John O. Brennan

Opening Remarks & Q&A -- The Council on Foreign Relations

delivered 11 March 2014


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Thank you very much, Andrea, and good morning everyone.

I see that some of you noticed that I'm walking here with a cane. And although the Director of the CIA job is very dangerous, it was a[n] engagement with a patch of black -- black ice a few weeks ago that led to a facture of my hip. So that's why I have a cane here.

But it is a pleasure to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations and, as I look out in the audience, 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 discussion this morning.

Now 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 personally 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 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 citizens.

Like so many things involving CIA though, 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. So 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 guilty of being an ardent admirer of George Washington and of the historical foundations of this great country.

My first career at CIA began in 1980, so when -- 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 21st century.

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 U.S. 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 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 with me this morning, and I would like to offer a few brief comments before I address the many questions that I know are on your mind.

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 -- terrorist challenges we face as a Nation. After a year as CIA Director, I unfortunately remain convinced that the U.S. 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 religious reasons.

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, analytic, 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 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 relatively unchartered frontier.

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 that 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 and 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 the brutality of that regime also help al-Qa‘ida and other terrorist groups communicate as well as to carry out terrorist attacks.

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 great risk.

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 of the most 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 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 to keep my fellow Americans safe, these are the challenges and the questions that truly hurt my head.

Now 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 U.S. national security interests demanding constant attention from both policymakers and intelligence officers is 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, humanitarian disaster, and destruction of the -- 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, Central African Republic, among others, reflect internal tensions, economic stress, sectarian conflicts, and global ambitions. And Russian and -- 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 the world's 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 of you would like the CIA to predict the future -- 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 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 and -- 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 -- remains subjects of intense scrutiny, debate, and controversy. The rendition, detention and interrogation program -- the RDI program -- of nearly a decade ago is a case in point. Now, there have been many things written and many things said, including, I understand, this morning, about the program -- some fact and some pure fiction. And these remarks have addressed 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 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 important, they work to ensure that the CIA and other intelligence organizations are carrying out the responsibilities and activities faithfully and 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 responsibilities.

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 already 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.

Now, 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 record of it is a balanced and accurate one. We have worked closely with the Committee to resolve outstanding issues, and we look forward to working with the Committee should it submit any portion of its report to us for classification review. Even as we have learned from the past, we must also be able to put the past behind us so that we can devote our full attention to the challenges ahead of us.

I arrived at CIA in 1980 fresh out of graduate school and was sworn in as a GS-9 officer, never ever 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 difference.

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 in Government.

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 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 Republic.

Thank you, and I very much look forward to taking your questions.


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