In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews John Brennan, career intelligence officer and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan, who led the agency during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017, offers new insights into the intelligence community’s assessments of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, shares concerns about the potential politicization of the community’s work, and discusses the merits of pursuing a career in national security. Brennan, now retired, also discusses details included in his new memoir, UNDAUNTED: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad.
- On intelligence findings related to Russia’s 2016 election interference : “I would have been roundly and rightly criticized for overturning that judgment just because two CIA officers came in and weighed in with me. So whether or not you’re talking about an individual agency product or an intelligence community assessment or a National Intelligence Estimate, the analytic views are subject to great debate, scrutiny and rigorous review. But at the end of the day, if a manager of one of those organizations decides to change the judgment, I think that is something that, again, is contrary to what the analytic process should be and needs to be.”
- Recent declassifications by DNI John Ratcliffe: “I thought it was a outrageous, appalling and blatant act of politicization that he released, very selectively, some intelligence that was provided then to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is right now engaged in, I think, a very partisan effort to try to debunk the necessary investigative efforts of the FBI that looked into Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
- Challenges to democracy: “I’m neither a Democrat or Republican and I worked for Republican administrations, had great respect for them. But to listen to a number of those Republican senators and members of the House of Representatives just willfully and purposely mislead the American public about what Donald Trump is doing is just it’s very unfortunate. So I am concerned that what we’ve seen over the past number of years is eroding some of those foundation stones of our democracy. And just like how I think we need to adapt to the realities of the 21st century as far as governance and governance is really much more difficult today than it was 50 years ago. ”
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – JOHN BRENNAN
Producer: Arianna Freeman
MICHAEL MORELL: John, welcome to the show. It is an honor to have you with us.
JOHN BRENNAN: Michael, it’s great to be invited to your show. And I just want to say thank you for doing Intelligence Matters over the past several years, because I think it’s critically important that more Americans really understand the importance of the intelligence profession and just how vital our national interests are in this day and age. So thank you again for what you do.
MICHAEL MORELL: You’re welcome. John, first off, congratulations on your book, Undaunted: My fight against America’s Enemies at Home and Abroad. I’ve read it. It’s extraordinarily well done. Lots of great stories, but more importantly, lots of important lessons. So I encourage all of my listeners to get themselves a copy and to read it closely. I also just want to highlight for all my listeners that you and I are friends. So full transparency is important in everything, including journalism. So I just want everybody to know that.
JOHN BRENNAN: And former colleagues for over 30 years.
MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely. So, John, my original plan was to spend our entire time on the book, in particular aspects of it that may not get as much attention in your other interviews, but the news cycle demands that I ask you about three issues that have played out in the media in the last few days, and then we’ll dig into the book.
So the first, which you actually talk about in your book, has to do with the intelligence community’s judgment in late 2016 about Russia’s interference in the election. And what’s played out in the media is that the analysts had done their work, they made an analytical call and you get a visit by two of your senior officers. Can you walk us through what happens there? And I actually think this is important because I actually worry that John Durham, the Justice Department official who’s investigating the origins of the Mueller investigation, may actually get this wrong in his report. So I really want to take some time to go through that. So, what happened?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, thanks, Mike. And as you know, the CIA is the intelligence community’s premiere, all-source analytic organization. And so the CIA was tapped to take the lead on drafting this intelligence community assessment, a very sensitive one on Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the ODNI, that was responsible for pulling that together. The CIA probably had a dozen or so analysts, many of them very senior, who were responsible for putting this draft together. And they worked with their counterparts at NSA and FBI and ODNI. And then when the draft was done, there were several key judgments. One among them was that the Russians were trying to advance the electoral prospects of Donald Trump. And initially when that draft was done, all of the four agencies deemed that that judgment had high confidence of the analysts in those four agencies. Ultimately, the NSA decided that they were going to lower their level of confidence to medium, which, as you know, is not that much of a distinction from high confidence. But it’s a distinction nevertheless. But there was certainly no argument about the solid nature of that judgment itself within CIA; CIA analysts, the authors of the assessment who were steeped in the intelligence, determined that they had high confidence in their judgment.
Now, as you point out, there were two senior officials, U.S. CIA officials, who worked in that Russia Mission Center who weighed in with me to say that they believed that the confidence level of that one judgment shouldn’t be at the high level. That should be at the medium level. Well, one of them sent an email to me and asked if they could talk with me. And so I invited them to my office and sat down with both of them. And for about 30 minutes or so, we talked it through and they explained their reasoning. I explained to them that I was very much deferring to the judgment of the analysts who were responsible for authoring the assessment, but that I also shared the analysts’ views because in judgment, I had read through all of the intelligence, including the raw intelligence, and I encouraged the two senior officers to talk to the analysts about that judgment. They said they already had. But the authors, the analysts were unconvinced by their argument. Well, I said that I encourage them to do it again if they feel strongly about it.
But what I wasn’t going to do was to overrule the considered and consensus judgment of those CIA analysts who were involved in this issue and had authored that assessment. And I know that there’s some press reports out there saying that I overruled those two senior officers; no, I didn’t. I decided that I was not going to overrule the analysts who wrote that. And so, you know, managers, have the opportunity and they should weigh in. But at the end of the day, as you and I have both been managers of the analytic process, it really comes down to what those analysts determine, what their findings are, what they base those judgments on, and so that judgment at the high confidence level prevailed, as far as the CIA position.
MICHAEL MORELL: So I think what a lot of people in the public might not get is that the analysts make the call, right. I think a lot of people would assume that, of course, the director should say what the analytic line is and they don’t understand the culture of the place and how it works. Right. And what is really important here is to understand that you were actually doing exactly what you were supposed to do and not stepping in and changing the analytic judgment, which would have been considered by the analysts a serious problem had you done that?
JOHN BRENNAN: Absolutely. I would have been roundly and rightly criticized for overturning that judgment just because two CIA officers came in and weighed in with me. So whether or not you’re talking about an individual agency product or an intelligence community assessment or a National Intelligence Estimate, the analytic views are subject to great debate, scrutiny and rigorous review. But at the end of the day, if a manager of one of those organizations decides to change the judgment, I think that is something that, again, is contrary to what the analytic process should be and needs to be.
MICHAEL MORELL: So John, the second issue I wanted to raise with you is the letter that the Director of National Intelligence sent last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Hillary Clinton and Russian interference in 2016. The intelligence the DNI declassified and released, for my listeners, simply said that Russian intelligence analysis said that Hillary Clinton approved a plan in July 2016 to tie Donald Trump to Putin and Russian interference in the election. What was your reaction to the DNI’s declassification of that information?
JOHN BRENNAN: I thought it was a outrageous, appalling and blatant act of politicization that he released, very selectively, some intelligence that was provided then to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is right now engaged in, I think, a very partisan effort to try to debunk the necessary investigative efforts of the FBI that looked into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And I think it also just reflects that Donald Trump, after being frustrated with the first two Directors of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who served in that position from the beginning of the administration, then Joseph McGuire, who was serving in an acting capacity. I think they refused to bend to Donald Trump’s whims. But clearly, Richard Grenell, who served in an acting capacity before John Ratcliffe became the Director of National Intelligence. I think they have abused their authority and the position of the director of national intelligence in order to promote the very personal and partisan and craven objectives of Donald Trump. So I was quite appalled by that.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, can you talk about how that information was handled when it was received in 2016?
JOHN BRENNAN: Yeah, well, the memo that Ratcliffe released said that my handwritten notes showed that I had briefed President Obama and national security officials, the seniors, about that intelligence. And I briefed it for a couple of reasons. One is that I wanted to give President Obama and others a sense of the extent of our access and our intelligence collection capabilities against the Russians, to demonstrate that we did have this insight into what the Russians were doing, what they were saying among themselves and so on. But I also wanted to demonstrate that I didn’t care whether or not they were Russians. We’re talking about a Republican or Democrat or one candidate or the other. I wanted to make sure that I was blind to that political issue.
And again, I’m limited in terms of what I can say about this, because Ratcliffe only very narrowly released something. But let’s just say that what was within those quotes in the memo about Hillary Clinton approving this plan that was teed up by one of her advisers to highlight Donald Trump’s ties to Russia as a way to distract from her email and server issue – let’s say that was accurate, and I am not saying that at all. Far from it. But if it were, there is nothing illegal about that. And Ratcliffe’s memo implies that since it was sent to the FBI as part of a larger report, that it basically implies that Secretary Clinton was engaged in illegal activity by doing it. Again, I’m not saying that that’s what Secretary Clinton had approved, but even if she had, there is nothing illegal about that. And that would not have been the basis for CIA to refer that report to the FBI for follow-up investigation, for possible criminal activity.
MICHAEL MORELL: So I infer from that and I don’t know if you can answer this, but I infer from that that the reason it was passed to the FBI was because of something else that was in there?
JOHN BRENNAN: Yes and as you know, I have not been allowed access to classified information. I was able to review some things during the Durham investigation that they asked me about. This was part of a number of documents that I was asked about. And I don’t know exactly what Ratcliffe was referring to there in terms of which report. And I don’t recollect what else might have been in that report. But again, I can say definitively that at least what was quoted in the Ratcliffe memo was not a basis for any type of potential criminal referral.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, and then the third issue, John, is the president contracting COVID. And a number of folks have said publicly that one of the reasons why the White House can’t be transparent about the president’s health is because of national security concerns. Can you just comment on that?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, as we’re conducting this interview, I hear that Donald Trump is going to be released from Walter Reed in a few hours and listening to some of his medical doctors talking about his condition, they, I think, selectively release some things and don’t release others, pointing out to HIPAA requirements in terms of privacy rights of individuals and patients.
I do not believe that based on what I have heard and my understanding of the responsibilities of the medical staff of the president, that there’s nothing in my mind that would negatively implicate national security by providing a more truthful accounting to the American people about Donald Trump’s condition. There are some things that I think, you know, might need to be kept quiet, and that’s when you could bring in members of Congress, the leadership of Congress or whoever else. But based on what I’m hearing right now, it doesn’t seem like there is any national security issue that’s being protected.
It’s more Donald Trump, again, understandably, you know, knowing who he is, is trying to project a image of strength, power, resilience, and I think just secrecy as far as his personal affairs, whether they be business and financial or whether they be health records.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, John, back to your book. Let me mention some people. Let me just throw out some names and ask you what kind of impact they had on your life, your approach to your career, your success, etc. So let me start with your parents.
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, Michael, I’ve heard you talk about your parents and you know how important they were to you in your life. I was very, very fortunate to have both a mother and a father who really instilled in me a sense of distinction between right and wrong, which gave me a moral compass that I think was grounded in their religious faith. I was raised in a very religious household, a Catholic household, but also just gave me a sense of the importance of honesty, integrity, but also giving back to this country.
I talk in the book about how my father is an immigrant to this country who came here when he was 28 years old and always told my brother, sister and myself that we need to give back to this great country of ours and not just take, take, take. So both of them were tremendous role models. And I miss them dearly and I think of them every day.
MICHAEL MORELL: Your wife, Kathy.
JOHN BRENNAN: Kathy and I got married when we were very both very young. We were 22 years old. And so we just celebrated a couple months ago our 42nd anniversary. And we’ve been through thick and thin together, tough times together. And it’s very challenging, as you well know, for the family of CIA officers and national security officials to have somebody in the household that frequently is not there and even when they’re there, that I am somewhere else. And so I’ve had to rely on Kathy to continue to encourage me to do the things that I needed to do, but also tremendous understanding. And I never would have reached my ambitions and my goals had it not been for her love, support and understanding. I just I can’t find enough words to thank her for what she’s done.
MICHAEL MORELL: A CIA officer named Karl Ruhle?
JOHN BRENNAN: You know when I got to the agency in 1980, I first started off in operations and moved to analysis. And after a couple of years under my belt as an analyst, I really thought that I knew a little tradecraft – until I met someone like named Karl Ruhle, who was my supervisor. And he just explained to me the difference between giving one’s views and personal judgments and using information and intelligence and data to drive analysis.
I remember one of the lessons he told me was that so many analysts use words like ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ and ‘almost certainly’ as crutches because they cannot martial the information and the analytic arguments in the data to drive their analysis. So he was somebody who I just really revered after he would take the time to mentor me and to teach me and somebody who was a tremendous role model for me as I pursued my intelligence career.
MICHAEL MORELL: George Tenet.
JOHN BRENNAN: George was one of my PDB recipients and briefees when I was Bill Clinton’s daily PDB briefer, the President’s Daily Brief down at the White House. George was the director of intelligence programs at the national security staff at the time, and he was somebody who was just a ball of energy and knew so much about the intelligence profession, about CIA. He had served as the staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee before he joined the White House staff. And when he was nominated to be the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence under John Deutch, he asked me to join him at the agency and give up my PDB briefing responsibility and become his executive assistant as his deputy. Well, George and I have ever since forged a very close relationship – again, friend, mentor, advisor, counsel and I served as his chief of staff when he was director, served as deputy executive director.
And George is somebody who, in terms of integrity, in terms of work ethic, in terms of dedication to this country’s security and to every man and woman who worked at CIA. He is an exceptionally talented but also an exceptionally thoughtful, generous person. And I’ve just been very fortunate to be associated with him during my career.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I think he’s had an amazing legacy. I mean, there are still senior officers at CIA who he mentored. All these years, you know, almost 16 years later, his legacy lives on.
JOHN BRENNAN: That’s a good way to describe it. It is a legacy. It’s not just in terms of what he did while he was there, but it’s those individuals that he really helped guide. And many of them are still there at the agency. And I think they’re sharing what they learned from George with younger officers today.
MICHAEL MORELL: And lastly, Barack Obama.
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I was very fortunate to work for the entire eight years of the Obama presidency. And I didn’t know Barack Obama before he was elected president. I was a remote, long-distance, indirect advisor to his kitchen cabinet, to his campaign. And I relate the story in the book. When I first met him in Chicago the week after the election, and when he asked me first to be director of CIA and then asked me to to join him at the the White House, when that first offer didn’t work out. And for the first four-plus years, my office was right below his in the White House, in the West Wing. I got to know him very well. I got to meet with him several times a day.
Somebody who was exceptionally, exceptionally talented, exceptionally conscientious about carrying out his responsibilities as president and was very, very interested in making decisions that were going to optimize our national interests. But also, given that we both have been involved in counterterrorism over the years, carrying out the counterterrorism programs in the most effective surgical manner, that optimizes the safety and security of Americans and innocent people everywhere, but also minimizes to the greatest extent, any unintended harm to anyone. And I greatly admired him for his emphasis on doing just that.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, I want to turn to a series of what may seem and actually are random questions, but I think our listeners will find your answers interesting. The first one is I want to ask you about ethics and intelligence. I often get a question from students: Isn’t there an inherent conflict between the two? And you’re one of the most ethical people that I know. How would you answer that question from the students?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I don’t know if I’m the most ethical people you know, Michael. I’ve tried to live by that North Star that my parents instilled in me. And, ethics I think need to be a part of anything anyone does in their life. It’s one thing to abide by the law. It’s another thing to engage in ethical and principled behavior. And clearly, the CIA over the last 70 plus years has been engaged in a lot of things that are very, very controversial and a number of things that I disagreed with, and that I had to really come to terms with sometimes during my time at CIA and sometimes before I joined the organization.
But I do think particularly for a democracy and one that is founded on the principles, democratic principles that are embedded in our Constitution and that we are very fortunate to be able to have, I think that needs to be a good guide for what our intelligence and security services do. I do think it’s critically important that we gain insight into the threats and challenges that we face around the globe. But I think there’s a way to do it that will allow us to remain consistent to those values as Americans.
I talk about in the book that there are a number of times when I was at the CIA where there were advocates of engaging in propagating false information about our adversaries. And I just don’t believe the United States should be in the business of being a purveyor of misinformation, disinformation. I think there is a lot that we can accomplish, as much as we need to accomplish, we can do it with truthful information. And so whether or not you’re talking about recruiting human assets, whether or not you’re talking about different types of technical collection systems, I think it has to be looked through a dual prism of what is legal and what is duly authorized and then also what is ethical, principled and consistent with our values as Americans. And I recognize that that sometimes is a very, very tough combination to meet when there are national security imperatives and serious threats to our country. I think sometimes the CIA has gotten it right and sometimes we’ve gotten it wrong. So I think this is something that we have to learn from, every time that we’re faced with one of these challenges.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, in the context of ethics, I’m going to ask you about something in the book: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, what some people call torture. You’ve said before and you say in your book that you were uncomfortable with that program and that you spoke up at the time, but perhaps not as loudly as you should have.
I want to ask you a different question about it, because I’ve actually thought a lot about this, and I think I know you pretty well. And I believe that if you had been the director at the time, I believe that you would not have approved the techniques. We don’t need to debate that. But that’s what I really believe.
And my question is, what would you have done when the counterterrorism folks came to you and said that they wanted to do this and gave you a reason why they wanted to do it? What would you have told them? What would you have done? What would you have said to them?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think it certainly was imperative that the CIA be aggressive in the aftermath of 9/11, working with our foreign counterparts, intelligence security services around the globe who were in the process of picking up a number of these known and suspected terrorists. And they needed to be detained, arrested, captured. But the CIA had no history, no experience in conducting an interrogation program as well as holding individuals captive.
And I think at the time, I would have tried to ensure the great wealth of CIA intelligence and counterterrorism experience be brought to bear, but that other elements that have had that experience, such as the U.S. military, which does detain people and capture people and also does interrogate, and that the bureau, the FBI, that has been involved in interrogations, debriefings, solicitation for decades, they were the ones that had that experience. But to ask the CIA to carry out both a detention and interrogation program in the heat of the 9/11 aftermath and basically stand up a program without that background experience, I think was asking too much.
You know, the CIA culture is always to salute a order from the commander in chief. And that program was duly authorized by the President of the United States. It was deemed lawful by the highest legal advisory body in the executive branch, the Office of Legal Counsel and Department of Justice.
It was briefed to the committees of jurisdiction. So I greatly sympathize with all those CIA officers who wanted to stop a recurrence of that horrific 9/11 attack. But that is the time where I think we should say, ‘OK, we can do this part of it, but we need others to carry out some of these other areas of responsibility.’
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s go from ethics to national security as a career for young Americans. I spend a lot of time on college campuses and I think many students today have a view that is different from the view that you and I had growing up, right.
We believed that America, yes, made some mistakes in the world, but that it was generally a force for good. And many of the students that I run into today don’t believe that; they believe that the U.S. has largely been a force for bad in the world and therefore they have real doubts about working for the government in general and for a national security agency like CIA in particular. What would you tell those students?
JOHN BRENNAN: First of all, Michael, like you, I try to spend as much time as I can now in my retirement, encouraging young Americans at various university colleges to give back to this great country of ours and encourage them to disregard all of the craziness in Washington right now and pursue a career in national security, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, military, because this country really, really needs it.
Are we an imperfect union? Absolutely. That’s why the preamble of the Constitution says in order to form a more perfect union. Has the CIA made mistakes in the past? Absolutely it has. And unfortunately, some of them were very bad mistakes. But has the CIA and the intel community and the U.S. military and the state done things to keep this country strong and safe? Absolutely.
And one of the reasons why I think it’s so important for young Americans to give back to this country is that this is a very unique country. I do believe strongly in American exceptionalism, not because we are any better or smarter or more clever than anybody else. We have benefited from having such a large country with tremendous natural resources, arable land, navigable rivers, long sea coasts. And we’re the melting pot of the world. And I think with that exceptional, great, good fortune, we have exceptional global responsibilities. And the world’s peace and security really rests a lot on the United States’ role in that world.
Look what we did during World War II as far as stopping Nazi expansionism, imperial Japan, we were responsible for rebuilding the international system and the aftermath of World War II with the Marshall Plan, the international financial system. We have been the leader of the call for for human rights and justice and liberal democratic order. If we shirk those responsibilities, we really are putting ourselves at risk. And so, therefore, the CIA, if it carries out its responsibilities ethically and in a principled fashion, plays an integral role in ensuring that the United States is going to live up to, I think, not only its potential, but also its responsibilities.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, let me tell you a couple of things that I worry about and get your reaction to them. One is, I think, thanks to their rhetoric and to the actions of President Trump and those who have enabled him, is that a significant percentage of Americans now see the intelligence community, to include the CIA, as the “Deep State.” Right. And that is not just going to go away with an election of a President Biden. Those people are going to continue to believe that. So how would you advise the leadership of the IC going forward to deal with that issue that a good chunk of the country sees them in a dangerous way?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, Michael, you and I would administer the oath of office to new agency employees in front of Memorial Wall. And it was one of the great privileges of our roles. And I can recall telling those new employees to disregard all of the political rhetoric and the partisan sniping that goes on in Washington, that the CIA and the intelligence community frequently is that football and the meat in the partisan sandwich. And I am concerned that what we’ve heard and seen in the last three and a half plus years really has been demoralizing because a lot of people are concerned that here we have somebody in the Oval Office who is dismissive of intelligence and denigrates the role and sacrifices of the members of the intel community, law enforcement and others.
I think it’s really incumbent on the future leaders of the intel community to speak out. Both you and I, I think, took opportunities to give public addresses when we were in office and to better explain to the American people. And yes, sometimes we’re criticized for some of the things that we do or say, but I think greater transparency is the best way to undercut a lot of these allegations of “deep statehood” in the in the national security environment.
And so I do think that if Joe Biden is elected, I think there’s going to be certainly a new chapter. There’s going to be much greater respect paid to these dedicated Americans by the White House and by the national security seniors. But I do think the intelligence community officials, but also members of Congress, it is so, so unfortunate that intelligence, the intelligence work is now the subject of great partisan sniping on the Hill. Years ago, when we both would go down and brief the intelligence committees of jurisdiction, I felt that the members would would hang their political coat and party coat at the door and they would really sit down and enjoy the discussion with us on national security matters and do it in a very bipartisan fashion. I think we need to return to those days. And I think it’s incumbent on the senior officials in the executive branch and senior members of Congress to do exactly that.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, the other thing I’m worried about is, is that nativism has taken over our politics. And patriotism, right, is required to serve one’s country, and I just wonder if those two things, nativism and patriotism, are at the end of the day inconsistent with each other?
JOHN BRENNAN: They very much are. Patriotism, to me, connotes a sense of real pride and devotion and commitment to your country, to your state and to what it stands for and what it is. Nativism is more looking at things in a very sort of myopic way and almost an us-versus-them. I know that nativism has taken root in so many countries, not just in the United States, because people are reacting to sometimes foreign influences and people are concerned about encroachment on their culture or their language, on their jobs and other things. And that’s why I think Donald Trump’s mantra of “America First, America First” is really shrill on the ears of a lot of people around the world because they believe that the United States is going to pursue this nativist policy, that we’re going to leverage our muscularity in economics, finance, you know, political and military spheres to better us and to disadvantage others.
While patriotism, I think, recognizes that you have a responsibility to your country, to your fellow citizens, but it doesn’t come at the exclusion of trying to ensure that the world as a whole becomes a better place because of the efforts of your country. So I very much am concerned about the growth of nativism here in this country, particularly, as you know, xenophobia has really taken hold in so many places. But I think this is all part of the globalization that we’re becoming much more interconnected. And unfortunately, a lot of people feel threatened by these changes. And I do think that our politicians and government officials have to be more honest with their people, with our citizenry, as opposed to fueling the animus that unfortunately is in evidence in so many places.
MICHAEL MORELL: I guess this takes us to maybe the most important question, which is the health and even the sustainability of our democracy. Obviously, it’s an important question for everybody, but I do think that career intelligence officers have a special perspective because they’ve watched so many countries over the years, you know, struggle with democracy in some countries, even lose it. So how worried are you, John, about our democracy?
JOHN BRENNAN: I am worried about it. And democracy is a process. It’s not a static state in my mind. Michael, you and I were working – I was at the White House. You were at CIA during the Arab Spring. And I remember that there were a lot of folks who thought that if you just got rid of those authoritarian rulers that, democracy is going to flourish in the Arab world. Well, democracy is not like a light switch. You just can’t flip it on and off.
And although we are the oldest democracy and I think in many respects the strongest democracy, it is still fragile because our laws and our Constitution have given us a guide for how we can ensure that democracy is going to flourish here. But it really comes down to whether or not individuals in positions of authority, from the president on down, are going to honor the spirit of those democratic principles, or are they going to try to circumvent those principles and undercut them?
And so the impact of Donald Trump and unfortunately so many others who have turned a blind eye to his trampling of our democracy as well as enabled it. And I am just so disappointed in the many members of the Republican Party. I’m neither a Democrat or Republican and I worked for Republican administrations, had great respect for them. But to listen to a number of those Republican senators and members of the House of Representatives just willfully and purposely mislead the American public about what Donald Trump is doing is just – it’s very unfortunate.
So I am concerned that what we’ve seen over the past number of years is eroding some of those foundation stones of our democracy. And just like how I think we need to adapt to the realities of the 21st century as far as governance and governance is really much more difficult today than it was 50 years ago. Same thing with capitalism. I think what we need to do is to see how we can refine some of these democratic and capitalistic principles in order to ensure equal opportunity, equal justice for all. And unfortunately, there is too much inequality at this this time, both on the social and political front as well as on the economic front, that really does, I think, inhibit our further development in order to form that more perfect union.
MICHAEL MORELL: John, you’ve been terrific with your time. I just want to ask a couple more questions. You undertook something at the agency when you were a director called ‘modernization.’ What was that? What were you trying to accomplish? And what impact do you think it’s had so far?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I recognize that the world has changed significantly since the agency was first stood up, you know, 75 years ago. And that’s the global ecosystem, the operating environment for the CIA. And we needed to adapt to the new realities of the 21st century. And I was always impressed as a young officer in how the US military was able to better integrate its capabilities as a result of the Goldwater Nichols Act, bringing together the services, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and have unified chains of command and combatant commands overseas, like in Central Command or European Command and so on. And I believed that the agency could do that better.
I had worked in the Counterterrorism Center, which was the first experiment in CIA back in the early 80s, mid-80s to bring together the different components of the agency to work in a more integrated fashion. So when I returned to the agency as director in 2013, I was determined to try to position the agency to deal with the challenges of the future and that evolving 21st century ecosystem. And although I’m a liberal arts guy, you know, I tend to be enamored with systems engineering and trying to figure out the best design for the interoperability of systems and people and capabilities and authorities and data.
And so we basically overhauled the CIA structure so that you brought together all those different disciplines and skills and areas of responsibility and authority so that you can have a combined effort. When you are looking at Russia or China, are you looking at functional issues that you’re not going to just have a series of stovepipes in the agency, you’re going to have a much more matrixed and integrated model. And I think so far it has it has worked out; some tweaks to be made, which are inevitable.
People used to ask me when I was at the agency, ‘When is this modernization process going to be over?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s never going to be over. It’s a process of continuous improvement and adaptation to that changing environment that we work in.’ And whether or not you’re a government agency or department or you’re a business or even academic institution, if you don’t take into account all the changes in that ecosystem of which you are a part, you are going to be left behind. And so you have to continuously change and adapt to those new realities, particularly in a in a technologically driven and technologically revolutionary world.
MICHAEL MORELL: So John, that’s one significant reform at CIA. Do you think the intelligence community more broadly needs major reforms?
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think there needs to be a regular review. Now, the U.S. intelligence community, as you well know, is rather large, cumbersome, in some respects unwieldy. And I am personally glad that the position of the Director of National Intelligence was created as a result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, because when I was, I served as George Tenet’s chief of staff, George had the CIA director hat on and the head of the intel community hat on. And those are very challenging and they’re both very full-time jobs.
So having Jim Clapper serve as the Director of National Intelligence when I was the director of CIA, it really allowed me to focus on all the different things that CIA has to do. Now, we are about 16 years from that seminal legislative reform effort in the IRTPA. And I do think it’s worthwhile to take a fresh look at what that legislation got right, what needs to be refined and tweaked. But I would very much counsel against going back to the old model that brings together those roles of Director of National Intelligence and Director of CIA. It’s just too much for one person to be able to do well in this day and age.
MICHAEL MORELL: Not to mention being the president’s intelligence advisor, right, which takes a tremendous amount of your time on top of both of those roles. So, John, the other thing I wanted to ask you about was you’re very vocal and visible support when you were director for the LGBTQ community at the agency. Talk a little bit about why diversity and inclusion was so important to you as director.
JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. You know, a very fundamental one, I think one that is incontrovertible, is that I don’t believe any agency can make a better case for diversity than CIA. CIA is supposed to be this government’s, this country’s eyes and ears around the globe. And this is a pretty diverse globe. And if we’re not able to tap into the diversity that is in America so that we have better insight into the culture, the languages, the people, the politics abroad, well, bad on us. And so just from a business case perspective, we really needed to emphasize that.
Secondly, though, and probably even more fundamentally, is that America, in my mind, stands for something. It stands for an inclusivity that really recognizes that we have come to this country – except for the Native Americans – and everybody else can trace their roots to somewhere else around this globe. And I think a lot of our ancestors were subject to a lot of bias and discrimination. And I believe it’s really incumbent on the U.S. government to be the leading light on diversity and inclusion.
And Michael, when you and I first joined the agency back in the early 1980s, individuals of the LGBTQ community could not even get a security clearance. They were ostracized and they had to live these very hidden and secretive lives. And I just felt that I knew some of the individuals who went through that very, very painful journey themselves in the agency. And it was time for the agency to ensure that we were very proactive in terms of ensuring that all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all sexual orientations, people with disabilities, everybody in the agency felt as though they had equal opportunity to join the agency and to flourish within the agency and thrive. And like you, I was a very strong advocate of the LGBT community. I wore my Rainbow lanyard.
And as I relate in the book, during my tenure, there were countless officers that would come up to me and just say, ‘Thank you so much for having a very sort of a physical support and noticeable support to that community.’ It it makes a difference in their lives. And again, if you really believe in the American experiment and what America is, it is something that I think there’s no way that you cannot not support and endorse the diversity inclusion initiatives that thankfully have gained traction in this country. And that’s one of the things I was concerned about when Donald Trump was elected, because there were many CIA officers, women and others who came up to me worried that there was going to be a reversal of some of those practices and policies.
MICHAEL MORELL: The book is UNDAUNTED: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. The author is John Brennan. John, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for spending your time with us.
JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you, Michael. I really enjoyed it.