"The CIA is a learning organization," John Brennan said. "We learn from our past, adopt to the times and refine our methods."

"The CIA is a learning organization," John Brennan said. "We learn from our past, adopt to the times and refine our methods." Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

CIA Uses Its First Public Conference to Stress Value of Human Sources

Director Brennan tells Georgetown University crowd spy agency remains indispensable.

The nation’s oldest spy agency remains relevant in the digital age, CIA Director John Brennan told an academic conference on Wednesday, saying his team “still provides intelligence and analysis that social media and foreign partners cannot because nothing can replace the insight that comes from a well-connected human source.”

Brennan spoke at the first-ever CIA-sponsored conference on intelligence issues, an all-day symposium held at Georgetown University under the theme “The Ethos and Profession of Intelligence.” As it happens, the event unfolded the day after a news report that the agency had disciplined 15 employees for workplace harassment.

“The CIA does not hold a lot of public conferences, but our foreign counterparts hold fewer,” Brennan said, meaning they hold zero. “But we must have the trust and confidence of the American people to do our jobs, so we must articulate our motives, values and objectives,” he said in his welcome and later keynote address. “I know our agency will benefit from the discussions and listen to experts. The CIA is a learning organization. We learn from our past, adopt to the times and refine our methods.”

Themes of the discussions dealt with balancing secrecy and transparency, private sector input to intelligence and new threats presented by technology. “Too often the intelligence community is treated as a monolith,” Brennan said, “but the men and women in our service have many dimensions. We really accept that the bar is set higher for us, and there is tension between secrecy and the openness of the society we serve.”

The constant churning of new technology and the enhanced scrutiny from privacy advocates has put “the CIA today at a crossroads,” said the director, a career intelligence officer who previously served as President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser. “This has a prompted a reexamination of the intelligence community at a time when the nation faces threats that, in my view, have few precedents in history.”

Reeling off “a bewildering variety of threats that come all at once,” Brennan cited the dangers from weapons of mass destruction; human trafficking; drug cartels; sectarian fighting; access to food and water; the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram; and “cyberattacks from rival nations, criminal groups and hactivists.”

CIA analysts, Brennan added, must “look over the horizon and get all this in advance and present it to policymakers with enough precision that they can act,” he said. “We don’t always get it right. We have made mistakes and try to learn from them. But increasingly governments around the world recognize that, no matter how powerful, no nation can counter the plethora of threats on their own. Good intelligence is the cornerstone of every policy today,” Brennan said, “and without it, the country would make our way in the global arena totally blind.”

That is why today’s CIA -- even as it struggles for a legal framework to establish its appropriate role in an open society -- “has never been more important to the security of the Republic,” Brennan said, invoking the amorality of today’s terrorists who operate using the same boundary-less communications technologies as everyone else. “There are natural limits on how open an intelligence service can be,” he asserted. “Sources, methods, people, all require stewardship, and we must honor that. The CIA is committed to conducting a war, but it must rest on the principles on which this great nation was founded.”

The day before Brennan spoke at Georgetown, the Associated Press released a story reporting that the agency, despite a zero tolerance policy against workplace harassment, last year disciplined 15 employees “for committing sexual, racial or other types of harassment.” That included a supervisor who was removed from the job after engaging in "bullying, hostile behavior," according to an internal message to employees obtained by AP, and “an operative who was sent home from an overseas post for inappropriately touching female colleagues.”

AP said the announcement “shed light on the spy agency's struggles to move past its free-wheeling workplace culture, especially in the National Clandestine Service, the spying arm, which attracts men and women who are willing to lie, cheat and steal for their country.”

At the Georgetown event, Brennan declared himself “excited” about the CIA’s first conference, noting that it had followed the CIA’s first tweet the previous week. “Who knows?” he said. “One of these days we will get our first positive press story. Then we will get really excited.”