inside of Syria and Iraq, but at the same time our concern about the lethality that ISIL can bring to all of our communities, either because their hand can reach that far, they’ve taken advantage of the openness of our societies, or because they’re doing it via the internet. So I think we share a very similar view on the status of ISIL’s fortunes, both inside the theater as well as what they can do in terms of external operations.
WOODRUFF: OK, in the very back, the hand up. Thank you. Yes, you.
Q: Thank you. Ken Dilanian with NBC News.
Mr. Brennan, you said in an interview yesterday that you’d be very surprised if ISIS wasn’t plotting an Istanbul-style attack in the United States. Do you have credible evidence that such an attack is in the works? And has the chances of such an attack gone up in recent months or weeks?
BRENNAN: What I was saying was that we’ve seen ISIL carry out and incite an array of terrorist attacks in the region, beyond the region, directly, indirectly, and that I would be surprised that ISIL is not considering carrying out these attacks in the near abroad as well as the far abroad. And the United States, as we well know, is leading the coalition to try to destroy as much of this poison inside of Syria and Iraq as possible.
So it would be surprising to me that ISIL is not trying to hit us, both in the region as well as in our homeland. And I think what you see in the propagation of their material—they have a magazine, Dabiq, that goes out—that says exactly that. It exhorts individuals to do it.
So if anybody here believes that, you know, the U.S. homeland is hermetically sealed and that Daesh or ISIL would not consider that, I think—I would guard against that.
WOODRUFF: Do you think we are more hermetically sealed or more sealed than we were after 9/11 or less?
BRENNAN: Absolutely. As I said, I think we have gone to great lengths. And we have briefed our foreign partners about how we learned some painful lessons as a result of 9/11. And so the intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, other communities, are working together today better than ever before.
There is a tremendous volume of information and data that is out there, some of it accurate, some of it bogus. And trying to make sense of it all and put the different puzzle pieces together is challenging. So we’re—I think we’re less vulnerable to the penetration, but—physical, because of the actions we’ve taken—but as we’ve seen with the, as you mentioned, the Internet, as well as ISIL’s taking advantage of technologies that allow them to communicate in a very secure fashion, is certainly worrisome.
WOODRUFF: OK, right here in the second row. Yes.
Q: Jim Mann, author. I’m at Johns Hopkins SAIS.
In your list of challenges, you didn’t mention China, although there are several areas, like cyber, for example, where it might seem to fit in one way or another. Where does it fit into your list of challenges?
BRENNAN: As I said, I could have gone on and on and on about all the challenges out there. I didn’t mention Ukraine; didn’t mention a lot of issues related to Russia.
China is a growing power of great economic, political, and increasingly military influence and presence. And clearly, as we look at what’s happening in the South China Sea, there is a reason for the United States to pay attention to what China is doing on a number of fronts, which we are. And that’s why there’s the pivot to Asia or making sure that our allies and partners in that region feel as though, with all the other things that are going on in the world, we have not neglected that area.
I was out in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, along with Ash Carter, at the Shangri-La conference. I met with the heads of the services, intelligence services, from the ASEAN countries, as well as with my Chinese counterpart, as a way to maintain the dialogue and to let them know that the United States treats this region of the world very seriously, and we have very important national-security interests that we’re not going step away from. And if anybody thinks we are, they are sadly mistaken.
So what we need to do is to be able to keep our eye on all these balls simultaneously. And this is not an effort to try to contain China. It is an effort to try to make sure that U.S. national-security interests are protected and advanced, as are the national security interests of our allies and partners in the region, and we fulfill our obligations, particularly in the area of freedom of navigation in those seas.
WOODRUFF: Yes, second row over here.
Q: Hello. Christine Vargas, Control Risks. Thank you for being here today.
Another one on Iran. Given the lessening of sanctions, we’re seeing a bit of a challenge getting investment into Iran, because European banks are taking a look and saying that financial system doesn’t look free of corruption yet; maybe I won’t touch it.
Given that dynamic, are you seeing the moderates in politics surviving until such time as those financial benefits come through? And what event could tip the scales in one way or another? Thank you.
BRENNAN: We are going through a transition period from the time when Iran was sanctioned across the board on so many fronts, and that financial institutions and companies adapted to the framework that they were prevented from engaging with Iran.
Now we’re transitioning to the new environment in terms of what is allowed under JPOA. And it is an adjustment that needs to be made. And I know that U.S. officials and others are working with the Iranians, as well as with third parties, to make sure that it’s understood what is permissible and how these things can be done. That takes some time any time you’re going to make a major adjustment like that.
Do I think that the moderates are going to survive during this period of time? Absolutely. I think that the expectations among some within Iran, once the agreement was signed, were quite high that there was going to be immediate relief, as well as immediate dividends, as a result of this.
There were some, but I think there was a lot that this Iranian central government had to do in terms of taking care of some of those structural, strategic, macroeconomic issues in supporting the currency and some other things that they needed to do. And so the effect and impact on individual Iranians is going to take place over time. And we’re very much hoping that that impact is going to be felt, certainly sooner rather than later, as a way to validate the course that President Rouhani and others are on.
And so, again, this is going to take a bit of time. I’m sure some people may be frustrated by it. But I know that our government is working to fulfill the obligations that are attendant to the agreement. But this is taking a bit of time.
WOODRUFF: The third row. Yes.
Q: If you’ll forgive me an administrative question. My name is—
WOODRUFF: You have to give us—
Q: —Edward Luttwak.
WOODRUFF: —your name and affiliation first.
Q: Edward Luttwak.
Q: Administrative issue. Years ago I heard you say that there was a need for more language training in the agency. Have you advanced in that direction? Because as I go around the world I encounter your people, and they don’t seem to speak the local language. Have you—I mean, you did say you wanted to do it. I’m just curious to know what was done.
BRENNAN: We only let you encounter the people we want you to encounter. (Laughter.) As a way to continue to hide our presence overseas. (Laughter.)
Q: But nobody speaks the local language.
BRENNAN: Well, I go to many stations and to our folks overseas. And they are proficient in a variety of languages. We have a language strategic initiative at the agency where we continue to provide incentives, rewards, recognition for individuals who are able to not just enhance their language, but expand their repertoire of languages. It is something that’s critically important. I take your point, and I have made the point that we need to have greater language capability inside of the CIA. But I would say that, given that we are so—we have a global coverage that we need to fulfill. And the list of issues that we have to deal with continues to grow and grow and grow. And resources are finite. We need to be able to spread them around. But having a language capability is going to give us the opportunity that we need in order to fulfill our various missions. And particularly on the HUMINT front it is critically important, so that you’re able to have the ability to interact with individuals that you want to be able to work closely with.
WOODRUFF: Right here, this gentleman on the fourth row. Right here, on the aisle.
Q: Director Brennan, Scott Harold from the RAND Corporation. Thank you and the women and men of the CIA for all of your efforts.
I wonder if you could come back to China for a moment. And we’ve had a new election in Taiwan in January that brought to power the DPP in Taipei. There is signs that China is looking to make that relationship much more difficult, to impose costs. I wonder if you could describe your sense of the growing threat, if you perceive one, from China to Taiwan.
BRENNAN: Well, I think under President Xi Jinping, he has a strategic vision of what he wants to be able to accomplish in the region, whether it is in the seas—as we see with the reclamation that’s taking place and putting new effects on the ground or in the sea—as well as the relationship that he wants with the countries and others in the region. And I think the relationship with Taiwan is a very big one and an important one. And whether or not there is going to be an adjustment in that, I think it is going to be dependent on how Beijing views Taiwan and vice versa. And given that there is a new administration in Taiwan, given that there is a rather important dynamic that is going on in the region with how China is flexing some of its muscles, I think this also is in a period of transition. And I think there is this dynamism.
I think, and it’s not a secret to anybody, that mainland China views Taiwan in a very special way. And I think it has, you know, aspirations to further solidify the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan. But I think this is all part of that adjustment with new leadership. And I think there—sometimes campaign rhetoric that takes place not just here in the States but also overseas, that once the reality of governance comes in, sometimes those views are tempered, as far as the nature of interstate relations. So I’ll leave it there.
WOODRUFF: Let’s see. How about in the middle back there, in the blue shirt.
Q: George Salem with DLA Piper.
Director Brennan, my question concerns the 28 pages. You’ve been on record about your view of their relative lack of value. My question is timing of release and the level of declassification, and whether they will also be released with the investigative report which puts it all in context.
BRENNAN: Well, I am only the director of CIA, so I don’t make the decisions about the release of a congressional document, the joint inquiry that was produced in December of 2002, that subsequently was followed up with the 9/11 Commission that thoroughly investigated all the allegations and information that was in those 28 or 29 pages. And it all—so there’s an executive branch responsibility because that’s—the document cited executive branch information. So there is a—I think has been said publicly, there’s been a review that has been underway. And so there is going to be the appropriate discussions that need to take place between the executive and legislative branches to finalize that.
I believe it’s important that that document get out because there’s so much speculation and conjecture about it. I have said that there are a lot of things in there that unfortunately will be used by some to maybe misrepresent the facts or history. But that’s why the 9/11 Commission—a thorough, thorough research investigation—really should been seen by folks as the much more dispositive of it. And there are some other documents that may come out at the same time, as you point out. But again, I defer to others who have that decision making responsibility.
WOODRUFF: OK. Let’s see. I’m trying to get to somebody—next to the last, third in, from the end on the row—yeah, with your hand up. You’ve had your hand up a long time. Yes.
Q: Yeah, Simon Henderson, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
There’s a David Ignatius op-ed in today’s Washington Post in which you get a passing reference. It’s—
BRENNAN: By the way, I didn’t talk to David Ignatius prior to that article being published. I just want to go on the record, because it’s a reference to me.
Q: He didn’t imply you did. But the headline, based on the online version, is the 30-year old Saudi prince could jumpstart the kingdom or dive it off a cliff. What can the U.S. do? What should it do to get a good outcome in Saudi Arabia?
BRENNAN: Continue to work very closely with the Saudi leadership, the Saudi government. President Obama has been out there many times during his administration. We have constant interaction with the Saudi government and the political, economic, security, intelligence realms. We have very close alignment of objectives in some areas. We need to continue to work with them.
The Saudi 2030 vision and project that was spearheaded by the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Salman is an ambitious view of the future that I think the Saudi leadership as a whole deserves credit for thinking about how Saudi Arabia is going to prosper in the future, across a number of different areas, in terms of development, investment, employment, diversification of its economy. It is a very, very important country to the region’s stability, to U.S. national security interests. And so what we’re trying to do is to make sure that there is this very active dialogue, and a very open and candid discussion between ourselves and Saudi Arabia.
As I said, the president has engaged extensively and has been very open and honest and candid with the areas where we want to be able to work together with Saudi Arabia because we agree, and there are areas where there are disagreements. And I have been impressed that the dialogue has been so candid. And it’s particularly important now because you have a new leadership, King Salman, Crown Muhammad Nayef, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, who need to be working as a team. They have a number of challenges on the security front, given what’s going on inside of Yemen, what’s happening along their border inside of, you know, other countries. So it’s a critically important relationship that we’re going to continue to nurture and develop.
WOODRUFF: OK. This gentleman here, third in. This one right here.
Q: Mohamed Elmenshawy, Al Arabiya Television.
Would you please give us your assessment on the terrorism in Sinai, and whether your agency cooperates with the Egyptians on that front?
BRENNAN: We do cooperate with the Egyptians. I spoke to my Egyptian counterpart earlier this week. We want to make sure that we’re able to do what we can to help protect individuals inside of Egypt, Egyptians and others. The challenge inside of Sinai, there is an ISIL group there, but it used to be a local group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, that basically pledged allegiance to ISIL. And so it’s not as though it’s a start-up. This was a group that was very active in the Sinai for a number of years, that now is part of the ISIS global architecture. So their responsibility for carrying out attacks against the Egyptian security, military offices there. They’ve posed a threat to the multinational force observers inside of the Sinai.
So we work closely with the Egyptians. We try to give them the information that they need to prevent these, you know, outrageous terrorist attacks from taking place, whether it be in the Sinai or other areas. There have been attacks inside of Cairo. We also have a very close and open and candid conversations with the Egyptians. And there are areas where we believe the Egyptians need to step up their game in terms of their capabilities, but also in terms of how they deal with some of these very challenging issues that cross both the security and the political realms. But we do have a very—an active engagement with the—with the Egyptians.
WOODRUFF: All right. I think we’re out of time unless somebody has a very short question. Anybody volunteer? (Laughter.)
BRENNAN: You knew that was going to happen. (Laughter.)
Q: Sir, I’m David Ensor with the Atlantic Council.
An old journalist kind of question: When do you start briefing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? (Laughter.) And—
WOODRUFF: You took my question.
Q: And how do you expect that to go?
BRENNAN: I knew—on these things, we always go one question too long. We really do. (Laughter.)
It is up to the president and then the Director of National Intelligence to make that offer, as they’ve done in the past, to the candidates of the two principal political parties after the convention formally nominates them. And so the Director of National Intelligence takes the lead on that. And so the timing, as well as the willingness and interest of the candidates, is something that will be determined as a result of engagement with their respective staffs.
WOODRUFF: But you won’t do that briefing personally, will you?
BRENNAN: I fulfill my CIA responsibilities to the best of my ability. And if there is a need for me to be personally involved in this, I will—I will try to carry out my responsibilities. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: Please thank—
BRENNAN: And if there’s not a need, I will not. (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: Please thank John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Applause.)
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