Fresh off a planning meeting for the coming presidential transition, CIA Director John Brennan on Tuesday night named three items he hopes to see from the next administration: an embrace of digital intelligence tools; a congressional commission on balancing security with civil rights; and—most dramatically—a rejection of the proposal by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that his agency resume the controversial “enhanced interrogation” of suspected terrorists.
The CIA can fulfill its responsibilities without resorting to waterboarding and other techniques close to torture, Brennan told a leadership banquet of mostly contractors in the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance. If asked to make such an assignment, “I wouldn’t resign, wouldn’t agree to it. I would have to be fired,” Brennan added.
In a talk that covered current threats, his agency’s recent reorganization and challenges posed by digitally-savvy enemies, Brennan said the CIA “suffered in many respects” from implementing the program for enhanced interrogation of prisoners that, he stressed, was legally authorized in a presidential finding by the George W. Bush administration. “The CIA made some mistakes, and some individuals were held to account,” Brennan said. “But when the nation calls, we salute.”
The subsequent Senate Intelligence Committee report on the subject “made my blood boil,” Brennan said, because it focused on shortcomings where a more objective report would have put those shortcomings in context. In the end, some of the information forced out of the suspects exposed to such interrogation “proved useful in catching terrorists,” but some proved not true, and in the end, “our analysts couldn’t estimate cause and effect,” he added.
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The challenge the next administration “will have in spades,” Brennan said, was how system engineers can design an information technology intelligence system with “optimal architecture to leverage data, people, expertise and operational authority at the speed of light.” That means going beyond U.S. government networks. “The digital domain is so ubiquitous,” he said. “We need to discuss the role of government in the digital domain because it will affect our ability to keep the country safe.”
Decrying “unfortunate polarization and dishonesty,” in the recent debate over the FBI’s efforts to force Apple to break into an iPhone used in last December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Brennan said, “we need a national discussion.” The government wants encryption of personal data, he said, but things have changed in an era when an entire warehouse of data now fits on a mobile device. “Allowing individual companies to decide what can be opened,” he said, equates to a bank refusing a judge’s search warrant based on probable cause to open a safety deposit box.
“There is no government solution because the private sector owns 90 percent of the Internet,” Brennan said. He called for Congress to create a public-private-sector commission to focus on “providing security without the government trampling on civil rights.”
Calling for a smooth presidential transition, he praised the one overseen by the Bush administration in 2008, noting that intelligence continuity is critical. The new national security team is responsible for events that will range from terrorist takeovers to cyber threats. His advice to the next team: “There’s lots going on, but it’s interconnected, and things need to be dealt with comprehensively. The team needs to get up to speed quickly—the world won’t wait.”
The next administration, Brennan said, should benefit from last year’s reorganization of the CIA’s directorates to merge analysis with intelligence gathering and operations while grouping teams by region or mission. “The restructuring gives us much greater ability to make sure the various regions of the world have constant attention so officials see over the horizon,” he said, adding his hope that, through combining forces with the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, they can “pick up indicators of something more insidious, not obvious.”
The objective of the reorganization, which set up a digital directorate as the first new directorate in a half-century, “is to create new knowledge” by allowing case officers, operations staff and analysts “to interact with one another, bringing in different backgrounds, data sets, and different ways of looking at things,” he said. The structure used since the 1950s and 1960s didn’t permit such porousness because analysts feared their objectivity would be affected. “But we do it in a crisis, so why not on a daily basis?” Brennan said.
The new approach allows us “to cover the world’s challenges more efficiently and effectively,” and is also more understandable to outsiders, such as counterparts in allies’ intelligence services.
Asked how satisfied he is with the current intelligence product, Brennan—a 36-year veteran of the national security establishment—said, “I’ve come to realize the world is a big place, and that the U.S. is the No. 1 superpower and is looked to to address, like no other country,” situations in places as various as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Venezuela, Central African Republic and the South Sudan. “We have a relationship with intelligence services around the world,” he said. “We keep having to pivot from one to another.”