Recorded November 16th, 2020
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Today, I am here with John O. Brennan, who is former director of the CIA. John has a new book out, called Undaunted: My Fight against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. Many public-sector memoirs are rather blah. This I found interesting, entertaining, and substantive on every page. John, welcome.
JOHN O. BRENNAN: Thank you, Tyler. It’s good to be with you.
COWEN: What truths about human nature or human behavior do you think intelligence officials appreciate but few others do?
BRENNAN: I guess those who are involved in the conduct of espionage really understand that individuals will have vulnerabilities as well as areas of particular interest that they want to either pursue or protect. Case officers — in the CIA parlance, the ones that go out and actually recruit spies to conduct espionage against their countries — I think really seek out those areas that could be, in fact, exploited — vulnerabilities or otherwise.
Or people have, again, certain lifelong ambitions, goals. For a lot of people who live overseas, it’s getting to the United States and bringing their families to the United States. When you’re in CIA and you have a lot of interactions with people overseas, I think you appreciate some of those similarities, as well as those unique qualities that people bring to the fore.
COWEN: Now, your background is from the blue-collar county, Hudson County, in northern New Jersey. How do you feel that influences your views on human behavior or temperament?
BRENNAN: There are a number of things about my upbringing in Hudson County. The son of an immigrant — my father emigrated from Ireland in 1948 when he was 28 years old. Always impressed upon my siblings and myself just how special it was to be an American citizen and never to take for granted the fact that we were by dint of our birth because my father used to complain, it’s usually the people who were born here that took it for granted, not those who struggle for the good part of their lives to get here.
Growing up in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood really allowed me to appreciate some of the challenges, difficulties that average Americans face on a daily basis, how a lot of people are just struggling to make sure that their families are fed, that their children are educated, that they can enjoy what life has to offer here in the United States. I didn’t grow up in a privileged environment by any means.
Sometimes my father was out of work, and he had to pick up part-time jobs just to make sure that there was money for my mother and father to be able to buy groceries for us to eat. I felt as though it really gave me a good perspective on what life, quite frankly, for most Americans is like.
COWEN: How many CIA agents might have once entered the priesthood?
BRENNAN: CIA agents, first of all, refers to those foreign citizens who are recruited by CIA case officers to spy against their countries. It’s referred to as CIA officers or CIA case officers.
COWEN: The broader notion.
BRENNAN: CIA employees. There are similarities between those who decide to go into the priesthood and those who decide to go into the work of the intelligence community. As I said in my book, I was planning to become a priest and the first American pope, but then decided to go on a different path. I met a number of people throughout my CIA career who had similar types of, at least early, ambitions and goals.
COWEN: How do you think having been raised Catholic affects your worldview on intelligence gathering and human nature and how people will behave?
BRENNAN: I was raised in a very religious household, Catholic faith — we would go to church, certainly, every Sunday. I would go serve as an altar boy many days throughout the week. But there was a real emphasis on doing what is right and understanding the distinction between right and wrong and a premium put on honesty.
When you go into the intelligence profession, there also is a premium put on honesty, which sounds a bit, maybe, ironic to some, given that CIA officers sometimes have to adopt false personas when they go overseas to recruit spies. But inside of the CIA family, there is a real need to make sure that people don’t stray from the truth because national security really hangs in the balance.
I just found that my early religious upbringing gave me a good grounding in morality and values and what I think are the ethics of life, although I have, quite frankly, lost my Catholic faith over the years. I’m a practicing agnostic now, I guess. I never lost, though, that deeply rooted and instilled sense of right and wrong that was taught to me by my parents, by my teachers, and by the clergy.
COWEN: I’m sure you know the Chris Whipple book about CIA directors. He says about you, and I quote, “No one was better than Brennan at sifting through and interpreting raw material from disparate sources.” What are your secrets for being good at this?
BRENNAN: First of all, Chris engages in hyperbole there. CIA has a lot of people who are just so, so skilled in that.
I started out in the operation side of CIA and had a real feel, I think, for clandestinely acquired intelligence, human intelligence as well as technical intelligence. Then also had a good sense of the different types of other sources of information that come into the agencies for the analyst to go through.
I served as a State Department political officer in Saudi Arabia early in my career, so I was quite familiar with Department of State capabilities and cables, also open-source information. I think it was my exposure to a lot of these areas of sources and acquisition that allowed me to put into context the worth, as well as allow me to very rigorously scrutinize the reliability, the accuracy, as well as the access of the individuals or the systems that are actually obtaining the intelligence.
On UFOs and alien life
COWEN: Let’s say we take a concrete issue. The Navy has reported that a lot of its pilots have seen unidentified flying objects. If you’re tackling that, as a CIA director or someone who works there, what is it you would sift through and interpret? How would that go?
BRENNAN: I’ve seen some of those videos from Navy pilots, and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising when you look at them. You try to ensure that you have as much data as possible in terms of visuals and also different types of maybe technical collection of sensors that you have at the time.
Also, I believe, it’s important to reach out into other environments and find out, were there any type of weather phenomena at that time that might have, in fact, created the appearance of the phenomenon that you’re looking at? Were there some things that were happening on the ground, or other types of phenomena that could help explain what seems to be quite a mystery as far as what is there?
I think an important thing for analysts to do is not to go into this type of challenge either discounting certain types of possibilities or believing in advance that it is likely X, Y, or Z. You really have to approach it with an open mind, but get as much data as possible and get as much expertise as possible brought to bear.
COWEN: At the end of all that sifting and interpreting, what do you think is the most likely hypothesis?
BRENNAN: [laughs] I don’t know. When people talk about it, is there other life besides what’s in the States, in the world, the globe? Life is defined in many different ways. I think it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe. What that might be is subject to a lot of different views.
But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.
I think it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe. What that might be is subject to a lot of different views.
But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.
COWEN: Being an agnostic, you don’t think it’s something supernatural?
BRENNAN: Well, supernatural is in the eye of the holder. Again, I’m not going to discount them. That’s why I’m an agnostic as opposed to an atheist. I just want to leave my mind open as to what something might be, but who knows what these things might be?
COWEN: As I understand how the CIA works, inside the CIA buildings, you, in essence, have a workplace without smartphones for security reasons. As a manager, what have you learned about the effect of smartphones on our workplace?
BRENNAN: It’s a relatively recent technological development, as far as smartphones and Fitbits and other types of things that . . . even though I grew up in an era when we didn’t have all of this technology at our fingertips, I have come to understand the power of technology and how it can be used to advance one’s objectives.
But also, it could be used by adversaries to exploit, to gain access in certain areas, to certain types of environments or conversations or whatever, that can really defeat physical security, obstacles, and perimeters.
So I fully understand why certain types of technologies could compromise the secrecy or the needed protection of methods in certain environments. You can do things to defeat those types of exploitations, but again, the CIA, NSA, FBI, and others are always mindful that technology that is used for our purposes can be reverse-engineered for the purposes of others.
COWEN: My question is much more mundane. When you have all the workers with no smartphones, do they get more done? Or is there no benefit?
BRENNAN: [laughs] I think there are certainly benefits to it. The CIA officers leave the phones in their car or whatever, so they can go out and be able to talk to their family or whatever else. There are ways to communicate outside. But I think that there are a lot of distractions that come with phones. You can go off in pursuit of various tangents as you get more and more curious about certain things.
Now, agency officers have access to computers and the internet, but even there, we’ve had to take steps to make sure that people don’t go down wrong paths.
On personality tests, polygraphs, and punctuality
COWEN: How accurate is personality testing for workers?
BRENNAN: Accurate? It is one of the tools. All these types of tools are useful, but none of them should be seen as dispositive in any way that’s going to discount all the other factors that are brought to bear. But when people are hired in the agency or in their security reviews, as well as people who want to work for the agency overseas, who offer their services, you need to go through a series of vetting and tests that try to give you a better sense of where the truth might lie.
COWEN: Say I measure as conscientious in some of these tests. Does that mean I’m actually likely to be conscientious?
BRENNAN: It’s a good question. I think just because someone tests in a certain way doesn’t mean that they’re going to actually follow through and be that way. It depends on the rigor and the strength of the test. But I’m not going to stand behind any particular test and say that it is a clear, clear indicator. I think there are some tests that are better indicators than others. For example, in the agency, we use the polygraph.
The polygraph itself can be accurate or not, but we have found that in the polygraph sessions, a lot of things come out from a person because they are concerned that the polygraph machine will register a falsehood if they tell it. Again, it is used as a tool. It needs to be a part of a group of things that are going to be used in order to determine whether or not somebody is worthy of employment or telling the truth or not.
COWEN: In your book, you seem to treat polygraph evidence as very reliable. Our legal system usually treats it as not so reliable. The research literature is somewhat skeptical from randomized control trials. How reliable do you think it is?
BRENNAN: I don’t agree with your characterization that, in my book, I portrayed as very reliable. I thought that my Catholic guilt was trying to just totally undermine any effort, if I hadn’t one, to try to deceive the polygrapher and the polygraph machine. I was not going to take that chance because I wanted to be hired by the agency. Again, I think that they can be a very reliable indicator, but people have perfected some techniques to defeat polygraph machines.
It says much, dependent on not just the polygraph machine, but the polygrapher. The polygraphers go through extensive training, and a lot of their assessment is done by looking at the individual, and how they react, and how they shift, and how they move, and the way they respond to certain questions. They come back to questions later on, and whether or not there’s consistency in the answers that are provided. Again, the polygraph is a process and is designed to try to uncover anything that maybe an employee or a spy is trying to hide.
COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?
BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.
If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.
Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.
COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.
BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —
COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.
BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.
You don’t want someone who’s going to argue with everything just for the sake of argumentation. But I know that, certainly, when I was at the agency and director of CIA, I wanted people to challenge what I was saying. I had no monopoly on wisdom or knowledge or insights, so you want people to be willing to speak up. In my book, I talk about how I was reluctant to do that earlier on. I learned the importance of doing that as I went through my career.
COWEN: It costs more than ever before to live in or near McLean. Many jobs, including presumably CIA jobs, require a greater knowledge of tech, which means there’s a higher forgone wage outside of the agency. What’s the CIA going to do to meet the next generation of recruiting challenges? If talent is your real asset, aren’t you in a somewhat unfavorable position looking forward?
BRENNAN: Sure. If you just look at the financial remuneration that comes with a job, yes, we cannot compete with either Wall Street or Silicon Valley or whatever. But there are a lot of individuals who want to give back to this great country of ours and also like the idea of working for the CIA.
My recruiters would tell me that with millennials and Gen Xers, they really had a tough time because those younger Americans would bounce around from job to job, and they were going to come to the CIA for two or three years and be able to put CIA on their résumé, and then be able to go off and make their millions.
I said, “Well, don’t look at it as a problem. Look at it as an opportunity, that these individuals who could be hired by the Silicon Valleys and others and big banks, are willing to give us two or three years. That gives us two or three years to convince them that this is the absolute best place to work because it’s such exceptionally talented people here, and there’s technology at your fingertips, and you’re really doing something to keep their families and fellow Americans safe.”
Our attrition rate is very, very low. Even if individuals come into the agency with the eye to just staying for a couple, three years, you’d be amazed at how many decide to stay just because the type of work that they’re doing is really quite thrilling.
COWEN: If I want to know who will win the Super Bowl, I look at the betting markets. Why doesn’t the CIA use prediction markets more, even just internal markets? You could do them with chits. You could do it with real money, vouchers in the cafeteria, the winner gets a place in the CIA museum, whatever you want to do.
BRENNAN: There’s different types of quantitative models that are used by the CIA to see if they could forecast certain outcomes of certain situations, but we’re not going to get involved in the betting environment. I think that what the CIA has always tried to do is to explore any type of new techniques or approaches or practices that are going to provide, again, just one more insight or perspective into trying to understand this world of ours and how events are going to evolve.
COWEN: You’re familiar with Philip Tetlock’s superforecasters project?
BRENNAN: Not familiar. Not quite, no.
COWEN: He’s an academic at the University of Pennsylvania. He trains people and measures their predictive performance over time. He’s kept a running tally on predictors for decades, actually, and very often, his best — superforecasters he calls them — they’re housewives. They’re people who don’t have very high formal status. I was going to ask you, how do you think the CIA does against Tetlock’s superforecasters?
BRENNAN: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t dispute his bottom line at all. I am really impressed with people who have a good sense of reality in the world and commonsense approaches to it. Frequently, wisdom is derived from the ability to absorb information, and then process it, and then see relationships, and also have almost an intuitive sense of past experiences, and then apply that to future situations.
I’m interested now. I’m going to take a look at that forecasting approach, but I would never tell CIA analysts to put their eggs in one type of basket as far as forecasting. People think, “What’s the prediction of something?” I hate the term, in fact, prediction. It’s looking at what are those variables? What are those factors that are going to come into play?
If certain things evolve in a certain way in a certain sequence that the interactions between these variables are likely to produce certain outcomes that have certain implications, which is what the intelligence officers, analysts do when they talk to policymakers because, again, there are so many different variables.
When you look at events around the world, what the US decides to do on the policy front is frequently quite determinative of what the future course is going to be. I think it’s having the appreciation of the range of variables that come in and how that ecosystem is evolving. It just gives people a good sense, and a lot of times, it is rather intuitive.
COWEN: It seems that offense should very often be easier than defense when it comes to terrorism. There are just many disruptive, destructive things you can do. I know America has taken many, many, many steps since 9/11 to limit terror attacks, but it still seems to me, just as an outside observer, that we should be observing more attacks than in fact we do, that it should be impossible to stop so many of them.
At the deepest conceptual reason, what do you think are the defects in the attackers that have led to so few major terror attacks in this country since 9/11?
BRENNAN: So, you want me to give the enemies the reasons why they’re not as successful as they would have been?
I think sometimes it’s because they continue to go back to the tried-and-true methods. When I look at terrorist acts, especially those that are international, transnational terrorism directed against the United States —al-Qaida and other types of terrorist organizations continue to go after that which is going to go boom and bang, trying to secret an improvised explosive device onto an airplane, trying to bring down that air carrier over the United States, as opposed to looking at new and ingenious and innovative ways to really cause havoc. But they continue to want to have things blow up.
The defenses that have been put in place really have guarded against and made it much more difficult for the terrorists to surmount the various obstacles and security checks that are in place. But they continue to focus on that. And I’m glad they do in some respects because that’s where we’re best prepared to defeat their efforts.
I still shudder when I think about the availability of weapons in the United States — different types of assault weapons and how much carnage could be created and has been in instances. But rarely has it been as a result of an international terrorist group, transnational terrorist group.
You don’t hear about an al-Qaida member who picks up an assault weapon and just mows people down at a mall. Occasionally, attempts are made, or sometimes it actually happens, but they still go after that IED that is going to blow up something and create the type of footage that they want.
COWEN: In your model, is it that they’re good bureaucratic managers, but they’re simply bureaucratic and so predictable, sort of like the old IBM? Or they’re just flat outright bad managers, and they couldn’t run a candy store?
BRENNAN: It really varies, just like any organization. Sometimes individual leaders are quite cunning and quite innovative. Also, they’re able to use the resource available to them, and they’re able to recruit the right type of people, and they’re able to maintain the secrecy that is needed for this, while others are just wannabe terrorists, and they trip over themselves, thankfully.
There are a lot of very, very bad terrorists that are out there that thankfully have been caught, terrorists that are caught anywhere along that operational cycle, from their efforts to recruit or get financing or whatever.
Fortunately, the FBI, CIA, NSA have insights into what they’re doing. As they progress, they get further along, and they recruit the operatives. Then they get the explosives, and they start to surveil and case and even do dry runs. Then they’re closer to execution of the attack, but also, they run into more of the sensors, if you will — both human and technical — that uncover their activities.
COWEN: As you know, there’s a CIA museum inside the CIA. Who or what should be shown greater honor or respect in the CIA museum?
BRENNAN: So many CIA officers who come into the organization undercover, which means that they cannot acknowledge, except to their immediate family members, that they’re actually working with the CIA. They know that they’re going to live a life in secrecy and that their accomplishments, achievements will not be known outside of maybe a small circle within CIA.
The reason why that CIA museum is in CIA and not somewhere else is that there are some things that still remain classified because they reveal different types of sources and methods that could, in fact, compromise ongoing activities or future operations.
I really think it should honor those faceless and nameless women and men of CIA who, over the years, put themselves at great danger and undertook great sacrifices — and their families.
Probably, if any component of CIA demands more attention and more appreciation, it’s those family members of CIA officers. The spouses, the sons and daughters and parents who keep the home fires burning and allow their CIA officers to go overseas at a moment’s notice or to go into a war zone and put their family’s future at risk. Those are really the unsung heroes of CIA, those family members of CIA officers.
COWEN: How do you talk about your work with a spouse or partner without revealing classified information?
BRENNAN: You do it carefully. Thankfully, during the course of my career, my wife — we’re married for 42 years. Early on, it was tough. I talk about it in the book. After less than a year with CIA, my wife and I separated for a year because I got into that CIA environment. Then I started to keep things from her, and she sensed a growing distance between us. And there was a distance between us.
Thankfully, we got back together. We came to an understanding that I would try to explain as much as I could without going into classified information. She was willing to give me that latitude.
Whenever I would administer the oath of office to a new group of CIA officers every month at CIA headquarters, I tell them to not neglect the home front because, first of all, we want happy employees at CIA. They’re better employees. But also, they need to remember their responsibilities and obligations at home to spouses, to children, to siblings or parents, or whatever. It is important.
But like the Bin Laden raid — Kathy, my wife, didn’t know about our plans for that raid until after it happened. After we knew that we got Bin Laden, we brought his remains back to Afghanistan. I gave her a call and said, “Kathy, we just had a great counterterrorism success. Turn on the television because President Obama is going to be speaking to the nation and the world in a few minutes.”
I think she sensed what it might be, based on the excitement of my voice. But I didn’t want to burden her with that type of information that she couldn’t reveal to anybody else. It is tough. It’s a balance, but it’s one that CIA officers, I think, take very seriously.
COWEN: Which spycraft norms have frayed the most over the last 20 years, or maybe just disappeared?
BRENNAN: Well, because of the advancements in technology, spy business has changed profoundly. Years ago, CIA would be able to fabricate a passport as well as a visa and go across a border and — as a CIA officer would say — with a fistful of 50s be able to operate rather well, even in denied areas because you didn’t have all of the closed-circuit televisions. You didn’t have the passport-readable machines at airports.
You didn’t have the digital dust that we all leave, whether it be with a credit card or with our iPhone or whatever else. So, operating clandestinely in heavily digitized, sensor-rife environments is really difficult. Traditional spycraft really has had to be transformed so that you’re able to operate in a very busy digital environment and one where the local services have so many opportunities to pick up on your every move.
Being able to go dark and to operate covertly and clandestinely overseas is much more challenging, but thankfully, I think CIA officers have done a tremendous job of operating in that digital noise.
Operating clandestinely in heavily digitized, sensor-rife environments is really difficult. Traditional spycraft really has had to be transformed so that you’re able to operate in a very busy digital environment and one where the local services have so many opportunities to pick up on your every move.
Being able to go dark and to operate covertly and clandestinely overseas is much more challenging, but thankfully, I think CIA officers have done a tremendous job of operating in that digital noise.
COWEN: The final stage of turning a complex bundle of information into a simple briefing for politicians, say a president — what’s the best way to avoid biases when you do that? And what kind of scale do you need to be good at that?
BRENNAN: CIA officers are expected to be, and must remain, apolitical, policy-neutral when it comes to any type of issue that policymakers may be grappling with. I also think it’s a very good thing for agency officers to do when they brief somebody — like incoming President-elect Biden — about a particular issue, is to state clearly what is it that we know from sources — the reliability, the accuracy of that information.
What is it that we don’t know as far as gaps in our knowledge are concerned? And what are our capabilities to be able to address those gaps? Because if you don’t nest within that broader environment of what is knowable, then I think you can give your listener the wrong impression about the extent and depth of your knowledge.
It’s important to put that knowledge, that assessment, that analysis into a context that the policymaker then can appreciate.
COWEN: This wasn’t the CIA, but it came out recently that sources had not been telling the president how many troops we actually have in Syria. Is that ever justified, that you have a loyalty to the Constitution, you think the president will make a mistake or is going to remain misinformed, and so you give a briefing that is not the best, literally absolute, correct Bayesian estimate of the truth?
BRENNAN: When you say sources, sources in the lexicon of the intelligence world there — these are individuals overseas, foreigners who give information to US officers.
But there never should be a reason or occasion for US government officials to provide misinformation or disinformation to a president. Absolutely not. It’s critically important that a president in a National Security Council team have as accurate an understanding as possible about it. I hadn’t heard about anybody not reporting what they believe was accurate statistics about what’s going on inside of Syria.
The sources that provide CIA officers the information might be misinformed, might be misleading, but that’s part of the business of intelligence. You need to try to weed out the wheat from the chaff.
COWEN: Now as you know, and in your book, you’ve spoken out against USG use of torture on detainees. Do you think that torture works in getting people to tell the truth?
BRENNAN: Also, as I say in my book, I don’t refer to CIA’s Detention Interrogation Program as torture because that program was duly authorized by the president of the United States, and it was deemed lawful by the Department of Justice. Therefore, since it was deemed lawful, it was not torture at the time. Now, people can disagree with those Department of Justice memos, and I do, but CIA officers were doing their obligation the best that they could.
From the standpoint of efficacy of the use of those techniques, up to and including waterboarding, I do not believe, first of all, that they are consistent with American values, and I don’t think the CIA should have been asked to do that. First of all, they had no experience in a detention program nor in an interrogation program. Again, from just a moral standpoint, an ethics and principles standpoint, I don’t think that they should have been authorized.
Secondly, though, I do not believe that they were the best means to elicit reliable information from individuals. Yes, some of the individuals who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques subsequently provided information that was true and accurate and reliable. They also provided a lot of information that was disinformation as a way to mislead CIA officers.
Even when they provided reliable information, there’s no way to know whether or not they would have provided that information sooner or later had they not been subjected to those EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques. I do not believe one can make the case, either from a morality standpoint or from an efficacy standpoint, that those types of techniques should be employed.
COWEN: Where in the world do they speak the most beautiful Arabic?
BRENNAN: I’ve studied and forgotten Arabic so many times. I used to be pretty good in the 1980s because I lived in Saudi Arabia, the first time for a couple of years. I also studied in Cairo and then also had a six-month one-on-one tutorial before I went out to Saudi Arabia the first time, so I was pretty good. I have long since lost a lot of the capability that I had.
There are different types of Arabic. When I was in Egypt, that was the first time I learned Arabic, and I really enjoyed the Egyptian Arabic. It has a certain dialect and a lot of colloquialisms that I became familiar with.
Then in Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, it’s a purer form of Arabic. If you learn the standard Arabic, then you usually can get by in other countries, but when you start going over to North Africa, where there’s a lot of French that is woven into the Arabic, it becomes much more difficult, and also, their dialect is much more difficult to understand. I never did well in North Africa, but in the Gulf and in Egypt, as well as in the Levant area, I could get by.
COWEN: What’s your favorite site in Cairo? For me, it’s the Grand Mosque, but most people would say the pyramids.
BRENNAN: The Citadel also is beautiful. Tahrir Square — when I was going to school at the American University in Cairo back in the mid-’70s, the AUC campus was in Downtown Cairo by Tahrir Square. Tahir Square was the locus of all the anti-Mubarak activities in terms of the Arab Spring.
There’s something really, really beautiful and attractive about the streets and smells and sounds of Cairo and the people of Downtown Cairo, whether it’s Khan el-Khalili, which is the gold market, or just roaming around the Zamalek or Boulaq and other areas. I love Cairo, the architecture, again, the people. I can’t put my finger on one place except just saying downtown where the American University in Cairo was located.
COWEN: What do you like best in Arabic music?
BRENNAN: Well, when I was learning Arabic, and I was listening to Arabic music over there — it’s different, certainly, than our music, but it’s very heartfelt. Then there usually are stories. And listening to Umm Kulthum, who was the famous Egyptian singer — there was such passion that she brought to it that would make men cry.
There’s Lebanese music too, which is very good and popular. My wife and I spent over five years in Saudi Arabia and got a fair amount of time listening to Arabic music, both traditional as well as new wave Arabic.
COWEN: As you know, President Trump put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of a Middle Eastern peace deal. This was mocked mercilessly for a long time, yet it seems he came up with something when other people had not before. Should we view that as a sign of the bankruptcy of our foreign policy elites, that just some guy determined to do something can cut a deal? It’s far from complete, but it does seem better than nothing, right?
BRENNAN: Well, I’m glad that there has been an improvement in relations between some key Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan on the Arab side — and Israel on the other side. I think this was an effort by the Emiratis and Bahrainis in particular, with the agreement of Saudi Arabia, to give Donald Trump a victory before the election as a way to help him out.
It formalized some of the ties and relationships that had already existed for a number of years between the UAE, in particular, and Israel, and it brought it up into the public view and surface.
I do not believe that it is something that has helped the cause of peace in terms of settling the Palestinian problem. The Palestinians got absolutely nothing out of this. Bibi Netanyahu threatened to annex the territory of the West Bank and then agreed to suspend his planned annexation in exchange for this relationship between the Arab states and Israel.
Bibi Netanyahu has been long opposed to a two-state solution. I just think that the Palestinian people have been deprived of the very basic human rights and dignity that they deserve for so long. And now we have Arab leaders who were basically turning a blind eye to the Palestinian problem, and I think that is very unfortunate.
The fact that the United States has moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — it has undermined the United States’s traditional role of playing honest broker between the Arab states and Israel.
I think, yes, looking at it just in isolation, it’s good that the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan have relations with Israel. But at the same time, I don’t know whether or not it’s now going to be more difficult or harder to address the Palestinian problem, which is long, long overdue for some type of resolution that, again, does justice to the Palestinian people.
COWEN: How much do you think about the much earlier history of the CIA? For instance, it came out some while ago that the CIA supported modern art and abstract expressionism. This was seen as a counterweight to the more communist tradition of mural paintings. Do you look back and think, “Gee, that was crazy. We would never do anything like that”? Or do you look back and think, “Well, that made sense for the time, but times change”? How do you view the earlier CIA?
BRENNAN: Well, you pointed out one aspect of earlier CIA. There’s a lot of other aspects of the early CIA, in terms of toppling regimes and actually shaping developments overseas during the Cold War, when I think Washington really felt we were in an existential challenge and competition with the Soviet Union.
I think United States culture is one of its strongest calling cards around the world, and I do believe that we need to enhance the propagation of our culture — political, social, other. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have leveraged it enough because even in places like Iran and China and Russia, so many American entertainers and so many aspects of culture really are very much admired and embraced by the populace.
To the extent that the CIA and the State Department and other organizations can help to extend that culture worldwide, I think all for the better. I think we should be doing more of that rather than trying to conduct these different types of covert operations to change the course of events overseas in ways that usually do not lead to the outcome that we want.
COWEN: There’s a famous Haitian proverb which goes, “The constitution is paper. The bayonet is steel.” Agree or disagree?
BRENNAN: Well, just from a physical standpoint, if you’re talking about the Constitution as the document, yes, it’s paper. But I think the paper embodies what is America, what this great democracy, republic is all about. And I think the Constitution is the strength of this country, not just because it allows us to continue to grow and prosper as a society, as a nation, but also, it sends a clear signal to countries around the world, at least when it’s adhered to, that the liberal democratic order and the fact that we are a country and a government anchored in law and the Constitution.
I think that’s a very powerful signal that we’ve used over the course, certainly, of the last 75 years. Unfortunately, the bayonet sometimes has been necessary — certainly, World War II and some other times. The bayonet frequently is used in order to deal with an urgent crisis. I think the bayonet should be used only when the problem cannot be addressed in other ways. Sometimes the bayonet is opted for too quickly when there are other means to address problems.
COWEN: Why did Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald?
BRENNAN: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ve read different summaries. I’m reading the new JFK book by Frederick Logevall. That was during the earlier Kennedy years. But there are some things that I think are going to remain mysteries. Why did Lee Harvey Oswald shoot John F. Kennedy? We can speculate, and there are things that have been written and said about it, but who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man?
COWEN: But if you just view it in Bayesian terms, it seems to me, well, that was a long time ago, and there’s been no deathbed confession for any conspiracy, so isn’t the rational view that it wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all? Or does that reasoning not carry much weight with you?
BRENNAN: I think the reasoning carries some weight, certainly. I don’t believe Ruby was part of a conspiracy. I have read and heard and talked about things that might have led Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy, that may have involved other antagonists. But I don’t believe Ruby was knowingly part of a conspiracy to try to snuff out Lee Harvey so he wouldn’t spill the beans. I do think he was just reacting, but that’s just my assessment.
COWEN: Before this most recent presidential election, the national security experts I know all spoke to me about how worried they were about foreign interference in our election. Yet, we held the election, and as far as we can tell, or as far as I can tell, it seems foreign interference has been absolutely minimal, arguably even zero.
What happened or what changed? Why did all the experts get this wrong? I read hundreds of mainstream media articles about forthcoming foreign interference. They all cited experts. Where is it? No one’s talking about it.
BRENNAN: Well, I think it’s still unclear how much the interference was. The impact probably was less than a lot of people anticipated, but I think there’s no doubt that Russia and China, Iran, other countries try to use the social media environment to push out their narratives that they wanted to influence the minds and the votes of American citizens.
I think this past election, the social media environment, as well as just the regular information environment, was just so overloaded with so much misinformation and disinformation, it was hard to maybe distinguish what was coming from abroad that was inaccurate and disinformation, and what was coming from domestic sources. And I think this is almost going to be a feature in the future.
Now, I do think that the US cyber experts in FBI, NSA, CIA, Homeland Security did a good job of trying to ensure that there were no technical intrusions that really would be significant. They learned some lessons over the last four years, certainly from the 2016 election. I think we were better prepared to prevent those types of technical intrusions that we were certainly worried about. The influence operations in that digital environment, in particular, I think were still quite evident.
COWEN: I have a few questions about popular culture: movies and TV, books. John le Carré. What does he get right and get wrong?
BRENNAN: He’s written so many books, and he’s gotten so many things right, but he also, I think, intentionally tries to change some facts and realities. He has a tremendous ability to give individuals a sense of just the meticulousness and the detailed steps that need to be taken in order to carry out espionage operations and how things usually take months, if not years sometimes, for things to develop and evolve.
In intelligence, patience really is a virtue, and frequently, you want to get things sooner. For example, the recruitment of sources — it can take years. It can be several case officers who are going to cultivate the relationship before someone is formally recruited, and then when those assets start to give really consequential intelligence to their handlers.
COWEN: And he understands that good spies are often introverts. That’s one thing I take away from his books.
BRENNAN: Well, they are and they’re not. One of the reasons why I got out of operations is because I think I was too much of an introvert. I wouldn’t go into a cocktail party and try to talk up people and chat them up and try to cultivate a relationship. That really requires an extroverted personality.
But then, you need to go back into your cocoon. You adopt certain personas when you’re out, but then when you get back into the CIA station or headquarters, whatever else, you really need to shield yourself from that type of outside scrutiny or being uncovered. It takes a person with almost a schizophrenic approach to life.
COWEN: Have you ever met a spy and thought he or she is just like James Bond? Or is that completely absurd, out of the picture?
BRENNAN: I’ve met a lot of CIA officers over the years who have reminded me of James Bond. Sometimes they’re very calm, cool, debonair, slick. These really seem to fit that bill. But if you want to have a CIA case officer go out and be a successful recruiter of spies, you don’t want to have someone who’s going to stand out in the crowd because then they’ll draw the attention of local security or intelligence officials.
You want someone who’s going to be able to blend in, someone who’s not going to be seen as someone to be concerned about. We hire all different types of individuals. Even though at one point, my Arabic was okay, was pretty good, if I was to wander among the tribes of Saudi Arabia, or in the souks of Damascus, or in the streets of Cairo, I still looked like an American, a westerner.
COWEN: From Hudson County.
BRENNAN: [laughs] Yes. You really want to be able to have individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences so that they can, in fact, blend into the local environments.
COWEN: Other than being overly dramatized, what is it the TV show The Americans got right and wrong about Soviet spying here in the 1980s?
BRENNAN: People have asked me a lot about The Americans, as well as Homeland. I’ve never watched them. I live the intelligence business. Then I heard that Homeland — in one of the episodes, they blew up CIA headquarters, and I vowed never to watch.
BRENNAN: Anytime I’ve seen a little snippet or footage of it, a lot of times, they really exaggerate the technical capabilities of the CIA and intelligence community. But sometimes, science fiction gives birth to intelligence initiatives and, I think, vice versa.
The Americans was based on a real-life story when the Russians had secreted into the United States 10 or 11 illegals, as they’re called, to burrow into American society and adopt American personas. I was at the White House at the time. I was President Obama’s current terrorism adviser and was intimately involved in that. It was a really, really interesting and exciting period of time. My understanding, based on people who have watched The Americans, say it’s very good, and it gives a good reflection of what the reality was like.
COWEN: I have a few policy questions for you. Given that the risk of America having what you might call an idiosyncratic president seems to be higher as of late and perhaps is higher for the future going forward, do you think that makes a case for the CIA being less powerful or more powerful as that risk rises?
BRENNAN: CIA’s power derives from its legislative authorities, the statutory authorities.
COWEN: But any bureaucracy has some autonomy, right?
BRENNAN: They do, and I think some of it takes on — as you’re pointing out — the temperament of the commander-in-chief, the chief executive. But all CIA covert action programs, for example, have to be authorized in very explicit writing by a president of the United States. The more aggressive a president might be on the foreign front, and the more that he or she would want the CIA to be involved, the CIA will be involved.
But I do think that the CIA needs to stick with its traditional mission, which is to acquire clandestinely acquired intelligence that matters to US national security, whether it be human sources or technical collection.
It needs to carry out the counterintelligence activities to protect our secrets from foreign interference or intrusion. It needs to engage with foreign liaison services so that we’re able to benefit from their capabilities and information gathering. It needs to conduct all source analysis so that we gain the benefit of the insights that we get from liaison, from clandestinely acquired sources, and so on.
The more the CIA is pushed into the paramilitary, the more military-like activities, I think the more trouble the CIA will get into.
COWEN: What changes would you make to congressional oversight of the intelligence community?
BRENNAN: The congressional oversight committees came into existence after the Church and Pike committees in the ’70s, when a lot of the atrocities that the CIA was involved in, quite frankly, were uncovered. For the first 20 years or so — even longer — the members of the oversight committees, Republican and Democrat, would put their party affiliation outside the door when they conducted those oversight activities.
Unfortunately, over the last 15 years or so, I see more and more partisanship going on inside of those committees. If there’s any way that there can be going back to a bipartisan approach to intelligence, national security oversight, I would strongly recommend it.
Right now, the House Intelligence Committee is just fractured beyond any type of reasonable work they can do. Fortunately, I think the Senate has stayed together, but there’s still a lot of partisanship, and it needs to rid itself of that.
COWEN: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set up courts to oversee decisions about wiretapping and citizen loss of privacy. How would you change that system, if at all?
BRENNAN: When I was at CIA, I really didn’t have to get involved in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — FISA — applications programs. This is something that the FBI was involved in and because —
COWEN: But you know a lot about it? How would you improve the system?
BRENNAN: There have been a number of revelations as a result of the investigations that have gone on about the Russian investigation, revealing that there was not the type of rigor and the checking and double-checking of the information that goes into the FISA applications. Without totally overhauling the system, I think there can be a way to ensure better accuracy of information that goes into them.
A FISA application may be approved one day, and then 30 days or 60 days later, it’ll be re-upped. I think it’s incumbent on the Bureau or the ones that are pushing the FISA to ensure that any new information that has been acquired in that time, or known, needs to be incorporated into that FISA, as well as a review of the existing basis for that FISA needs to be scrutinized. I just think greater rigor in ensuring that, again, accuracy prevails throughout the process.
COWEN: A major foreign power hacked into an OPM database in, I think, 2015. Is it harder today to hack again into OPM or to hack into Facebook? Which is better protected?
BRENNAN: [laughs] That’s a good question. I know OPM has done some things, but some US government systems or legacy systems — trying to transform them and transition to new, updated, and less vulnerable systems takes time, effort, and lots of money. Facebook — it has loads of money, but also, I don’t know how concerned it is about ensuring that there are no vulnerabilities in the system that can be exploited by actors, either domestic or foreign.
I think this is a challenge for the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors in the coming decades. How are you going to ensure that your data is going to be protected, while at the same time making sure that it’s available so that you can leverage it the way it’s designed to be used?
COWEN: As you know, Bob Gates has argued that the director of National Intelligence position has some problems. It creates a new bureaucracy. If you were to look at the flow chart of the post-9/11 US intelligence community, it seems to be a highly complex nightmare. Is that just the way things have to work? Should it actually be that way? Do we need to simplify? Are there too many positions? Are there too many chefs in the kitchen? What’s your view?
BRENNAN: Well, the intelligence community of 2020 is the legacy of many, many years, decades of intelligence agencies that have grown up and have evolved and have adapted to the new realities. Unfortunately, over time, there has not been as much of an effort to try to better integrate those agencies and authorities and capabilities, as well as to ensure that they are complementary as opposed to unnecessarily redundant.
I disagree with Bob Gates. I do believe that the office of director of National Intelligence needs to be looked at afresh after 16 years in existence. Some modifications need to be made, but as CIA director, the last thing I wanted was to have to be CIA director and the director of the intelligence community writ large — 17 agencies. There’s more than enough to keep the director of CIA busy.
However, I do think that that orchestration function of the director of National Intelligence can be refined and modified to try to push the intelligence community in a direction that sheds some of those unfortunate legacy practices that are a drag on the system and to better integrate capabilities to make the US intelligence community much more effective.
COWEN: Is 17 intelligence agencies too many or too few?
BRENNAN: [laughs] Depends on who you ask.
COWEN: I’m asking you.
BRENNAN: I think it’s too many. There are some of those intelligence agencies that are very specific to organizations. For example, there’s the Marine intelligence, there’s Navy intelligence, there’s Army intelligence, and some service their own organizations. There’re the national agencies, such as NSA and CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
I do think it would be worthwhile to see whether or not some of those individual intelligence agencies that are embedded, for example, in the State Department — INR it’s called, Intelligence and Research — whether or not that intelligence requirement of the State Department can be better serviced by a broader intelligence community effort. That’s why I do think it’s worthwhile to take a fresh look at the constellation that exists right now.
COWEN: Very last question. What is it that you know about Donald Trump that the rest of us do not?
BRENNAN: [laughs] Well, if there is anything I know about him, I’m certainly not going to share it with you and your audience today. I still find it difficult to understand how so many Americans still believe what he says. His life is just one lie after another, unfortunately, and he’s been masterful as far as capitalizing on this craving in the United States to believe in someone who is going to lead them, this country, out of the problems that they see.
I think Donald Trump is pretty transparent as far as who he is and the types of things that he holds dear, and what he holds dear is himself, first and foremost. I’m not going to share anything else today that I might know or assume.
COWEN: John Brennan, thank you very much. Again, John’s new book is called Undaunted: My Fight against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. Thank you, John.
BRENNAN: Thank you so much, Tyler. I appreciate it.