Former CIA director Brennan to students: ‘Weigh in and make a difference’

Former CIA director John Brennan delivering a lecture in a navy blue suit and red tie.
Photo by Alice Oh

John Brennan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a standing-room-only crowd of students in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to use their talents and the benefits of their Yale education to serve.

Think of what you can do to give back to this country,” Brennan said. “As Yale students, you have an opportunity to weigh in and make a difference.”

Brennan was invited to speak by Sarah Donilon ’19, editor of The Politic, with support from the Poynter Fellowship program.

He was interviewed by Harold Koh, the Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, who served with Brennan when he was the 22nd legal adviser of the U.S. Department of State. Koh described Brennan and the CIA as misunderstood, saying, “No one worked harder to protect our country, but more importantly, our values.” During the conversation, Brennan spoke frankly about a number of issues.

On CIA Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) and President Trump’s statements about reinstating waterboarding and “more: “I am not an advocate of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT), and I argued against EIT and waterboarding as inconsistent with what this country is about as these are dehumanizing techniques. I am also not convinced on efficacy.”

On North Korea: “It’s unfortunate to trade barbs on Twitter. This is not a way to deescalate. … There is no good military option due to the conventional artillery they can release. … If we can find a way to talk and have calmer heads, that is the most productive way forward.”

On Russia’s interference with U.S. elections: Brennan described Putin as feeling that the West, and particularly the U.S., was not as gracious as it could have been in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that Russia was not given the respect it was due. So, Brennan said, Putin wanted and directed action on three things: To undermine the integrity of elections; undertake an effort designed to denigrate Hillary Clinton as president, as Russia thought she would win; and undertake actions that would favor Trump.

On cyberwarfare: Brennan noted that his phone was currently, under the law, a safe haven for criminal activity because legal precedence denies law enforcement from searching an encrypted phone. “The cyber issue is the most challenging … as the legal framework that existed in the 20th century was developed when none of this existed so we had to deal with these issues with no playbook. … What is the role of government in the digital domain? Until we have consensus, we are stymied in carrying out the rule of law.”

On the so-called “Deep State: Brennan said many administrations don’t like what agencies, following the law, might tell them. But now, he said, “as a way to delegitimize the FBI and other agencies, they characterize the Deep State as the problem. That is bogus and BS.”

On the current state of those serving in the intelligence community and the diplomatic corps: “The FBI is not in tatters. … What is happening to the State Department is unconscionable.  Our diplomatic corps is the jewel in the crown. … I am concerned about language maligning them (and the intelligence community) … I worry about the wives and husbands and sons and daughters of officers who ask: Why keep doing this when those who are supposed to be supporters are denigrating what you do?”

Fluent in Arabic, Brennan is a Middle East expert, and his visit to Yale took place on the same day that President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol. Brennan told the audience the move was troubling: “The announcement in Jerusalem is reckless and irresponsible and will make the problem worse. It has been U.S. policy that the final status of Jerusalem would be determined by negotiations,” he said.

Brennan made it clear that he had no desire to speak out after leaving public service, where he served for over three decades for both Democratic and Republican administrations at the CIA and the National Security Council. The former CIA director talked of his life as the son of an immigrant whose father always stressed how special this country is and that it was imperative to find a way to give back to the United States. While walking by the statue of Nathan Hale on Old Campus, Brennan recounted how Hale was an inspiration to him. A graduate of Yale College, Hale is considered by many to be the “first spy” for the Continental Army against the British; he was captured and hanged on September 22, 1776 — exactly 179 years before the day John Brennan was born.