• Transcript
  • Show Notes

On this special episode of the United Security podcast, Ken Wainstein interviews former CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan, who first joined the Agency in 1980, served as Director during President Obama’s second term, from March 2013 to January 2017. 

He chronicles a lifetime of insight into the world of American intelligence in his new memoir, Undaunted: Fighting America’s Enemies at Home and Abroad

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.

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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 & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS 

  • John Brennan, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad, Celadon Books, 2020
  • Shane Harris and Matt Zapotowsky, “Ex-CIA director John Brennan questioned for 8 hours in U.S. Attorney John Durham’s probe, a Brennan adviser says,” Washington Post, 8/22/2020
  • John Brennan, “The Day I Met Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, 10/1/2020

PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITIONS

  • Paul Sonne, “Chaotic presidential transition brings vulnerability, security risks to nation,” Washington Post, 11/11/2020
  • Zeke Miller, “What’s ascertainment? The green light to launch transition,” Associated Press, 11/9/2020
  • “Bush calls meeting with Obama ‘friendly,’” CNN, 10/10/2008
  • Randall Mikkelsen, “Obama gets first intelligence briefing,” Reuters, 9/4/2008
  • Peter Baker, “Obama Is Reported Set to Revise Counterterrorism Efforts,” Washington Post, 1/9/2009
  • Michael D. Shear, “Obama Had Statement to Read if Terror Halted Inauguration,” New York Times, 2/10/2015
  • Ryan Browne, “Trump CIA chief hails predecessor who bashed the President,” CNN, 1/24/2017

ESPER FIRING 

  • Alex Ward, “Why Trump is suddenly replacing Pentagon officials with loyalists,” Vox, 11/11/2020
  • Ken Dilanian, “Trump’s firing of Esper raises concerns about national security during Trump’s final days in office,” NBC News, 11/9/2020
  • Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, “More Top Pentagon Officials Out After Trump Sacks Esper,” Foreign Policy, 11/10/2020
  • Zachary Carter and Alex Marquardt, “Former CIA director accuses intel chief of selectively declassifying documents to help Trump,” CNN, 10/6/2020

UNDAUNTED

  • Richard Helms, A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, Penguin Random House, 2003
  • Shane Harris, “Ex-CIA director Brennan writes in upcoming memoir that Trump blocked access to records and notes,” Washington Post, 7/29/2020
  • Andrew Restuccia, “Trump says he revoked Brennan’s security clearance — but Brennan says he may still have it,” Politico, 8/28/2018
  • Max Greenwood, “GOP lawmaker accuses Brennan of being member of Communist Party,” The Hill, 7/16/2018
  • Jürgen Kloss, “Some Notes On The History Of ‘Brennan On The Moor,’” Just Another Tune, 2011

BRENNAN V. TRUMP

  • Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman, “Trump’s quest for vengeance against John Brennan,” Politico, 10/22/2019
  • Edward-Isaac Dovere, “Why Donald Trump Made CIA Director John Brennan Uneasy,” The Atlantic, 10/1/2020
  • Emily Birnbaum, “17 times Brennan has torched Trump,” The Hill, 8/15/2018
  • David Ignatius, “Former CIA director John Brennan takes on Trump, and doesn’t hold back,” Washington Post, 10/9/2020
  • Nicole Corea, “Relive the Highlights from the 2017 Aspen Security Forum,” Aspen Institute, 7/31/2017
  • Brendan Cole, “Michael Hayden, Ex-CIA Director, Says Trump ‘Doesn’t Keep the Country Safe’ in Ad,” Newsweek, 10/7/2020
  • Admiral William McRaven, “Trump is actively working to undermine the Postal Service — and every major U.S. institution,” Washington Post, 8/16/2020 

BIDEN’S LEGACY

  • “Biden says ‘no doubt’ Syrian government used chemical weapons,” Reuters, 8/27/2013
  • Director Brennan’s Tweet praising Joe Biden, Twitter, 10/17/2020
  • Greg Jaffe, “The war in Afghanistan shattered Joe Biden’s faith in American military power,” Washington Post, 2/18/2020
  • Connie Buck, “Feinstein vs. the CIA,” The New Yorker, 6/15/2015
  • Zack Beauchamp, “Feinstein live-tweeted a devastating takedown of the CIA director’s defense of torture,” Vox, 12/11/2014
  • Lucy McCallmont, “Biden: Release of torture report is ‘badge of honor,’” Politico, 12/9/2014
  • Josh Gerstein, “Beer summit: a time for cheers?” Politico, 7/31/2009

2016 ELECTION

  • Brian Naylor, “Former CIA Director Tells Lawmakers About ‘Very Aggressive’ Russian Election Meddling,” NPR, 5/23/2017
  • Eric Lichtblau, “C.I.A. Had Evidence of Russian Effort to Help Trump Earlier Than Believed,” New York Times, 4/6/2017
  • Julian E. Barnes, “Brennan Rebuffed Requests to Lower Confidence in Key Russia Finding,” New York Times, 10/1/2020
  • Natasha Korecki, “Brennan: Intelligence community vindicated by Senate committee’s report,” Politico, 4/22/2020
  • “The Latest: Ex-CIA head says he warned Russia about meddling,” Associated Press, 5/24/2017

TERRORISM 

  • Reid Cherlin, “Obama’s Drone-Master,” GQ, 6/17/2013
  • Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Drones Are Focus as C.I.A. Nominee Goes Before Senators,” New York Times, 2/7/2013
  • Kelsey D. Atherton, “Trump Inherited the Drone War but Ditched Accountability,” Foreign Policy, 5/22/2020
  • Ritika Singh, “Transcript of John Brennan’s Speech on Yemen and Drones,” Lawfare, 8/9/2012
  • “C.I.A. Drone Mission, Curtailed by Obama, Is Expanded in Africa Under Trump,” New York Times, 9/9/2018
  • Greg Miller, “CIA promotes top paramilitary officer to lead spying branch,” Washington Post, 1/29/2015
  • “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” CIA.gov, 2003
  • Peter Neumann, “Donald Trump’s failed war on terror,” Politico, 10/27/2019
  • Eliana Johnson, “CIA director: ‘We are back in the business of stealing secrets,’” Politico, 5/23/2018
  • “Memorial Wall,” CIA.gov, 2010

FAMILY AND FUTURE

  • 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

CIA Director John Brennan on his 40-year career in the clandestine world of intelligence

Director Brennan was an “equal opportunity offender” toward Republicans and Democrats over the course of his legendary rise through the Central Intelligence Agency.

11/13/20

By Ken Wainstein

After he witnessed firsthand President Trump’s disdain for the rule of law, former CIA Director John Brennan decided he had to speak out. Now, almost four years after he first openly criticized the President and entered into a tense back-and-forth with the White House over the administration’s attempts to revoke his security clearance, Brennan reflects with Ken Wainstein on the election of Joe Biden and how we can put this national chapter behind us — even as Trump refuses to concede. 

The two also dive into Brennan’s explosive new memoir, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad, which offers extensive insight into the inner workings of the Obama administration’s national security policy. Brennan spends particular time making sense of Joe Biden’s unique vice presidential tenure, from Biden’s mediation of the CIA’s battle with Senator Dianne Feinstein over the release of the controversial Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, to his steadying hand during debates over Syria and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I think he is exceptionally well prepared professionally for the role of president of the United States,” Brennan tells Ken. “But he is also very, very able to have that compassion, that empathy, that understanding about his fellow Americans, irrespective of their lot in life.” 

 

Ken Wainstein:

From CAFE, this is United Security.

Ken Wainstein:

Hi folks. Ken Wainstein here. My co-host Lisa Monaco is out this week, so I’m joined by my good friend, John Brennan, to do an interview today about his life in the CIA and about the memoir that he recently published. Good morning, John.

John Brennan:

Good morning, Ken. Thanks for having me on.

Ken Wainstein:

Oh, thanks so much for being here. A little intro for our listeners. John Brennan first joined the CIA back in 1980 and has a lifetime of rich experiences and insights into the world of American intelligence. And ultimately ended up his career serving as the Director of the CIA under President Obama in President Obama’s second term. From I think it was March of 2013 until January of 2017. And after he left, he undertook the admirable effort to write down and record his memories and experiences in a memoir. And the memoir is called Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad. So, look, there’s a lot to discuss here, John. And your book has many different themes about life in the world of intelligence community, about the state of geopolitics, about the state of American politics. So, sort of hard to know where to start.

Ken Wainstein:

But I guess first thing we should start with is our relationship. And I think as a matter of full disclosure, I think it’s important for me to mention that you and I are good friends. Have been for many years. And also, I served as your legal counsel and continue to serve as your legal counsel both as it relates to the hearings that took place over the last few years into the Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. And also in relation to the investigation being run by United States Attorney John Durham and his probe into the Russian investigation. So, just want to put that full disclosure on the record. But today we’re talking as friends and as interviewer/interviewee, and not as lawyer and client. So, don’t worry. I won’t be sending a bill for this.

John Brennan:

So, we’re speaking as friends despite the fact that I evicted you from US Wing Office on January 20th, 2009?

Ken Wainstein:

That’s right. You did. And I’ll get over that someday. Yeah. But we’ll get to that. We’ll get to that.

Ken Wainstein:

But actually that’s a good place to start. So, you alluded to the fact that you evicted me from my office, which was part of the transition from the George W. Bush administration where I served as the Homeland Security Advisor to the Barack Obama administration where you then took up the reins as Homeland Security Advisor. And that is known as the transition. And I think we’re going through a transition now. It might be worth talking about the transition, or maybe the non-transition, that’s happening right now with the Biden administration poised to come in. And as far as I can tell, the Trump administration not giving them the access to information, to intelligence briefings, and to all the things that need to be done to get the new administration up to speed. I assume you’re tracking that and I was wondering if you have thoughts about the implications of that, given that the days are ticking by, and inauguration’s coming up on January 20th.

John Brennan:

Yeah. As you said, there is supposed to be a transition taking place. But unfortunately Mr. Trump, in his usual petulant manner has decided to take his ball and not share it. I was involved in a number of transitions throughout my career. Specifically also when Clinton was transferring power to George W. Bush. And then, when George W. Bush was transferring it to Barack Obama. And I was heading up the intelligence transition team for President Elect Obama back in 2008-2009. And you and the rest of the Bush administration could not have been more gracious, more helpful, more supportive of our attempts to take over the reins of power. And you did everything possible to facilitate my re-introduction into the government.

John Brennan:

I had been out of government for about three years and was a long distance advisor to Senator Obama when he was running for President. And in the weeks leading up to the inauguration in January of 2009, we met repeatedly and talked a lot about the types of things that I would be doing as Homeland Security Advisor and Counterterrorism Advisor. And I felt that it was just very, very smooth process. As I write in my memoir, it was a real first hand experience in terms of just watching this wonderful, wonderful democratic republic transition from an administration of one political party to another. And again, I can’t say enough good things about you and the rest of the Bush administration officials who really welcomed us into the government despite the fact that there were significant policy differences. And as well as just significant differences of views in terms of how the administration should be conducting its policies.

Ken Wainstein:

Well, thank you for those kind words. And it was mutual. I think it was two parties or two groups that were mutually committed to making sure that you all were as ready to take up your responsibilities in the afternoon of January 20th as you possibly could be. And besides just sort of being good manners and the way people should treat each other, as you know after 9/11, it’s clear that a bumpy transition of the type that necessarily took place because of the delay in the election results in the Bush v Gore election … That bumpy transition could actually create vulnerabilities for national security. Could undermine the country’s ability to respond to threats. I’d love to hear your views as to whether you thought that lesson was taken to heart in 2009, and whether it has been since.

John Brennan:

Well, it certainly was. There is real premium put on the continuity of operations, continuity of government, given that we have faced over the years existential threats in terms of the Cold War and the prospect of some type of nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. But then in the aftermath of 9/11, when we knew that Al Qaeda was planning to carry out follow-on ways of attacks and they were exploring the potential use of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons, that there needed to be assurance that, particularly during the time of Presidential transition, that the administration power that’s going to be handing off to the next administration does everything possible to get the incoming team up to speed. And that’s why President Elect Obama was given access to the President’s daily brief, the PDB, so that he could familiarize himself with all of the challenges that the United States was facing around the globe. And that his team was given the support it needed in order to assume responsibility as soon as the President Elect was inaugurated as the President.

John Brennan:

And I felt that there was a lot of work that was done in the Bush administration on the continuity of government and on the planning for the transition, which is why when we were approaching the 2016 election, President Obama told us that he wanted our transition effort to be as good if not better than the Bush administration’s transition plans and how it implemented them. So, we have pretty high standard to live up to. And we were very prepared and we had prepared all these briefings, and the different types of interactions that we had hoped would take place with the incoming Trump team, but it was clear to me and to others from the get go that there was very little interest on their part hearing from us. They, I think, had an attitude that they know what they needed to do. They didn’t need to bother with the outgoing folks.

John Brennan:

I had met with my successor, the one that was nominated, was Mike Pompeo to be Director of CIA. I met with him once in my office in November shortly after he was named to be the nominee. I encouraged him to reach out to me again. I said I was willing to meet with him at anytime. And to facilitate that transition.

John Brennan:

I never heard from Mike Pompeo again during that transition period. And a lot of the briefing books and other things that were prepared for the incoming team were never used unfortunately. I think it showed in terms of the Trump team being ill prepared and even disinterested in a fair number of the national security matters that we were dealing with. I think Donald Trump had his preconceived notions about what he was going to do. He was going to tear up the US obligations under the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Iran nuclear weapons deal. As well as the Paris Climate Accord and the types of things. So, they didn’t want to hear the rationale and the importance of a number of things that took place during the Obama administration because they had a much, much different perspective, attitude and approach to a lot of these national security interests.

Ken Wainstein:

So, besides the transition, we also have some other developments out there. One is that Secretary of Defense was recently fired by the President of the United States. And there’s talk that other people, other high level national security officials might be fired in the near future. What do you make of the firing of the Secretary of Defense? And what do you think about the notion of firing these high level national security officials after the election and before the transition to a new President?

John Brennan:

Well, it just shows how reckless Donald Trump is and how much he doesn’t care about our national security. By replacing the Secretary of Defense with somebody who is unqualified, inexperienced, doesn’t have the credentials to serve in that position, and then, to sweep out the other senior civilian officials in the Department of Defense and replace them with unqualified partisan hacks, it shows the lack of seriousness that Donald Trump has towards his responsibilities. He is trivializing the importance of strong leadership in the Pentagon.

John Brennan:

And I don’t know what his real intention is here. Is it just score settling or is he planning to do something, either on the foreign front with some type of military adventure that Esper would say no to? Is he planning to do something on the domestic front that could politicize the US military or attempt to? And we know that Esper was very much opposed to that. Is he planning to also replace other senior officials, like Chris Wray at FBI or Gina Haspel at CIA with the intention of very selectively releasing intelligence that not only would compromise source of methods, but would be a very selective release of things that would try to support his narrative about it being a hoax that Russia was interfering in the 2016 election on his behalf?

Ken Wainstein:

Which we’ve seen today. Correct?

John Brennan:

Yeah. John Ratcliffe is clearly Donald Trump’s lackey. He’s the Director of National Intelligence. So, I really worry about these next 70 days or so in terms of what else Donald Trump might do. He still has the powers of the the Presidency at his disposal. Those powers are formidable. And the unwillingness of Mike Pence and Mark Meadows and other people in the White House, as well as the senior Republican members of Congress to try to stop Donald Trump from doing these things at a time of Presidential transition when we’ve seen in previous periods of transition, there have been significant and major terrorist attacks and national security challenges. And so, we need to ensure as much continuity as possible as opposed to putting in a bunch of amateurs at the head of the Pentagon. This is just ludicrous and anybody who doesn’t see this ludicrous is again just ignoring a very, very I think dangerous situation and a dangerous person in the Oval Office.

Ken Wainstein:

So, look, let’s get right into the memoir. You just published this and the full title of it is Undaunted. My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad. It’s a beautiful volume. And if I may say as your friend, I think it’s incredibly well written and it’s a good story and it imparts a lot of very good lessons and anecdotes and an understanding of how things work and should work within the intelligence community and within Washington DC and the Federal decision making apparatus. I was struck though by the first line of the book where you said, “This is a memoir that I never expected to write.” And you actually took that line from Richard Helms, one of your predecessors at the CIA, from his memoir. Tell us about this. Why did you never expect to write a memoir, and then, why did you decide to write one.

John Brennan:

Well, I never dreamed in the first place that I would ever become Director of CIA or work as an advisor to a President and have an office in the West Wing. So, my career itself was a dream for me and one that I never anticipated when I was growing up in New Jersey many, many years ago. And then, when I got into the world of intelligence at CIA, we are basically told early on that we’re the keeper of the secrets. And not to reveal things outside. Through the course of my career I had the opportunity as well as the obligation to speak out in the course of my duties, whether it be Congressional testimonies or speeches or press conferences or whatever. And so, I think I became more comfortable with speaking up publicly about national security and intelligence matters. But I was very interested in trying to share some of those behind the scenes perspectives and experiences that I had during my 33 plus year career.

John Brennan:

But even when I was Director of CIA, I was not thinking I was going to write a memoir because I wanted to leave my career behind me and maybe explore other avenues, professionally, personally, whatever. But then when I retired for the second time in 2017, and talking it over with my family and family, whatever, they convinced me and I convinced myself that it would be worthwhile to at least put on the record my experiences, my account of different matters that I was involved in because I think there was so much that had been mischaracterized about what the CIA was involved in, what I was personally involved in. And it was my attempt to set the record straight. At least, again from my perspective. It was not that I was expecting to convince a lot of my critics and detractors, but I have tended to be increasingly I guess outspoken over the course of my life, and believe in transparency and telling the truth, with due protection of source of methods obviously.

John Brennan:

But I decided that I was going to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I was though disappointed when I requested access to my CIA files that all previous CIA directors had requested and had been promptly given access to, so that I could in fact be as detailed as possible in terms of my recollections and my memoir, but because of Donald Trump’s pettiness I guess and irritation at my outspokenness, I was denied access to those files.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. Just to tease that out, that was actually, as you understand, a Presidential directive prohibiting the Agency from giving you access to those files. Is that right?

John Brennan:

Yeah. In the summer of 2018, in a much ballyhooed statement that was given by the White House that my security clearances were being revoked because of what they claimed was my dereliction of my duties, obligations, whatever else. They were not revoked because there’s no legal basis to do so.

Sarah Sanders:

I’d like to begin by reading a statement from the President. “As the head of the executive branch and Commander in Chief, I’ve a unique constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s classified information. Including by controlling access to it. Today in fulfilling that responsibility, I’ve decided to revoke the security clearance of John Brennan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

John Brennan:

It was just purely an effort by Mr. Trump to retaliate against me, but I think even more importantly for him, it was to send a message to other former senior national security officials to keep quiet or else the same would happen to them. And although he didn’t and couldn’t revoke my clearances, he did send a directive to the CIA and the intelligence community prohibiting any intelligence community officer from sharing or discussing classified information with me. And so, with that directive, it became impossible basically for the CIA to share my classified files with me, unless they wanted to further irritate Mr. Trump.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. So, in addition to sort of the inherent challenge of writing about a life in the intelligence community, most of which is classified, and going to the pre-publication review process and that kind of thing, you actually had to write this memoir without access to a lot of your personal materials from your time at the Agency. Like, for instance, your calendar. Your calendar entries probably were classified.

John Brennan:

Well, when I first decided to write the memoir, I did make the request to see my calendars and my files. And after about 11 months or so of haggling with CIA, they gave me redacted versions of my calendar, taking out anything that they considered to be classified. And so, if I had a phone call with a foreign counterpart, like my British counterpart, they would black out the fact of that phone call. There was no substance in the calendar about it, but it’s just the fact of a phone call happening.

John Brennan:

And then, the other meetings or visits I had or travel, it was completely blacked out. So, I had to rely heavily on my recollections. I spoke with some of my former colleagues. Not the ones who were still in the CIA, because I didn’t want to put them in any difficult position at all. But some former Agency colleagues who had retired, I spoke to them about it. So, I tried to the best of my ability to recollect my experiences. I wish I had fuller access the way other Directors had when they decided to sit down and write their memoirs.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. So, it’s sort of ironic because you’re seen by so many through a political lens now, but as you say in your book, you don’t consider yourself political or partisan. In fact, have you ever been a member of any particular party?

John Brennan:

No. Not even a Communist Party.

Ken Wainstein:

Though you voted for the Communist Party once, right?

John Brennan:

Yes. I voted for Gus Hall, the perennial Communist Party candidate for President back in 1976. It was my first time I voted in the Presidential election and I was already fed up with partisan politics. And so, when I went to the voting booth, I didn’t know who I was going to vote for. And flipped the letter for Gus Hall and acknowledged it years later now, which I continue to carry that with me as my critics claim I am a card carrying member of the Communist Party. But no. I’ve never identified as either Democrat or Republican.

John Brennan:

As I say in my memoir, I’m an equal opportunity offender. Both sides of the political aisle have criticized me. In fact, when I was the CIA Director and President Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor at the White House, most of the criticism directed at me came from the Democratic side of the aisle. And it was the Democratic Senators, several of them, who called for my firing or resignation because they were just upset with me.

John Brennan:

And I think I disappointed many of those Democratic Senators because as an appointee of a Democratic President, I think they felt I was going to align with their political efforts, specifically to try to smear the CIA because of its activities during the Bush administration. And I talk in the book about how I tried to acknowledge the things that the CIA did right or wrong during that period of time, but I was not going to cater to the whims of certain Democratic Senators who I think were driven more by ideological and partisan objectives than by national security interest. So, yeah, I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I will speak out in opposition to or in support of members of either party if I feel that they are either not fulfilling their obligations, or if they are in fact in my view doing what they need to do as public servants.

Ken Wainstein:

As I mentioned earlier, many people who follow the news, at least who have done so over the last four years, have heard about you largely in the context of you against Trump. Your sort of anti-Trump stance. Of course, that’s a simplification of who you are and what you’re saying, the message you’re putting out there. But you have been pretty harsh on the President in your criticism. Unrelenting and undaunted in pursuing that criticism, even in the face of lot of criticism back at you. So, why don’t you just give us a snapshot as to sort of how that started? How did you go, get sort of mobilized, or to use counterterrorism terminology, radicalized as a critic and open critic of the President?

John Brennan:

Well, having grown up in the New York, New Jersey area, I was quite familiar with Donald Trump’s antics over the years and his business ventures and failures. And his reputation for playing fast, loose, unethically and without principles. How he defaulted on his business obligations and contracts. And so, I really had serious concerns when he announced his intention to run for the Presidency. That he didn’t have the integrity, the honesty, principles that I felt are very important for anybody who’s going to be in the Oval Office.

John Brennan:

I had worked for six Presidents. Got to know three of them very well … four of them in fact. And I disagreed with some of their policies and some vociferously. But I always respected them. I felt as though they were always trying to do what was in the best interest of the country. But I knew that Donald Trump was somebody who was interested, not just mostly but I think only, in himself and his political, financial, personal interests. And I had no confidence that he was going to put our national security interests above his own.

John Brennan:

And sure enough, when he was elected, and then, took office, I think over the last four years it has proven my assessment correct. That he is somebody who really has not taken the job seriously. Seriously from the standpoint of trying to advance the interest of the American people. He is a grandstander. He is I think a charlatan. I think he’s a fraud. And I decided to speak out because of a variety of things that had have happened. Even before he was inaugurated, he was denigrating the intelligence community and the intelligence community assessment about Russia’s interference in 2016 election. He had a real disregard and disrespect I think for the professionals who sacrificed much for this country. And he has continued to be just a very acerbic, very irresponsible, and reckless individual who has the future and the security and the prosperity of this country in his hands.

John Brennan:

And so, I never really had respect for him, but certainly during his Presidency, I decided that I was going to speak out against him. And I think it’s important to speak out when somebody of Donald Trump’s ilk rises to the level of the Presidency. And I just was not going to cede the Twittersphere to him. That’s why I decided to have my own personal Twitter account and push back against him. So, I don’t regret doing that at all. Has come at some cost in terms of the people who object to that and the threats that I have received. And the criticisms. But I’m a private citizen for 33 plus years. I defended American citizens’ right to speak out freely. And so, I’m enjoying the fruits of my labors I guess now by speaking out so stridently against Mr. Trump.

Ken Wainstein:

I want to ask you about maybe sort of more credible and thoughtful criticism that you’ve received by other well-respected people. People whom you respect in the intelligence community. Who suggest that your vocal public criticism immediately on the heels of your service as CIA Director gives fodder to those who might see the intelligence community as being politicized? Even though as you point out, you’re no longer in government service. You’re now a private citizen. How do you take that criticism? What’s your response to that?

John Brennan:

Well, I think that criticism of people like myself and many others who have spoken out is consistent with the way they have tried to illegitimize any criticism of Donald Trump. It’s these Trump acolytes and Trump apologists and defenders who criticize the media, who criticize people who have experience in government, who are criticizing Donald Trump for his actions, activities and behavior. So, the fact that I was a former CIA Director and a former senior intelligence community official and White House official, to me I don’t really care if people who are … again Trump apologists … are going to try to cast my criticisms as just more evidence of the Deep State. There is no Deep State. And I think people who shrink from speaking out when we have such an abnormal, abhorrent individual in the Presidency, that’s something that they decide to do for whatever reasons. And some people have business or financial or commercial or personal reasons for staying silent. Or for just turning a blind eye to him.

John Brennan:

I’ve decided that my love for this country is such that I don’t care if people decide to not hire me for a speech or for a consultancy or take actions against me. To me, that’s almost irrelevant. To me, I feel a personal obligation to speak out against him. As does Mike Hayden, former Director of CIA and NSA. As does Bill McRaven, former Commander of the Special Operations Command and the one who was in charge of the Bin Laden raid. And so many other former members of the intelligence community, the military, the government. And so, the fact that my voice is part of this chorus of opposition to Mr. Trump, I think it sends an important signal to the American people that Donald Trump does not represent our values, our principles, or our laws.

John Brennan:

I think it also sends an important signal to people around the world and to foreign leaders that what Mr. Trump is doing is very nativist and very buffoonish behavior in office. Is not in keeping with our country’s traditional and very important leadership role in the world. That the mantra of America First, America First is quite shrill on the ears of people around the globe who feels that the United States is just doing what it wants because it has the muscularity to do it.

Ken Wainstein:

One thing I wanted to reference was … I was reviewing some of the reviews of your book. One of the reviewers focused on the title of your book, which is once again Undaunted. My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad. And I haven’t asked you this, but the CIA obviously is focused on threats overseas. Does not operate within the United States against President of the United States generally. And so, abroad would be the main focus of your career’s work. One reviewer wondered whether the reference to enemies at home was referencing political enemies. Who were you referencing when you said “at home”?

John Brennan:

Oh, I think there’s a basket of folks. We know in the aftermath of 9/11, we were looking for what other members of Al Qaeda might have come into our country. The fact that I [inaudible 00:29:27] Homeland Security Advisor was something that we were working very closely with the FBI and the other domestic agencies. I have done that over the course of my counterterrorism career. I also did battle with a number of members of Congress that I thought were, again, pursuing personal and partisan interests above country’s interest. And so, yeah, I could have said it in another way. Foreign and domestic. But “undaunted” also gives the sense that I have been undaunted, not just by our foreign adversaries, but by Mr. Trump and my other domestic critics. So, undaunted seems to apply in the minds of many to my domestic challenges and criticisms and battles that I have engaged in over the years.

John Brennan:

“Undaunted” also is a word that’s used in my favorite Irish song, which is Brennan On The Moor, which is “brave, bold and undaunted goes young Brennan on the moor.”

Speaker 4:

(singing).

John Brennan:

There was a variety of reasons why the title and the sub-title are what they are.

Ken Wainstein:

Let’s shift gears for a minute now. Once again referencing what’s going on today. We have Joe Biden, the President Elect about ready to take over. And you have deep insights to Joe Biden, the way he conducts himself, his policy views, his ways of dealing with people, dealing with other countries, his attitude about what is the right way for a President to conduct himself, because you’ve known him over the years. But also, because you’ve worked very closely with him. War meetings probably every day when he was Vice President and you were Homeland Security Advisor. And then, of course, when you were CIA Director. And in your book, you write fairly glowingly about Joe Biden and the way he conducted himself. And you have several little vignettes about President Elect Biden’s approach to big global issues like Syria when you talked about how President Obama used the term “red line” in regard to Syria and its use of chemical weapons. And Joe Biden came in with some advice saying, “Big nations like us can’t bluff.” Sort of recognizing the concern with using that term, which I thought was sort of illustrative of somebody who has deep experience in international relations.

Ken Wainstein:

So, if you would just tell us your view of Joe Biden’s readiness to become President. And how your observations of him in your years working with him give you confidence or don’t give you confidence that he is going to be a strong President.

John Brennan:

Well, when I think about Joe Biden, I think about basically two dimensions. One is Joe Biden the person. And the second one is Joe Biden the public servant. On the personal front, I can’t think of a nicer person than Joe Biden. He has the qualities that I greatly admire, whether somebody is a President or somebody is a man on the street that you meet, which is that he takes a real interest in people. He has tremendous capacity for empathy and concern. And just he does nice things for people. He used to call my parents on their birthdays. He spent time with my father talking about their shared Irish roots when they met a couple of times in Washington. Whenever somebody would talk to Joe Biden, it’s like the rest of the world is just tuned out. I’ve heard this from so many people that they feel as though the only thing that matters to Joe Biden at that moment is that interaction with people. And that is really something quite special. And so, he has the qualities that I think really engender trust, respect, admiration. And again, from a standpoint of being a kind human, Joe Biden I think epitomizes that.

John Brennan:

In terms of Joe Biden the public servant, all of his experiences, decades of service in the US Senate, his experience on so many of the committees in the Senate, his eight years in the White House as the Vice President. He is a product of those experiences and he comes to the position with a tremendous understanding of domestic and international issues. And he has some strong views on some issues. And I generally agreed with him, but there were times when we disagreed. But I always felt that he pursued those policy preferences with great passion and commitment because he believed very strongly in them.

John Brennan:

He wanted to get our military forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all did, but he really I think felt it in terms of the deaths, the injuries, the dislocations that occur to the US military when they’re involved in these wars of many, many years. But yet at the same time, he recognizes that the United States has very unique role and responsibilities and that sometimes military force is necessary and needed.

John Brennan:

And so, I think he also grew a lot quite frankly professionally as Vice President for eight years because unlike in the Senate, where Senators and members of the House Representatives, they will legislate and they will frequently provide their views about policies. They are not the policy makers. The executive branch of the policy makers. And so, Joe Biden was in those meetings, and national security council meetings, principal committee meetings, where we discussed and debated and argued over these issues of great consequence. And so, I think he is exceptionally well prepared professionally for the role of President of the United States. But he is also very, very able to have that compassion, that empathy, that understanding about his fellow Americans irrespective of their lot in life, or their economic standing, or their race, or their gender, or their sexual orientation. He is somebody who really relates to people and tries to understand as much as he can about what their needs are, what their aspirations are.

John Brennan:

So, he’s one of my favorite people. He really is. And I am just so overjoyed that he is the one who’s going to be responsible for trying to heal the very deep rifts that exist right now in American society. I think if anybody can do it, can make progress. I’m not saying it’s going to be either easy or fully successful. I think we are a polarized country, but he sees I think as his mission to try to repair the damage that has been done, that has been fueled by Donald Trump. And to try to bring us back into … try to unite us as a country once again.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. On that point, you actually have an anecdote in here, which I think is telling about his instinct for unifying as opposed to dividing. And we’re clearly in a period now of, as you said, polarization. Period when divisiveness has not only been a byproduct of what’s going on, it’s actually been an objective of policies from the White House and rhetoric. And so, the next President is going to have to deal with that and try to, as you say, bind those wounds. And you tell one story, which I’d like to have you recount here about a situation where he came in to be the peacemaker between you and Senator Feinstein. Tell us that little story if you would, and tell us what it tells us about Joe Biden.

John Brennan:

Dianne Feinstein is the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I’ve deep respect for her and her public service, and she was really committed to trying to ensure that our national security was as strong as possible. But she also was the Head of the Senate Committee when it was engaged in what I felt was a very one-sided partisan effort to try to, again, smear the CIA for its role in the detention interrogation program under the Bush administration, which was a controversial program, and which had its deep, deep flaws that I acknowledged publicly. But it was rather one-sided and that she was very misserved I believe by some of her real partisan staffers.

John Brennan:

And so, we were disagreeing over the study that her committee was involved, and disagreeing rather acrimoniously. And it was exacerbated by a number of factors. And things were seeming to be going from bad to worse. It wasn’t good for the Democratic head of the Senate Intel Committee to be fighting with the CIA Director appointed by a Democratic President. And I’m sure I could have and should have done things differently or better to prevent the escalation of the tension, which then broke out into public. And Joe Biden was somebody who didn’t like to see these parties at war. And knew both of us very well. And so, he decided that he was going to host a peace party negotiations or so at his residence at the Vice President’s residence in Washington where he invited Dianne and myself to sit down with him. And we spent, I don’t know, 45 minutes or so together in rather somber discussion where he basically was saying, “Listen, folks. For the good of the country, we need to get past this. We need to resolve these issues.”

John Brennan:

And I think because of his personal intervention that we were able then to get on a better track. We still had differences of view and some of them still were rather animated in terms of the debates and arguments that we had. But it just showed that he was willing to commit personally to try to resolve these issues. And he invited both of us when we were there to talk about our perspectives and our concerns. And help to have an airing of views. So, I look back very fondly on that meeting and I didn’t need access to my files to remember almost minute by minute details of that meeting.

Ken Wainstein:

So, one of the central themes or central stories of your memoir is the 2016 Presidential election. And the extent of Russia’s interference in various ways with the election. You start telling that story by recounting the day when you reviewed the intelligence in 2016 made you realize that this interference effort by Russia was significant and unprecedented in scale. And you felt like you had to run down and brief the President immediately. Tell us about that and what made you think that this was really something as alarming as that and something that was so unprecedented given that the Russians have been trying to mess with elections here and elsewhere for many years.

John Brennan:

Well, as you point out, the Russians have tried to use propaganda to influence America’s political environment for many decades, and also shaped the attitudes and views and votes of the American citizens for years. The digital domain, the ability to use social media over the last number of years has really given the Russians new opportunities to engage in those types of activities.

John Brennan:

And so, in the spring of 2016, we saw that the Russians were once again gearing up to do these types of things in sort of a normal way. But then, as we go into the summer months, particularly in June/July, when we saw that there were hacks into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, the DCCC, and then the release of emails. And we knew that the Russians were involved in that. And then, a variety of additional factors and intelligence came into focus. That led me in late July to spend several days and nights just reviewing everything that I could that had recently been obtained, acquired or known as well as reviewing past efforts by Russia to engage in these types of intelligence activities. Really gave me a newfound understanding of just how broad, intense in scale and scope the Russian effort was. And that it was authorized by Vladimir Putin.

John Brennan:

And unlike in previous elections, there was a clear indication that the Russians preferred Donald Trump to become President and did not want Hillary Clinton to become President. But I think they felt as though Hillary Clinton was going to get the victory in the November election, so they wanted to bloody her before she became President. But as they saw Donald Trump getting the Republican nomination, and then, going up the polls, they really felt that he had a chance.

John Brennan:

So, by the end of July when I saw this intense and larger Russian effort, and that it was designed to help Trump, help one candidate, I felt as though I needed to ensure that President Obama had a full understanding of what it was that we were seeing. So, I went down to the White House and had a meeting with President Obama, along with Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff, and Avril Haines, the Deputy National Security Advisor. And went through a briefing with them and told them what I was seeing. And I spoke to Jim Comey, I spoke to Jim Clapper, and shared with them our intelligence as well as our assessment, analysis about what was going on. And sure enough, it continued I think through the summer in terms of Russian efforts, particularly in the social media front. I’ve learned a lot more about the extent of Russia’s social media activities since I retired as a result of the Mueller investigation and some of those things that were included in his report. So, yes, I was very concerned about what the Russians were doing and we needed to understand it, we needed to monitor it, and then, based on what President decided, we needed to do what we could to thwart it.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. And then, you go on and tell a story about … Hell, once it was recognized what you are facing, you and the intelligence community stood up a fusion cell to focus on these malign efforts by Russia. That carried through the election. Then after the election, the President instructed Jim Clapper that you all should produce a local product, the intelligence community assessment, that explained in both the classified form but also importantly an unclassified form, what it was that Russia had done. And the findings of that analysis were, as you said, that the Russians did interfere. That it was at the behest directly from Vladimir Putin. And that it was intended to damage Hillary Clinton and help President … or then candidate Trump. So, it is worth saying that it’s not as though you guys were on an island, and coming to that conclusion. And many other groups, the Mueller investigation, Congressional investigations have come to the same conclusion about what the Russian’s intentions were.

Ken Wainstein:

One thing I do want to focus on is something you discussed in your book, which is how the government, how the US government responded to that threat in the fall of 2016. And the dilemma you were facing in deciding how to respond and how to calibrate that response, and the implications of doing it. If you would explain that to us, the kind of calculations that you all were thinking in deciding what to go public with and what sort of response to make to the Russians.

John Brennan:

The CIA, FBI, and NSA, we were not trying to help or hurt either candidate. We were trying to understand what the nature of the Russian threat was. And we wanted to do everything possible to collect against that threat, and again, try to deter or thwart it. But without having any impact ourselves on the election. That’s one of the things that President Obama insisted upon that we not do anything that was going to be seen or the reality of putting our thumb on the scale of the election.

John Brennan:

And so, we did a number of things. We warned the Russians off. I spoke to one of my Russian counterparts in early August, Alexander Bortnikov, and just told him to back off basically. And that we knew what they were doing. That the consequences would be serious if in fact they continued to do that. Obama spoke to Putin. Susan Rice spoke to her counterpart. So, we were warning them to not do anything such as trying to maybe take down voter registration rolls on the day of the election or other types of things that really could have created a sense of chaos and havoc on the election. We had contemplated about rattling Russia’s cyber cages. Just letting them know that we have cyber capabilities of our own. But we were concerned that the Russians could decide to escalate a cyber attack, war with us on the eve of a very hotly contested Presidential election. And we didn’t want to get into that escalatory cyber battle because I think it would have been seen by many as President Obama’s attempt to try to interfere in our election.

John Brennan:

So, there was a calculus that involved ensuring that we’re going to stay apolitical in this election. And that we were not going to do something to make the situation worse.

John Brennan:

In terms of things that were happening on the social media front, and to me I think looking back on it, that was where the Russians really made an impact presenting themselves as personas in the social media environment. That is Americans who are talking about Trump or criticizing Clinton. And the CIA as a foreign intelligence, as an Agency, focused on foreign intelligence, we would get information about what Russians do. And we’d pass it over to our FBI counterparts for them to follow up investigatively. But as I think we’re all still grappling with how can the government prevent these types of foreign efforts to exploit the digital domain and to misrepresent the facts without intruding upon Americans’ freedom of speech? And privacy and civil liberties in that digital environment. And unfortunately, foreign adversaries take full advantage of those freedoms and liberties that we have here in the United States. And so, the Russians are very, very adept and sophisticated cyber actors.

John Brennan:

In the 2016 timeframe, a lot of the social media companies basically were denying that they were being exploited. Thankfully, I think they’ve gotten some humility over the last several years and they’ve realized that they were being exploited and manipulated. And so, I think they have taken more aggressive actions. The Twitters and the Facebooks and others. And they did take those actions in the 2020 election and they didn’t take them in the 2016 election. So, I think the lessons were learned in 2016 that I think were applied in 2020. And thankfully the NSA and part of the Homeland Security, and lot of the cyber organizations in the United States government, really I think rose to the occasion and did things that I think helped to prevent further abuse of that environment by those foreign actors.

Ken Wainstein:

Let me shift gears for a second here and I want to talk about terrorism for a second. You started in the CIA in 1980. And at that point, large scale international terrorism organizations were just in their more nascent stages. We’re graduating from the time of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang and the others that were more domestically focused in each coutnry. Moving toward a period where we saw the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. Large scale international terrorist organizations that were bent on attacking United States for political and sometimes religious reasons. That evolution culminating of course in 9/11 and the attacks that resulted in the deaths of 3000 Americans.

Ken Wainstein:

With that evolution of the threat came an evolution of our measures to protect against that threat. And you speak in your book about the process of calibrating the use of those measures. We have lots of tools, military tools, intelligence tools, investigative tools, with varying degrees of force and varying degrees of intrusiveness. And there’s always a calculation to be made in terms of what tools to use against what threats, what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. You alluded to one of those debates, which was the one about the enhanced interrogation techniques under the Bush administration that led into the dispute between you and Senator Feinstein.

Ken Wainstein:

Another debate or another area of sort of calculating the use of force against the threat is the use of drones. And drone warfare, which really sort of came into its own in the early years of the Obama administration. I’d appreciate if you just tell us a little bit about the process by which you regularize the use of drones and the process by which you and the President would determine whether a particular threat justified the use of that kind of force.

John Brennan:

Well, the technological advancements in the use of remotely piloted platforms, the drones, that were armed really took place in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. While you were there at the White House. And when the Obama administration came in in January of 2009, we inherited a program that was gaining increasing popularity, I guess, among the counterterrorism professionals because of its ability to collect intelligence from these drones in terms of being able to dwell over targets for extended periods of time, collect full motion video, as well as technical intelligence. And to be able to then use precision guided munitions with great accuracy against terrorist targets.

John Brennan:

And so, when I became President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, it was my role to bring to him the proposals and recommendations that were coming from the counterterrorism organizations in terms of taking strikes against the terrorists that we knew were plotting to kill innocent men, women and children. During the latter days of the Bush administration, I don’t think there was the opportunity or the effort to try to put together a framework for approval processes. I think there was a great emphasis on making sure that all these strikes were going to be legal, but when we became the new administration in 2009, we had to make decisions about under what conditions we would approve these drone strikes. And against which targets and how that process would evolve in terms of the decision making that would go on.

John Brennan:

So, the first year or two, it was a process of developing the criteria that we would use to make those decisions. And in the third or fourth year of the first term of President Obama’s administration, he said that even though he was confident he was going to win the reelection, he wanted us to put together a framework to codify our process and procedures and criteria that we used to decide on taking these strikes. And so, we engaged in a very lengthy process, ran inter-agency meetings to working with our lawyers and with our counterterrorism experts and professionals, and to pull together a framework that we used then for the rest of the Obama administration, that would ensure rigor, and would ensure that every effort was made to avoid any type of civilian casualties or deaths. And would ensure that lethal action in terms of taking these strikes would only be done if there was no recourse, if there was no other opportunity to mitigate the threat of a terrorist attack.

John Brennan:

So, we felt good that we had a process that, again, tried to ensure the protection of innocent lives, but at the same time to ensure that innocent lives would not fall victim to terrorist attacks. And so, at the end of the Obama administration, we handed that framework over to the Trump team. And at least according to the press reports, it seems as though the criteria that was used, which included near certainty of no civilian casualties, that that framework has been modified. And that it’s a more relaxed standard in terms of the use of this type of lethal force. But I felt very good about working for a President, President Obama, whose views on these issues and my views were very much in alignment. And so, I do think that we did everything possible to, again, fulfill our obligations to protect American citizens from terrorist attacks. But at the same time, ensure that we continued to honor the sanctity of innocent life in the conduct of war and counterterrorism operations.

Ken Wainstein:

So, in your assessment of the effectiveness of the drone program generally, what impact do you think it has had on our ability to protect against international terrorism over the last 8-10 years?

John Brennan:

Well, I think it was really instrumental, integral to the destruction of a large part of Al Qaeda. And its leadership and its operatives that were burrowed in many countries in the Middle East and South Asia. It resulted in a lot of deaths of terrorists. And there were widely, wildly exaggerated estimates of civilians killed and injured. And toward the end of the Obama administration, we did a review. At least for the first seven years of the Obama administration, we calculated the number of deaths between … I think it was 64 and a 114 or 115. I think it was probably at the higher end of that scale in terms of deaths. Each one of them tragic, but I think it was a very, very effective tool in preventing terrorist attacks. And ones that were ready to be operationalized.

John Brennan:

In my memoir, I give an account that is … Although, I’ve blurred some of the details. It really is based on a real world example of a truck bomb that was going to be heading to our embassy in Sana’a in Yemen that we took a strike against it so that those individuals working at the embassy would not be killed. So, I think again it prevented terrorist attacks, but also as importantly I think it led to the dismantling and to a large scale destruction of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Ken Wainstein:

One question about the drone program that came up during your time at the White House as I recall was a question of whether the CIA should be involved in paramilitary operations, or should it be more focused or should it refocus on more traditional intelligence gathering operations. And allow the Defense Department to do lethal activities. Tell us about that debate.

John Brennan:

Well, the CIA is the US government’s and the world’s premier spy organization that engages in espionage to collect secrets around the world to protect US national security interest. We also have the all-sourced analytic mission. We have counter-intelligence. We have foreign liaison. But there’s also covert action. And since CIA’s founding in 1947, every President has tapped at CIA to engage in different types of covert action programs. That have been controversial and many of them still stay shrouded in secrecy because they’ve not been declassified.

John Brennan:

I believe that the use of force, of lethal force, is something that really should be reserved for the US military to carry out because that’s the mission of the US military. That’s what the US military is trained for. I believe that the CIA’s intelligence collection capabilities provide tremendous insight that the US military can use when it conducts lethal offensive military operations, but I do believe that the CIA should stick with its core missions. And there can be I think clandestine and even covert military operations carried out by the Department of Defense. And I think that the President should resist the tendency to just go to the CIA to carry out these types of activities.

John Brennan:

A lot of things have happened around the globe that keeps the CIA very, very busy and its personnel busy. And understandably in the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA was on a counterterrorism mission that basically took precedence, but there were still a lot of things that the CIA had to become engaged in. And although, again, it was understandable in the aftermath of 9/11 for the CIA to focus heavily on that counterterrorism mission, I think now after the last 20 years, the CIA’s mission should in fact be more focused on that intelligence collection, all-source analysis, counter-intelligence, and developing those foreign liaison relationships. And again, empower and enable the US military with intelligence so that the US military can carry out these types of offensive lethal operations, including with the weapons of war of the 21st century, which include drones.

Ken Wainstein:

Do you have any sense where that debate is inside the Trump administration? Whether that position that you just articulated has held sway or has it not, do you know?

John Brennan:

Well, the Trump administration has not been reaching out to me to either ask my advice or [crosstalk 01:00:35] any insights. But it’s really quite ironic and interesting that the Obama administration, which was so, so interested in providing as much transparency as possible, including on counter-terrorism operations, was criticized and condemned and crucified by many elements of the press for carrying out counter-terrorism operations that it acknowledged. The Trump administration has not been transparent whatsoever. We don’t know what the counter-terrorism activities or operations are that are going on around the world. There has been no explanation about the framework that it’s using or the criteria that it employs. I don’t know.

John Brennan:

I believe that the Obama administration and the team that Joe Biden will assemble will further develop and refine a lot of the practices and procedures that were in place during the Obama administration. And I’d like to think that they will try to push the CIA back into its traditional intelligence missions. And leave military operations inside of the Department of Defense.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. Another theme that you discuss throughout the book is the perceived morality of CIA operations. Tell us sort of your response to the notion on the part of some people that the CIA is an organization of dirty tricks and whether you think there is truth to that. And to the extent there’s not, what the CIA can do to sort of dispel that image?

John Brennan:

Well, when I was CIA Director, I tried to have public messaging, and then, internal messaging that really underscored the ethos of what I think the CIA should be. The public messaging is that the CIA is not a rogue organization. That everything we do has to be consistent with US law. That we don’t just go out and decide to conduct covert action programs. That everything has to be authorized by a President. And that what we do we don’t violate those laws. And if there are violations of law, we have to be held to account.

John Brennan:

And that’s why I did take issue with references to stealing secrets. To me, maybe it’s my strict Catholic upbringing from years and years ago that stealing is against the law. It shouldn’t be done. Yes, when we go out and conduct espionage overseas, we’re violating the laws of other lands, conducting espionage. But we are doing things entirely consistent with US laws and CIA’s legal authorities. And I want to make sure that the American people understood that the CIA is an instrument of the US government. It operates on behalf of the American people. And it has to do everything that is going to be, again, fully lawful, as well as I believe needs to be consistent with our values as Americans and the ethics and principles of this country.

John Brennan:

The internal messaging to CIA employees, especially those involved in operations, they have such solemn, solemn and extensive authorities and responsibilities that they conduct these espionage operations or covert actions in a manner that we keep quiet. But that doesn’t mean that they can decide to do what they want. That the end justifies the means. That there are principles and ethics of espionage. And of intelligence gathering and of the intelligence mission. And I saw too many instances over the course of my career where some CIA officers really took some of their trade craft that they used professionally and basically applied it inside of the Agency in terms of deceiving people or not being as truthful as they need to be. That although they might adopt these covers and personas and trade craft in the conduct of their espionage activities, that they needed to be as principled, as ethical, as moral, as possible in their professional activities that are not conducting while they’re conducting espionage activities.

John Brennan:

And I felt that I had some occasions where I witnesses CIA officers who were not fulfilling what I thought were the institutional ethics and principles that really should be the hallmark of CIA. And I called people to account for it. Also, I detail in my memoir how I always opposed any type of disinformation that the CIA or the US government would push out for various reasons. I just think if the US government is involved in propagating lies and falsehoods, it really just lays waste to what we believe in as democracy. And particularly now in an era when these secrets and programs are frequently exposed. We really should not be involved in any type of disinformation. This is what the Russians and the Soviets before them did. This is what the Chinese or other services do. There is enough in truth that we can push out to discredit our adversaries and to push forward our policy, objectives and goals. And so, there were people inside of CIA that very much were annoyed that I was not willing to engage in this type of disinformation and propaganda that has become, I think, the coin of the realm for a lot of intelligence services. But I just do not see it as something that Americans and the CIA should be involved in.

John Brennan:

So, again, I have strong views on these issues. I know there are people who disagree with me and differ with me. I’m just hoping that in the future the CIA is going to try to carry out its responsibilities not just lawfully because that is the bare minimum that should be part of any type of CIA program. But also it has to be done in a principled, ethical, and I think a moral way. And this is where I think if the CIA stays on that path, it will avoid the controversies and the problems that it has had in the past.

Ken Wainstein:

Okay. Well, look, with that I think we’ll call it a wrap. But I will make one prediction, which is with whatever opportunity you seize, you will continue to speak your mind. That is trademark John Brennan. And you’ll continue to be undaunted, I’m sure of that. For that and for the service that that provides to the American people, we thank you for your giving back that you just detailed to your alma maters and otherwise. We thank you for that. And lastly, I just can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us today, for sharing your thoughts and experiences and wisdom, both today and in your memoir. And for all the service you provide the American people over the years. So, thank you so much for being here and all the best to you, John.

John Brennan:

Thank you, Ken. I really enjoyed this discussion and continue doing what you’re doing. I think it’s critically important. Particularly since I think you and I believe very strongly in bipartisanship and engagement in national security matters. I think speaking up and out, and helping to enlighten and inform the American people is critically important in this day and age. And the more informed the American public is, the better able they are going to be to decide on who their elected representatives will be in the future.

Speaker 5:

Thanks for listening. You can now try the CAFE insider membership free for two weeks. To join, head to CAFE.com/insider. That’s CAFE.com/insider. To all our insiders, thank you for supporting our work.

Ken Wainstein:

That’s it for this week’s episode of the United Security podcast. Your hosts are Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is David Kurlander, Nat Weiner, Matthew Billy, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. And our music is by Allison Leyton-Brown. Thank you for being a part of the CAFE insider community.