It was just a few hours after terrorists had attacked the airport in Istanbul. The cable channels were once again filling up with scenes of chaos and bloody terror. CIA Director John Brennan greeted me in a small waiting room outside his seventh-floor office, with his usual grave demeanor accentuated by the pronounced limp he has developed. That impression was only slightly leavened by a desiccated wit. “You’ve had to endure so many of these grim rituals,” I remarked, referring to the Turkey suicide bombing. “Dinner with reporters?” he deadpanned.
Soon we were sitting in the director’s private dining room, where Brennan told me the airport attack — for which no group has claimed responsibility — had all the hallmarks of ISIS, and he predicted that the group was planning similar atrocities in the United States. While acknowledging important territorial gains against ISIS, which he calls Daesh, an acronym for the Arabic name of the Islamic State, he bluntly said the U.S. has made no dent in their ability to strike abroad. And he was similarly gloomy about the Syrian civil war ending any time soon, admitting that President Bashar Assad is stronger on the battlefield now than he was a year ago. (Those remarks can be found in this story, which appeared on Yahoo News the day after the June 28 interview.)
Over the course of our nearly two-hour interview, over a dinner of lobster tails, red trout with rice and beans and paired wines, Brennan touched on a wide array of topics he deals with as the nation’s 21st CIA director, including the future of the U.S. government’s targeted killing programs, a major reorganization of the agency for the digital age and his frustration over tech industry leaders’ failure to cooperate with the intelligence community. He waxed nostalgic about his years as a student and case officer in the Middle East, when he could travel anywhere and was embraced as an American. And he reminisced about Robert Ames, the legendary CIA spy and Arabist who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Near the end of the interview, Brennan contemplated every spymaster’s darkest fear: the possibility that a mole has penetrated his service. “One should never assume there is not a mole in your organization,” he said.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Yahoo News: Daesh (ISIS) has been aggressive recently — not just in Iraq and Syria but outside those countries, in Turkey, Jordan, Yemen. What do you think their strategy is right now? How concerned are you about their ability to attack in so many different places?
John Brennan: Daesh does have, unfortunately, an extensive presence outside of the Iraq-Syria theater. In Africa, the rest of [the] Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, there are cells and franchises. I think they are trying to carry out attacks outside of the Syria-Iraq theater to make sure their impact is felt. Over the last four to six months, they’ve had some setbacks in the battlefield; I think it’s important for them to try to offset those with attacks they can claim credit for.
Some people say that’s a sign of weakness on their part. Is that how you read it?
I think it’s a recognition on their part that they need to do something to offset those battlefield setbacks. It shows they have a capability to project outside — in the streets of Europe, in airports in Turkey, or other places.
They’re lashing out because they’re losing territory and they have to get wins on the board? Do we have intelligence that shows that?
Our intelligence is that over the past year and a half, they have made a more determined effort to carry out attacks abroad and we see [this] in their preparations, movement of people, propagandizing outside, extorting, exciting. We know there are individuals inside of Syria who are orchestrating and directing these foreign operations. I wouldn’t say that this is all just to compensate for lost territory in Syria, Iraq. This was already underway.
We’ve talked a lot lately about lone-wolf attacks. In your judgment, is Daesh capable, right now, of pulling off a complex attack, like a Paris attack or a Brussels attack, in the United States? How concerned are you about their ability to strike in this country?
I am worried from the standpoint of an intelligence professional who looks at Daesh, as well as al-Qaida, who are still out there, and their determination to kill as many people as possible in attacks abroad. You look at what happened in the Turkish airport; these were suicide vests. It’s not that difficult to construct a suicide vest. If you have a determined enemy, individuals going into it with a sense that, “I am going to die and I want to kill as many other people as possible,” that complicates your strategy. Daesh, I believe, is going to try to carry out more of these high-profile attacks abroad. They have a core inside Syria and Iraq. They also have a lot of investments outside. They’re putting chips down on different parts of the table.
You worry, as an intelligence professional, that beyond inspiring people like [Omar] Mateen [the perpetrator of the Orlando attack], they might want to carry out [their own] attacks here?
I think that if they could, they would do it. I have great confidence in our law enforcement, intelligence, [and] Homeland Security professionals to make it very difficult for them to do it. I would be surprised if Daesh is not trying to carry out that type of attack.
In the United States?
In the United States.
Is there intelligence that they are?
We are very vigilant. I think the FBI and Homeland Security and the White House have done a good job of trying to make the public aware of areas of concern.
In recent Senate testimony, you said: “Our efforts have not reduced the groups’ terrorism capability.”
My assessment is that we’re making important progress on the ground inside Syria and Iraq. We have yet to really thwart Daesh’s ability to reach beyond the Syria-Iraqi borders to carry out attacks. That external operations element doesn’t take much resources. It just takes some very determined individuals who are willing to kill themselves. Whether we are talking about Orlando, which I do think was incitement, or we’re talking Paris or Brussels, or taking down the plane that left the Sinai, we have not had the success against Daesh there that we’ve had in the core areas of Syria and Iraq.
Drone operations across the board have plummeted. According to most estimates, there were fewer than 10 in all of 2016 outside of conventional battlefields. Why is this happening?
I’m not going to comment on that. The president has given direction to the appropriate departments to take action as appropriate against terrorist organizations, in war zones or outside of war zones. The president has made clear what we try to do is take whatever actions short of kinetic to mitigate threats. Any type of decrease or increase in those types of actions [by] the U.S. government can be the result of a variety of factors, depending on the conditions of the country, the nature of the threat, whatever.
The plan to shift drone operations being run by the CIA to the military — do you think that will be largely completed by the time President Obama leaves office?
I certainly support the president when he has said that he believes that if we strike terrorist targets abroad that the U.S. government should acknowledge those strikes, and that’s what the U.S military is best at. When they take those strikes, they will be acknowledged.
I want to talk about the root causes of extremism. You said the fight against extremism won’t be won on the battlefield, ultimately.
Slowly. The change is slow. Trying to enhance the counterterrorism capabilities of our partners is a critically important part of this effort. But [we] also [aim] to give time and space to our diplomats or aid givers or advisors to tackle these much more insidious problems — the corruption, the very weak institutions of governance. The inability of a lot of these countries to govern much of their country. The fact that they don’t have any real judicial systems, very poor penal systems, very poor educational systems. In the Middle East, from Libya down to the Horn, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq — these are countries that have been wracked by instability. Central governments are central governments in name only, in many respects.
The dynamic is the people in these societies, I think you’ve said, are disfranchised from their governments.
They are not identifying with their governments’ international identity. A lot of them identify with subnational groups. They’ve lost confidence and trust that their government is able to provide for their needs and their families. I’m not saying that causes terrorism. What I’m saying is that it has led individuals to gravitate toward extremist elements that have an ideological dimension to them. When all else fails, people go to the basics, and religion is one of the basic instincts of man. Unfortunately, in a lot of countries in the Middle East and beyond, a perverted interpretation of Islam has become the only real political ideological movement. You don’t have those secular movements you had years ago, Nasserism, Ba’athism, communism, socialism, whatever. The only -ism out there now is this perverted interpretation of Islamism.
Let’s talk about when you started going to the Middle East as a young man.
[In] ’75. I went to school in Cairo.
At the American University of Cairo?
Yep. I fell in love with the culture, the language, the people. It was two years after the ’73 war, and there was still a fair amount of tension between Israel and Egypt. I remember traveling from Cairo to Amman over the Christmas holiday, and then making my away across the Allenby Bridge so I could spend Christmas in Bethlehem. I was struck by the beauty of Jerusalem. There’s so much rich history in that part of world.
At that time, as an American, I could travel anywhere. I was embraced by people. Even though there was great anger at the United States for supporting Israel, there was tremendous respect and admiration for American society. Unfortunately, this distorted ideology has [today] affected the perspectives of so many people in that region.
But in retrospect, can you see a direct line from the way those regimes ran their societies, the economic stagnation, the political repression, the inability to prepare their people for globalization?
Yeah, I don’t think anybody can deny that a lot of the elements of authoritarianism in the area, the great disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the lack of economic reform — I think did allow these problems to fester and then emerge in the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a real indication of how dry the tinder was. When the Tunisian salesman self-immolated, that was the spark that not just killed him but just set off the Middle East. I think we are going to continue to see this for a number of years to come.
In retrospect, do you sometimes think we should’ve been tougher in pushing those regimes to reform? Do you sometimes think that we should’ve done things differently?
I think a lot of governments should’ve done things differently. It’s unknown what would have happened, but when I think about the Israeli-Palestinian problem that continues to this day, allowing that problem to fester — I’m not saying that is the reason why the Middle East is in the shape it’s in, but it certainly was a significant contributing factor. Do I think the U.S. government, over the course of the last 50 years, should [have] become more engaged? Yeah. At the same time, I don’t think the United States ever had a magic wand. We can influence, we can encourage, we can lead — but at the end of the day, a lot of times, it came down to Yasser Arafat taking advantage of an opportunity and playing the risks, to a Netanyahu or others [realizing] that the status quo might be tactically comfortable in the near term but strategically unsustainable. And I do think it is unsustainable. Sometimes I think there are individuals in Washington that do not understand fully the Middle East environment and the effort and interest in democratizing that part of the world. The concept of Western democracy in many of those areas is truly a foreign concept, literally and figuratively. Democracy, economic and structural reform, is a journey and a process over time. I think our expectations are run by election cycles, or the imperative to have it done tomorrow. Two generations ago — even one generation ago — [these were] nomadic societies deeply rooted in tradition with a very provincial view of the world. Their vistas have been opened up amazingly over the last several decades. Mass communication has been jarring and traumatic in these aspects. Just because in some areas they dress in the latest French fashions and drive cars doesn’t mean that societally and culturally they are ready to adapt to Western-style democracy.
You knew Robert Ames [the legendary CIA spy and Arabist], who was killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983]? You were a young officer when you met him?
I started out in 1980 in the agency, in the operational side of the house [the clandestine service]. Ames spent his career, most of his career, until the very end, in the operational side. He was an exceptionally well-known operations officer who spent a lot of time in Yemen and working with the Palestinians. Shortly after I became an analyst, he was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and then became the head of the office of Near East and South Asia analysis. At the time, I was just preparing to go to Saudi Arabia. In fact, I was in full-time language training. He was the head of my office, so I would go in and see him, sometimes on the weekends. He would be there, he would quiz me on my Arabic, which was quite intimidating since I was still not nearly as good as he was. In many respects, he was a role model. I went out to Saudi Arabia the first time, I think, in early September of 1982, and he died the following spring in Beirut, when he was on TDY [temporary duty]. I remember when I was in the embassy [Riyadh] and I saw initial list of names and it said Robert Ames, I thought it was somebody with the same name because I didn’t know he was there. Then I found out that in fact he was killed. My interaction with Bob was brief, it was limited, but it was during a very formative stage in my career.
What were his unique qualities as a spy?
I think he was willing to live among the people, spend time becoming part, almost, of the landscape. He was very much a people person; I think that’s one of the key traits of an operations officer — you need to enjoy engagement with people. He did. But he was a student of history and understood the nuances.
He famously cultivated the chief of Palestinian intelligence.
Salameh Ali Hassan, in the ’70s. That was a little controversial. The PLO was considered a terrorist organization. Now that you’re director, is there anything from that experience that informs what you think case officers should be doing now?
I think the lesson is that there are a lot of unsavory characters in the Middle East. If we had our druthers about who we want to sit around the dinner table with, we probably would not select some of these people. It’s critically important to our national security that we know them. Sometimes you have to do it clandestinely; sometimes you have to do it in a liaison capacity. I think what [Ames] demonstrated was that there were certain elements of Middle Eastern and Arab society that the United States, given our global responsibilities, needed to interact with, needed to have insights about, and he would push the envelope in some of these areas. CIA officers are known for going outside the fence line. We try to always adhere to the law in terms of what our responsibilities are, but risk is inherent in our business. We need to be able to identify individuals who are influential, the good or bad, to inform our policy makers about who they are and what they’re doing, to mitigate threats or take advantage of opportunities.
As director, you give your case officers a little bit of running room to do some of those kinds of things.
I absolutely want them to be risk-takers. We have very, very courageous people who are taking risks today.
The CIA has traditionally played an important role in back-channel diplomacy. Is that still a vital role that the CIA plays?
As I look at the future, I believe that the future of HUMINT [human intelligence] and the future of CIA is going to depend on how creative, innovative and risk-taking we are going to be — to go outside the fence line to talk, listen and observe what’s going on in some of these areas, including in denied areas.
Would it be appropriate for a CIA officer to reach out to some part of [a terrorist organization like] AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] or al-Shabab that we believe to be more preoccupied with the local fight and could potentially be a useful source of information in our intelligence?
I think it’s appropriate to be able to be at the center of the storm, whether we’re talking about political organizations, terrorist organizations, whatever. CIA needs to be able to have the access to gain that perspective and intelligence.
In a recent interview you said the CIA doesn’t steal secrets.
I would never do something that would be inconsistent with our legal authorities here in this country. I just want to make sure our officers, in everything they do, they do it to the letter [and] the spirit of law. Stealing secrets is a nice catchy phrase, but I want to make sure people understand that there is tremendous skill associated with obtaining those secrets that are necessary to our national security.
Sometimes spies have to do things that are ethically ambiguous, right?
They have to do things that are certainly consistent with our legal authorities and obviously ethics and morality is subject to tremendous subjective interpretation and whether or not something … the means justify the ends, and so on.
Yes, I’ve wrestled with these issues over the course of my career.
I have to ask about our presumptive Republican —
You don’t have to.
— nominee, about some of the things he has said about banning Muslims, about Muslims knowing that their neighbors are involved in terrorism but not telling the authorities. He’s made some sweeping comments about our Muslim population and about the need to keep Muslims out this country, this temporary ban that he talks about. How do you react to that, and is that in the interest of our national security?
I’m not going to talk about anything that a particular candidate says, but let me address the issue of how whole religions or peoples are too often maligned because of the actions of a few. There are individuals who call themselves Christians and Catholics who have bombed abortion facilities and have killed doctors. Do we call them radical Catholics? No. To me, who was born and raised a Catholic, I consider them anything but a Catholic. That’s why we don’t ascribe to these individuals the moniker of radical Muslims.
Do you think those kinds of comments also feed the narrative of groups like Daesh?
I can tell you [that] when I speak to my counterparts in the Middle East, they have expressed concern that the narrative that may be coming from some political quarters is exacerbating the problem. Daesh wants to create this great divide between the Islamic world and the rest of the world. They are trying to fuel that fire. I think individuals who take the bait make that situation worse.
The day after the Republican National Convention, the Republican nominee will be, I believe, eligible to have a briefing from the CIA.
The past practice has been — and the DNI [director of national intelligence] is the one who has a lead on this — that with the direction and approval of the White House and the president, the candidates of the two parties are offered briefings. It is up to those individuals to decide whether or not they want to get a classified briefing.
Would you have any concerns about briefing Donald Trump?
I will, the agency will, carry out its responsibilities as appropriate in the aftermath of the conventions.
So if Donald Trump is the nominee and he wants a classified briefing, he will get it?
I don’t make that decision. It is up to the president and the DNI.
Trump has said he would “bring back waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse.” You know this workforce well; how would they react to bringing back waterboarding, and would they do it?
As director, as long as I’m director, no agency officer will be authorized to carry out waterboarding and some of those other EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques]. That used to be part of the agency’s interrogation program, and I will not speak for the workforce, but I know there is a fair amount of concern that the hit on the institution as a result of some of those things is something that we don’t want to go through again. Besides, I think a lot of people would agree with me that these tactics are neither necessary nor appropriate to carry out.
I want to talk a little about your reorganization of the CIA and the creation of the new mission centers. This is about fusion, right?
I have long been an admirer of the concept of integration within a workforce, and I studied a bit the Goldwater-Nichols [Reorganization Act of 1986] at the Pentagon and how it brought together the services. I cannot envision how the U.S. military would operate as independent services and not in these combined commands. I also had the great opportunity in my previous agency life to be part of the stand-up of the National Counterterrorism Center, where we brought together the networks, databases, expertise, experiences and personnel of multiple agencies. Having that broader perspective and bringing different types of expertise, I found, was a force multiplier.
When I was at the White House, I felt as though the agency, in a number of instances, did not have as much influence and impact that it could have and should have. Sometimes individuals from single components here would attend meetings I chaired, and they only did the analytic part of the work or the operational part of the work and they were not able to contribute as much as I think they needed to.
When I came back here, I wanted to make sure that we were able to tap into the tremendous capabilities and expertise throughout the agency. That’s why the concept of the mission centers is very similar to the combatant commander, which is you bring together the Army, Navy, Air Force, [and] Marines under leadership that has these elements complement one another to fulfill a mission. We have now these functional centers: Counterterrorism, Counter-proliferation, Counterintelligence. We’ve added a Global Issues Function Center and six regional centers, [each] headed by an assistant director. Those ten assistant directors [and I] orchestrate the capabilities of the agency. This transformation will allow the CIA to contribute more meaningfully in the future.
There’s a perception that the traditional directorates are being weakened, will be marginalized, [and] will lose status and prestige. The directorates are responsible in a way for a kind of policymaking function of espionage or training and recruiting, and some of these kinds of non-operational functions.
With all due respect, I disagree vehemently with those who make this argument. The five directorates are the mother ships of these disciplines, the trade craft. I consider the heads of those five directorates my senior leadership team. Have the Marines or the Army, Air Force or Navy lost prestige or influence or identity as result of the structure put in place by Goldwater-Nichols? No — look to them to make sure that the training, the standards, the capabilities are going to be top-notch, so they can bring those skills to war.
Another criticism is that when you put operators and analysts together, there is the danger of losing analytic objectivity or that that paramilitary actions are going to drive analysis.
Analytic integrity and objectivity is critically important to this agency. I think it’s a valid question. I think sometimes analysts [don’t receive] sufficient credit for their independence. Any analyst really worth his or her salt is — sometimes they’re stubborn to a fault — is going to resist that input. I find that if analysts are able to interact with operations officers who’ve served in a region, who have actually smelled and tasted the dirt in the country and have interacted with people — being able to bounce ideas off the individual who really knows the environment enriches the analyst’s assessment. We teach the techniques and tools to make sure that they’re mindful [and] that they’re not going to be subject to even unconscious bias or influence.
It takes special precautions?
Yes, and there is a review process to make sure analytic objectivity and integrity is maintained.
Talk about the new Directorate of Digital Innovation. You have said that you wanted to make sure the CIA didn’t go the way of Kodak.
I think for too long, CIA intelligence officers tried to stay away from technology because we were unsure about the vulnerability of it. But we cannot resist the technological revolution.
Would you hope that by the time you leave the CIA, your employees here would be able to bring a smartphone into the building?
I believe we need to be as mobile as possible with the various technological innovations and tools.
Isn’t that inevitable? You can’t hermetically seal a building like this from the best technology that every American uses every day, including iPhones.
Well, sometimes you can do that. I guess the question is whether you should, and how to mitigate the risks.
Let me ask it this way: Is that something you’re looking at? Would you hope that CIA could figure out a way to be able to do that?
I want CIA to be agile and as mobile and technologically savvy, and using all the technical tools that are available, not just at CIA headquarters but around the globe. So, yes, I’d like to break down some of the traditional hesitance to doing some of this. Nothing is risk-free.
It’s fascinating is that you’re recruiting this new generation of digital natives, and they have large digital footprints and they’re on social media. People you’re recruiting now probably are on Twitter and Facebook, and that presents a challenge in terms of maintaining their cover. How have you dealt with that?
That’s one of the reasons why we stood up this director of digital innovation. We need to recognize that a lot of the people who come into the agency have a forensic history that we need to be aware of. What are the implications of that for the intelligence mission? For some of our clandestine activities? How are we going to hide within the cacophony of digital activity? The digital domain is ubiquitous. How are we going to engage in it as securely and as competently as possible?
This is also related to technology. The biggest difference between ISIS and its predecessors, besides its brutality, is its proficiency online — its use of social media for propaganda and recruiting. There is a perception that the United States government is losing in the information battle space. Is that a fair perception?
I wouldn’t say it’s losing the war, but I would agree that Daesh has made extensive and sophisticated use of social media. That generation grew up during this technological revolution, much more so than al-Qaida. They follow the literature and the news, and they know what’s encrypted, what’s not, [and] what’s more difficult for intelligence and security agencies to access. They’ve been very cunning. The U.S. government has certain limitations in terms of what it can do, but also it conveys the truth. Daesh frequently conveys anything but the truth.
Are you frustrated with some of the technology companies’ [reluctance] to take down extremist content from their sites? You testified recently about Twitter’s decision to block intelligence agencies from using its data-mining service, Dataminr.
I’m frustrated that [in certain parts of] the private sector, there’s insufficient understanding of just how serious the threat is to national security. Believe me, people here at CIA have fought their whole lives to protect liberties. [Censorship] is the last thing we want, but I I think a lot of these companies, because of their attitudes and their positions, are frustrating the rule of law.
What are their attitudes?
They’re going to develop certain types of technologies that are going to be impenetrable to anybody, and even if they —
What’s the attitude?
The attitude is that the U.S government is “them” — almost a we versus them. I think as American citizens, whether in the public or the private sector, there needs to be a recognition that the government has obligations to protect the general welfare and public security. Who do they think makes up the FBI and CIA and NSA? American men and women from every state, carrying out their responsibilities as faithfully as they can to protect their fellow citizens. For many, they consider the government almost as an enemy that is really trying to invade one’s privacy for some type of prurient or whatever interest. That’s not the case.
Have mistakes been made? Absolutely. Are there some individuals who have abused their authority? Yes. But in the grand scheme of things, what the government can do to safeguard the country and protect its citizens is more [important].
Let me ask about Edward Snowden. There’s a new campaign to pardon Snowden. Would you support a pardon?
I would only support his coming back and facing the charges that have been levied against him, and to let a court of law determine his fate.
In a podcast interview with David Axelrod, Eric Holder — he was very critical of Snowden, but he also said that he actually performed a public service. It began and accelerated a debate in this country about these issues. Do you agree that he performed any public service?
I do not believe that at all. I respectfully, but vehemently, disagree with the former attorney general.
You’ve had to make life-and-death decisions, and you operate under a tremendous amount of stress. You’ve been doing this for close to eight years. How do you unwind? How do you deal with it?
We do interviews like this.
Yeah, right. [Chuckles.]
Partly you get into a rhythm; it’s the normal. Sometimes it’s very difficult to relax and unwind. I’m hoping to be able to do that at some point when I retire.
So you don’t relax and unwind?
I try to work out everyday.
What do you do?
I go to a gym. I alternate between weights and cardio.
You have a gym here?
I have a gym somewhere, and I prefer not to say where.
Did you ever watch a movie about something completely different from your work or. … ?
I don’t watch movies about my work. I rarely watch movies. I try to catch the last couple innings of the Nationals game when I go home.
Finally, do you ever worry about or think about the possibility of there being a mole inside the CIA?
If you’re part of an intelligence organization, counterintelligence needs to pervade everything that you do. You need to make sure that you’re taking steps on the technological front as well as in the insider-threat front. We have some very competent and capable individuals. We’ve learned a lot over time, but one should never assume that there’s no a mole in the organization. That’s part of the intelligence business — understanding that what you may be endeavoring to do against your adversaries, your adversaries are trying to do against you.