• Transcript
  • Show Notes

In this bonus from the United Security podcast, John Brennan tells Ken Wainstein about the lasting influence of his parents, and what life is like as a CIA analyst. 

In the full episode, Brennan speaks with Ken about his 40-year career in intelligence, the national security implications of Trump’s refusal to concede the election, and his relationship with President-elect Biden.

This podcast is produced by CAFE Studios. 

Tamara Sepper – Executive Producer; Adam Waller – Senior Editorial Producer; Nat Weiner — Audio Producer; Sam Ozer-Staton — Editorial Producer, David Kurlander — Editorial Producer. 

REFERENCES AND SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS:

  • Niall O’Dowd, “John Brennan, son of Irish immigrants, now Obama’s top gun,” Irish Central, 6/6/2010
  • Dermot McEvay, “Ex-CIA chief John Brennan an outlaw like his Irish namesake “Brennan on the Moor,” Irish Central, 8/20/2018
  • “John F. Kennedy and Ireland,” JFK Library 
  • “Former C.I.A. Chief John Brennan Named Distinguished Fellow at Fordham’s Center on National Security,” Fordham Law, 9/4/2017

Ken Wainstein:

And you talk in the book about life within the CIA and a related point that you make, I think is very interesting. And I think is something that all people should focus on, which is the sacrifice that is inherent in being an employee of the CIA. You alluded to one thing, which is that, especially for the operators in the CIA, you are trained to live a life of deception. And it’s very difficult to draw the line between your professional life and your personal life. I’m sure that causes problems for a lot of people, but also just the anonymity of your career, your work, you go to the wall at CIA, and the CIA heroes who’ve been killed in line of duty, their names are not on the wall, it’s just stars because their names are not public.

Ken Wainstein:

And you’re not allowed to talk about your work with your friends and your family. And that can put a screen on anybody and on families and the like, and you right about that. And I think, especially in this day and age where it’s in vogue in some quarters to talk derisively about deep state bureaucrats, especially as it relates to the intelligence community, can you just give us a minute about the depth of the sacrifice in those regards, that is made by a CIA personnel and what you did to help address the problems that come about because of that stress.

John Brennan:

Well, when somebody joins the CIA family, and I know I felt this way back in 1980, when I was first CIA member, inculcated in you is a sense of silent service. That as part of an intelligence organization, you’re going to be doing things that will not see the light of day, that you’re going to provide your expertise, your skills, your talents, your trade craft in order to keep your fellow citizens safe. And you’re not going to have ticker tape parades thanking you. You’re not going to have a lot of headlines about all the great things that CIA is doing, frequently I’ll just be the opposite if there’s mistakes that’s when CIA finds its name in the paper.

John Brennan:

And so I think there is a sense amongst CIA officers, that that is just their lot in their professional life, and that sacrifice is involved, as you say, anonymity, that a lot of people who serve the CIA with tremendous skill and distinction and accomplishment, are not going to be treated as the heroes they are because their contributions to this country remain secret. And also, as you mentioned, it’s the sacrifices that the families in particular that I always felt very much attuned to. I realized the sacrifices my own family made in the course of my career, the types of support that I had to rely on from them as I would stay at work late at night, or have to go overseas in a moment’s notice, or all the different types of things that mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and sons and daughters, and even neighbors, the type of support that they provide so that CIA officers can do their vital mission.

John Brennan:

And so when I was a CIA Director, I always, every month I would administer the oath of office to a new class of CIA employees. And I do it in the very famous lobby of CIA’s Langley Headquarters in front of that Memorial Wall. And after I would administer the oath of office, we would talk and I would talk about those sacrifices of the 117 or so stars that were there when I departed, they’re more now. That these were people who serve their country nobly, ably and with the last full measure of devotion. And there is a legacy and a history that all CIA officers need to be aware of and try to live up to the values of what I think the CIA should be. And so I’d like to think that the CIA over the course of time has made progress on ensuring that the CIA is a welcoming organization to people of all different backgrounds, and genders, and races, and ethnicities, and religions and sexual orientation.

John Brennan:

These are things that I think are critically important for the CIA as a US government organization to really embody. And I felt that during my tenure as director, I needed to do that and to ensure that people felt as though I was getting… that they were getting support from CIA leadership. It’s a wonderful organization, but it’s made up of people and we’re all imperfect beings, but the purposes, just like the country is designed to form a more perfect union. I’d like to think that the CIA and each of its officers, and each of its directors will try to ensure a more perfect organization over the course of time, recognizing that mistakes will be made but the intention really is to try to learn from past lessons so that the future can be better, brighter and more successful.

Ken Wainstein:

One of the things that I really appreciated about your book, is unlike so many other memoirs of government servants, your book got quite personal and talked about your upbringing, talked about your family, and then also talk to particularly about your parents. In fact, you start the book talking about your father and his funeral, the very day that you went to brief president elect Trump on the Intelligence Community Assessment. You tell the story of getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s eyes in your face and thinking about that day, and the fact that you’re not going to be saying goodbye to your father.

Ken Wainstein:

It’s clear throughout the book that your parents had a strong impact on you, and that your thoughts of them were never far from you as you wrestled with these issues of great importance, many of which came down to moral choices, based on the morals that you learned from them. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about the effect that they had on you and their life experience had on the way you carried out your career?

John Brennan:

Well, I was exceptionally fortunate to have two parents that really instilled in me, I think a sense of right and wrong, and also a sense of making sure that I give back to this great, wonderful world and country of ours something during the course of my life. My father immigrated from Ireland when he was 28, 1948, and became a citizen as soon as he could. And always impressed upon me and my siblings, just how special it was to be American citizen and told us never to take for granted the fact of that citizenship. And he said that too frequently, it’s those who are citizens by [inaudible 00:06:53] birth that do take it for granted, as opposed to those who struggle for their lives to come over to the United States to great land of freedom and liberty and opportunity. And he felt it acutely that this was a wonderful, wonderful country.

John Brennan:

And so I got that sense early on in my life about just how special it was to be an American, but also both my mother and father who passed away four years ago, instilled in me and my brother and sister. I think that North Star of morality in terms of right and wrong and honesty and truthfulness and integrity and just trying to do good, do right. And I feel as though that North Star that they gave me early on continues to guide me. Now, again, I will have my critics that say that, my North Star is not all that great, but I tend to speak my mind, be outspoken. And I like to think that my parents [inaudible 00:07:56] proud of me. I still think every day about both of them and the lessons that they taught. And fortunately, I think that the lessons that they taught me at home were reinforced by my teachers and my upbringing in New Jersey.

John Brennan:

And I believe that when I joined the CIA, I recognized that I was going to be joining an organization that was involved in some controversial things and things that were inconsistent with my values, my ethics, my principles. And that’s why I got out of operations myself early on because I felt as though I couldn’t engage in those types of deceitful activities that I think sometimes are very necessary for espionage.

John Brennan:

But again, my upbringing was something that helped to shape my life and we’re all products of our upbringings. And again, I was just very very fortunate to be raised in a household that really valued those things that I think are critically important. There’s a love of country, but also love a fellow man and a recognition that this world is a great big place made of a lot of people and to the extent that while we’re on this world, life is fleeting. What we can do to make the world a better place or a safer place. People will judge me for how well I did that, which is fine, but I need to continue to think about what I can do to try to, again, live up to the values and the lessons that I was taught early on.

Ken Wainstein:

Another thing you note related to your parents is your Irishness. You talk about the fact that you’re first generation Irish immigrants, and how important that was to your upbringing and I’m half Irish so I can relate to that. I also… I read Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, not too long ago. And of course there are many parallels between you and Bruce Springsteen, too many to count. But one is that his memoir also talks about the importance of his Irishness and his Italianness and what impact that has had on him in so many ways. So you do the same thing here. So why don’t you tell us your Irish upbringing, what impact has that had on the way you’ve carried out your career?

John Brennan:

Well, My father and several of his siblings came to the United States from Ireland, and they were all located in the New York, New Jersey area. And it was like a large extended family. And so virtually every weekend we would get together and there would be lots of stories told about the old country and lots of revelry and just joy. And there was a real sense of togetherness and closeness. And I just felt a lot of love in that Irish family. And also was a sense of there was a struggle because my father was born when Ireland was still under the domination of the British.

Ken Wainstein:

And your grandfather. Wasn’t your grandfather a spy for the IRA?

John Brennan:

Yeah. My grandfather was involved in the IRA and was responsible for getting maps and correspondence across British lines.

Ken Wainstein:

So it’s in your blood.

John Brennan:

Yeah. And it took me a while before I was able to deal with my British counterparts and really treat them the way I should, because I think I felt that there was still a sense of the British unfairly treating the Irish over the years. But there was the standard Irish family really, I think it was a family. And it really gave me a sense of this group of people who had come over from Ireland and were making the best of life here. And it was blue collar, it was middle-class hardworking individuals who had strong faith, but also had a strong work ethic. And it just was a good environment to grow up on. But I also was keenly interested in Irish history and again the struggles of the Irish people. And so yes, it made a very very large imprint on me early on. And then when we had John F. Kennedy who was [inaudible 00:12:17] in 1960, when I was just five years old, the fact that an Irish Catholic became president just… Again, it instilled in me a great pride in my Irishness.

Ken Wainstein:

When you read through the book, you also get the impression that you were not always the buttoned up government executive that the public sees when they see John Brennan, CIA director today. And you’ve got a number of really intriguing and very personal anecdotes about how you used to ride a motorcycle and, or [inaudible 00:12:52] and got rebellious against your church, got some photos in the book with you sporting like a Fu Manchu mustache, [inaudible 00:13:02] Cheech and Chong in the 1970s, and then you even have a story about smoking hash in Cairo. So it is though you were quite open about humanizing yourself and showing that there are many dimensions to John Brennan. Was that something that you wrestled with or were you very happy to lay out the various dimensions of John Brennan throughout the years?

John Brennan:

I think it was very cathartic for me to be able to explain a little bit more about John Brennan, because frequently when I would appear in congressional hearing or a press conference, or now speaking on television, I talk about terrorism and national security matters and Donald Trump. And so I come across as a rather stern faced individual, but I did have a life before CIA, I still have a life now that is I think very rich and valid. And when I was young, I had the opportunity to travel overseas, I had an opportunity to enjoy life and foreign experiences. And maybe because of having a domineering and smoking hashish and riding motorcycle, I had some street cred that maybe the CIA thought was going to be useful in terms of being able to engage in certain types of activities overseas.

John Brennan:

Life has so many different opportunities. And I’ve tried to take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to me and it’s… My government career, it was a certain dimension of me that I had to really try to do my best and focus on. And so once I joined CIA, there was no more hashish smoking. And when we had children, I gave up my motorcycle and there were other things I had to do and change as a result of my professional life. But I still am a person, not just a CIA director, I have many other aspects and interest in life.

Ken Wainstein:

And that’s an important lesson for people who, maybe at the front end of their career, are considering a life of public service that they can have a life of many dimensions. And in fact, it’s a good thing to have many dimensions to your life and bring many experiences to a government job, no matter what level it is, even the director of a federal agency.

John Brennan:

Yeah. And I think it’s important for people to remember that they have responsibilities on the home front as well, which is what I always try to impress upon new CIA officers. That CIA career is a very demanding one and frequently it’s all consuming, but CIA officers can’t neglect what their responsibilities are to their spouses or to their children or to their parents or siblings, whatever. And I didn’t always get that work home balance right. And many times I got it wrong, unfortunately, and I was just very very fortunate to have a family that was willing to put up with me over those years.

Ken Wainstein:

Amen. For that and for family. So let’s bring you up to today and going forward, you talked about all the opportunities you’ve had in life, the various stages of your career, and you’ve had many. So what’s the next opportunity that John Brennan is going to seize.

John Brennan:

I wrote a book, a memoir, and I plan in writing another or others, and we’ll see. I spend a fair amount of time giving back to my alma maters Fordham university in New York. I’m a distinguished fellow at the Fordham law school. I didn’t go to law school, I went to the undergraduate school, but there was a center of national security there that I work with. And also the University of Texas at Austin, where I went to graduate school. So I talk to students, I participate in seminars. I try to give young Americans who aspire to be involved in intelligence [inaudible 00:16:49] security matters a sense of what [inaudible 00:16:51] from a former practitioner, because I do think it’s important for young Americans to give back to this country of ours. And so I think I’d like to continue to do those things.

John Brennan:

My government career is behind me. I don’t plan to go back into government at any time. But I do think that the experiences that I’ve had are useful to share, and to the extent that I can do that, I will do it with colleges and universities or podcasts like this or others. And just try to spend my remaining time on this earth, trying to contribute in some way, as well as just to spend as much time as I can with family and to maybe catch up on some of those aspects of American culture than I missed out with course of my professional career.