GLG’s Signature Series: John Brennan, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Read time: 4 minutes
Recently, John Brennan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, sat down for a 60-minute virtual session with select GLG clients.
Brennan began his career with the CIA in 1980 and served as an analyst, as a presidential daily briefer, and in a variety of senior management positions during his initial 25 years with the Agency. After spending three years in the private sector upon his first retirement from government service, Brennan served as President Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor as well as Deputy National Security Advisor from 2009 to 2013 and as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2013 to 2017.
Before Director Brennan’s session, we asked him four questions about his thoughts on the intelligence community and what could be the greatest threat to American democracy.
Biden’s appointee to head the CIA, Ambassador William Burns, is the first career diplomat to head the agency. How do you regard this appointment?
I believe President Biden’s nomination of Bill Burns as CIA Director is an enlightened selection. In full disclosure, I have worked closely with Bill since the early days of the Reagan administration, and he is a close friend. Bill has deep experience in national security affairs as well as intimate knowledge of U.S. intelligence activities and capabilities by dint of his many Department of State postings in Washington and abroad, which included ambassadorships in Moscow and Amman, Jordan. Bill has excellent relations with members of Congress and has had personal dealings with many current foreign government officials with whom he will interact. Additionally, Bill’s strong leadership skills, calm demeanor, and familiarity with many of the other members of the Biden administration’s national security team will allow him to hit the ground running as soon as he wins Senate confirmation.
What do you see as Ambassador Burns’s first priority?
As soon as Bill arrives at Langley, he will endeavor to instill within the workforce a strong sense of purpose and to emphasize to CIA employees the importance of their intelligence mission. Intelligence professionals, especially at the CIA, want to know that their work matters, that the sacrifices that they and their families make in the service of their fellow citizens are worth the effort. Bill also will seek to learn as much as possible about the current state of the CIA’s mission, worldwide presence, capabilities, and requirements for success. Bill has been out of government for more than six years, and much has occurred during that time. Bill is an excellent listener, and he also is an excellent people person, so I believe he will spend a lot of time talking to the workforce, reaching out to his counterparts overseas, and digging into the substance of the job.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community was reorganized to preside under a director of national intelligence at least in part in order to improve coordination and collaboration. Did that reorganization fulfill its purpose?
I believe that creating the position of director of national intelligence (DNI) after 9/11 was the right thing to do. Prior to the establishment of that position, the same person served as the head of the Intelligence Community and the CIA, and I do not believe a single person can carry out the responsibilities of both positions well and fairly.
Coordination and collaboration among and between Intelligence Community agencies have improved since 9/11, partly as a result of some of the actions and policies instituted by the Office of the DNI. That said, I also believe that after 15 years of having a DNI, it is worthwhile to take a fresh look at the position to determine whether some adjustments need to be made in its responsibilities and statutory authorities. Unfortunately, the politicization of the position during the last two years of the Trump administration have undermined the reputation of the office and have strained its relations with Intelligence Community agencies.
What is the greatest threat to American democracy?
Dishonesty and demagoguery by American politicians and influencers have significantly eroded trust and confidence in the democratic foundations of our government — both at home and abroad. The United States faces a wide array of very serious challenges on the domestic and international fronts, and the sharp increase in domestically generated disinformation — which is the intentional dissemination of false information — undermines the ability of our government to deal effectively with these problems. Democracy is messy, but too many unprincipled individuals interested primarily in advancing personal, partisan, and ideological agendas have infused and debased governance with craven politics.
About John Brennan
John O. Brennan served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 until January 2017. As director, he was responsible for intelligence collection, analysis, covert action, counterintelligence, and liaison relationships with foreign intelligence services. From January 2009 to March 2013, Mr. Brennan was assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, shaping the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy and coordinating Obama administration policies on homeland security, counterterrorism, cyberattacks, natural disasters, and pandemics.
Mr. Brennan graduated from Fordham University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He studied at the American University in Cairo from 1975 to 1976. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, earning a master’s degree in government with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies in 1980.
Mr. Brennan currently is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, a Distinguished Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, a senior intelligence and national security analyst for NBC and MSNBC, and an advisor to a variety of private sector companies.
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