Director Brennan Speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations
The Challenges Facing the
Director John O. Brennan spoke
about the challenges facing the Intelligence Community and his first year as CIA
Director at the Council on Foreign Relations on March 11, 2014. Remarks by
Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan as prepared for delivery at
the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington D.C., March 11, 2014.
Source : CIA.
It is a pleasure to be back at the Council on Foreign
Relations and to see so many familiar faces. I would like to thank Richard Haas
for inviting me to speak to this very distinguished group, and I also thank
Andrea Mitchell for lending her considerable knowledge and insight to our
Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of placing my hand
on the very first printed copy of the Constitution—a draft edited and annotated
by George Washington himself that is one of the most treasured items held in the
National Archives. With my hand on that document, Vice President Biden swore me
in as the 21st Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. I chose to take my
oath on that precious piece of history as a clear affirmation of what the
Constitution means to all of us at the Agency. We have no higher duty than to
uphold and defend the rule of law as we strive every day to protect our fellow
Like so many things involving CIA, however, people read
nefarious intentions into my decision to take my oath on an early draft of the
Constitution that did not contain the Bill of Rights—our Constitution’s first
ten amendments. At the risk of disappointing any conspiracy theorists who might
be here today, let me assure all of you that I, along with my CIA colleagues,
firmly believe in and honor not only the Constitution but also the Bill of
Rights, as well as all subsequent amendments to our Constitution. I just happen
to be an ardent admirer of George Washington and of the historical foundations
of our great country.
My first career at CIA began in 1980, so when I returned to
the Agency last March, I was already well acquainted with its people and its
mission. Having spent the previous four years at the White House, I also had the
benefit of experiencing firsthand the enormous challenges confronting our
policymakers as they deal with the myriad challenges our Nation faces in the
As a result of the tremendous opportunities I was given over
more than 30 years working on national security issues, I could see the Agency
from outside as well as inside our headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I could
see how the Agency’s work informs policymaking, shapes our intelligence and
security relationships with countries around the world, and, working with other
departments and agencies in the US Government, helps keep our country safe from
harm. And although I had plans to retire from government service at the
conclusion of President Obama’s first term in office, I was humbled by the
opportunity to lead the Agency I was a part of for a quarter-century and,
hopefully, to play a role in ensuring that the CIA’s future is even more
accomplished than its storied past.
So thank you for being here this morning, and I would like to
offer a few brief comments before I address the many questions that are on your
First of all, being CIA Director means that I have a
front-row seat to the dynamic and often dangerous world stage. While I was at
the White House, I often spoke publicly about the terrorist challenges we face
as a Nation. After a year as CIA Director, I unfortunately remain convinced that
the US Government and the American people will be dealing with terrorism in one
form or another for many years to come, as too many individuals and groups
remain inclined to use violence for political, ideological, or purported
And despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the
counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth. CIA’s global
mission, our intelligence collection, analysis, and covert action authorities
and capabilities, as well as our extensive liaison relationships with
intelligence and security services worldwide, will keep CIA on the frontlines of
our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come.
At the same time, I fully expect CIA’s role to evolve as the
capabilities and the political will of our overseas partners continue to grow in
the coming years. Building the capacity, enhancing the knowledge, and empowering
the operations of our partners will be key to mitigating the terrorist threats
that the world collectively faces in the decade ahead.
Similarly, the intelligence mission on the cyber front will
evolve as well, as sovereign adversaries, criminal networks, terrorist
organizations, and hacktivists explore new ways to do our country and our people
harm via the digital domain—our planet’s new and still relatively unchartered
Much of what makes cyber so challenging is that technology is
changing so rapidly—and society along with it. In many respects, the world is
transforming before our eyes, as more and more human activity migrates to the
cyber/digital domain and more and more of our daily lives depend on that domain
for social interactions, financial transactions, commerce, trade, communication,
education, information, entertainment, and the list goes on.
But the fact remains that many technological and scientific
advances have proved throughout history to be double-edged swords. The power of
dynamite that can move mountains and pave the way for road networks, tunnels,
and bridges also can bring destruction and death in the wrong hands. The irony
of Alfred Nobel’s two lasting legacies—the invention of dynamite and the world’s
most famous peace prize—is testament to both edges of the sword of technological
advancement. Today, the websites and smartphones that enable Syrians to organize
themselves against Assad’s regime and show the world its brutality also help
al-Qa‘ida and other terrorist groups communicate as well as conduct terrorist
Recent events have brought into stark relief the national—indeed,
the international—debate about the appropriate role of government, and
specifically intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in this new cyber
frontier that is clearly full of wonder and opportunity but also fraught with
In the year since my return to CIA, technological advances
and their profound implications for both the Agency I lead and the world we
study have been very much on my mind. If I had the opportunity to start my
career all over again, I believe I would start out as a data scientist or
engineer in CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. Like any other
information-based and technology-enabled profession, intelligence is undergoing
a profound transformation, and the women and men of our Science and Technology
Directorate are tackling some truly fascinating issues head-on.
For example, we are looking at how we can protect the
identities, activities, and missions of our clandestine officers. These are the
officers who operate internationally on a daily basis yet increasingly have
digital footprints from birth.
We are also looking at how we appropriately leverage the
seemingly infinite amount of publicly available and not-so-publicly available
information so that we can detect the threats to our national security and to
the American people—all while staying true to those cherished principles of
liberty, freedom, and privacy upon which our great country was founded. As
someone who bears at least partial responsibility for keeping my fellow
Americans safe, these are the challenges and the questions that truly hurt my
As challenging as counterterrorism and operating in the cyber
domain are, they are but two of the many issues that CIA and the rest of the
Intelligence Community have to follow. Since returning to government in 2009,
the number of issues of major significance to US national security interests
demanding constant attention from both policymakers and intelligence officers
has been staggering.
The political turmoil and upheaval attendant to the so-called
Arab Spring has fundamentally changed the political and social landscapes in
Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. The tremendous loss of life, the humanitarian
disaster, and destruction of some of the world’s most beautiful ancient cities
in Syria is nothing short of a modern-day catastrophe. The political dynamics
underway in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Venezuela, South Sudan, and
the Central African Republic, among others, reflect internal tensions, economic
stress, sectarian conflicts, and global ambitions. And Russian and Chinese
strategic pursuits, in both their near and far abroad, demand the constant
attention and vigilance of our national security experts.
Ukraine provides a real-life example of why it is so
important to preserve our intelligence capability to stay on top of world events
in their totality, rather than just a few key issues. Over the past several
months, the CIA and its Intelligence Community partners have closely followed
events in Ukraine, keeping policymakers informed of unfolding developments on
the ground, scenarios for escalating tensions, and options available to
Ukrainian, Russian, and other world leaders.
Now I know that many would like the CIA to predict the
future—answering questions such as “will Crimea secede and be annexed by Russia”
and “will Russian forces move into Eastern Ukraine.” But the plain and simple
truth is that, with virtually all events around the globe, future events—including
in Ukraine—are shaped by numerous variables and yet-to-happen developments as
well as leadership considerations and decisions. While we do not have a crystal
ball, it is our responsibility to identify those variables and considerations
and to point to the key drivers that will ultimately determine future events.
Let me conclude by offering a few final words about CIA as a
learning organization. We were born in 1947 as the Cold War was just getting
underway. Over the past 67 years we have had the great fortune to play a role in
helping keep this country great and its people safe. And while we are
exceptionally proud of the work we do, we have not been a perfect organization—far
from it. We have made mistakes, more than a few, and we have tried mightily to
learn from them and to take corrective actions whenever and wherever appropriate.
It is no secret that many of the things that the Agency has
done over the years—things that it was asked to do, that it was directed to do,
that it alone had the authority and responsibility to do—remain subjects of
intense scrutiny, debate, and controversy. The rendition, detention and
interrogation program of nearly a decade ago is a case in point.
Now, there have been many things written and many things said—some
fact and some pure fiction—about the CIA’s views and actions related to the
Senate Select Committee’s Report on the RDI program. So I want to take this
opportunity to say two things:
First, my CIA colleagues and I believe strongly in the
necessity of effective, strong, and bipartisan Congressional oversight. We are a
far better organization because of Congressional oversight, and as long as I am
the Director of CIA, I will do whatever I can to be responsive to the elected
representatives of the American people. Our Congressional overseers ask us the
tough questions, hold our feet to the fire, and work every day to ensure that
American taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently to keep
our country strong. Most importantly, they work to ensure that the CIA and other
intelligence organizations are carrying out their responsibilities and
activities in full accordance with the law. I don’t always agree with them—and
we frequently have what I would call “spirited” and even “sporty”
discussions—but I believe we are fulfilling our respective Executive Branch and
Legislative Branch roles.
Second, the CIA has more than enough current challenges on
its plate, which is why—far more than any other institution of government—the
CIA wants to put the rendition, detention, and interrogation chapter of its
history behind it. The Agency’s detention facilities have long been closed.
President Obama officially ended the program five years ago, by which time the
CIA had ceased its interrogation activities. Over the past decade, there have
been numerous internal and external reviews of the program, and the CIA has
taken steps to address the shortcomings, problems, and performance deficiencies
that became evident in those reviews.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has conducted an
extensive review of that program, a review that CIA has devoted considerable
resources to supporting over the last several years. CIA has tried to work as
collaboratively as possible with the Committee on its report. We will continue
to do so, and I have talked extensively to Chairman Feinstein and Vice Chairman
Chambliss about the report and the way forward.
CIA agrees with many of the findings in the report, and we
disagree with others. We have acknowledged and learned from the program’s
shortcomings, and we have taken corrective measures to prevent such mistakes
from happening again. But we also owe it to the women and men who faithfully did
their duty in executing this program to try to make sure any historical account
of it is balanced and accurate. We have worked closely with the Committee to
resolve any outstanding issues, and we look forward to working with the
Committee should it submit any portion of its report for classification review.
Even as we have learned from the past, we must also be able to put it behind us
so that we can devote our full attention to the challenges ahead.
I arrived at CIA in 1980 fresh out of graduate school and was
sworn in as a GS-9 officer, never believing in my wildest dreams that one day I
would have the honor and privilege of leading the courageous, dedicated, and
exceptionally talented women and men of CIA. Now, as CIA Director, I go down to
the main lobby at our Headquarters in Langley once a month to administer the
oath of office to our newest employees.
I am always struck by the quality of these women and men.
Many speak several languages. Some have already had successful careers in the
private sector and now want to give something back to their country. For all of
them, this moment is the culmination of years of hard work, and you can see the
enthusiasm in their eyes: They look focused, confident, and eager to make a
As I watch them raise their right hands, I feel an
extraordinary sense of obligation to these officers. They have chosen a
profession that is filled with great rewards, but also steep challenges—and,
sometimes, grave danger. It is my job to prepare them for it. And from day one,
I want them to understand that they are joining more than an organization; they
are also joining a tradition of service and sacrifice unlike any other.
For this reason, I always administer the oath of office in
front of our Memorial Wall. There are 107 stars on that wall, each one
representing an Agency hero who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our
Nation. And I emphasize that we all have a responsibility to remember the
officers and the sacrifices represented by those stars, and to carry on their
work in a way that would make them proud.
I am sharing this with you because it underscores a defining
trait of CIA: our profound commitment to one another and to the Nation we serve.
For more than six decades, the women and men of CIA have
devoted themselves to protecting our Nation and to advancing American interests
around the globe. Their contributions often go unrecognized, but let there be no
doubt that CIA officers are essential to the strength and security of our
Thank you, and I look forward to taking your questions.
full video below.